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Reef Rules

State Amends Law Protecting Coral Reefs

Hawaii’s coral reef ecosystems extend more than 5,000 square miles and make up 60 percent of coral reefs in the U.S., according to the U.S. Geological Survey. With today’s global human impacts damaging or threatening 70 percent of the world’s coral reef systems, losing 80 percent of coral species within the Caribbean alone, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) Division of Aquatic Resources is thinking of new ways to better protect and restore one of Hawaii’s most culturally valued resources.

The DLNR came to Molokai earlier this month as part of a statewide public hearing process, announcing amended Hawaii Administrative Rules (HAR) relating to the protection of stony coral and live rock.

Originally adopted in 1998, DLNR aquatic biologist Russell Sparks said the rules stayed nearly constant over the years, while the language has been adapted to better stand up against violators in court. The last amendments were made in 2002.

“We have cases where we go after commercial tour operators and other big vessel operators for several hundred thousand dollars in damages of coral…for dropping moorings and big chains, annihilating the reef,” said Sparks at the hearing, which no Molokai residents attended.

As the law currently stands, it is unlawful for anyone to break or damage coral or live rocks. The proposed amendments better defines what activities constitute “damage,” as well as administrative penalties for those who violate them.

“[These amendments] are really just housekeeping,” said Sparks. “It’s a rule that already exists, and I think most people agree that coral reefs are important and should be protected.”

According to the newly defined rules, it is prohibited to take, break, or damage any coral or live rock by any intentional or negligent activity. Violators are subject to criminal and/or administrative fines of $1,000 for each square meter of coral specimen and each live rock specimen greater than one square meter.

Vessels dropping anchor in a permitted area and causing less than one square meter of damage, not exceeding one incident per year, are exempt from civil and criminal penalties.

“That would be recorded as their one freebie in a year,” said Sparks. “Accidents happen, so you’ll get some leeway.”

In individual is also exempt if they accidently come in contact with coral or live rock while engaged in common activities such as surfing and torchlight fishing. Selling dead coral rubble pieces or making jewelry is permitted only if imported or obtained through legal Hawaii dredging operations.

Sparks said most of rule enforcement comes from community volunteers.

“There’s a lot of people in the community who are supervising it,” he said. “They’ll swim up, take pictures of the anchor, the chain, and vessel, and out enforcement guys will follow up.”

However, the cases reported represent only a fraction of incidents. Sparks said since the mid-2000, he has worked on seven or eight cases, some causing millions of dollars worth of damages.

“The main idea is that the money we collect from these things should go back to the resources that are lost,” said Sparks. “The public lost some value to their resources and we should be replacing them somehow.”


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