Front and Center

Molokai’s reef remains in focus for many residents and scientists.
By Sean Aronson

Molokai’s southern coral reef has been here for millions of years, and while local residents have known of its value for generations, many are again waking up to its importance thanks to a United States Geological Survey report.

The recent publication of the USGS report has spurred interest, and scientists and residents alike are hoping to capitalize on this to get financial support for the reef’s preservation.  

“Molokai has reefs that are dead – they just don’t know it yet,” said Robert Richmond, marine biologist from Kewalo Marine Laboratory at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.  Richmond spoke to the Molokai Governor’s Advisory Council last week.

Holistic Approach
Richmond, who has worked on reef restoration in places like Guam and Micronesia, advocates a ‘ridge-to-reef” approach for the stewardship of coral reefs.  This means addressing the erosion that occurs in the mountains as much as the issues with the water.  

This approach is very much in line with the traditional Hawaiian perspective of ahupua’a management, or looking at the land from mauka to makai.  

Richmond said this holistic approach to reef stewardship is the surest way to effect positive change.  While he acknowledged that there are a variety of factors that contribute to reef denigration – over-fishing, poor water quality, for example – he said nothing will change if the amount of debris and waste coming off the land into the water does not cease.  It is the only way to guarantee improvement, he said, and only then will the fishing and water quality issues come to bear.

Hitting the Targets
Richmond visited what many on Molokai see as the most urgent threat to the South Reef – the Kawela Gulch watershed area.  The Kawela Gulch is one of the most extensive watersheds on the island, and it attracts large amounts of sediment, especially because of the hundreds of goats that graze above the watershed area.

Another challenge for reef restoration is the building of houses and subdivisions, which counters the holistic approach he outlined.  He said organizations such as the Army Corps of Engineers have been using cement to channel water resources and prevent flooding.  But Richmond said they now realize this may not be the approach, and are rethinking the way they address these complex and integrated problems.

“Preserving fresh water for drinking and protecting our reefs go hand in hand,” said Richmond.

Another traditional element that can have a huge impact on the reef, according to Richmond, is fish ponds.  He said fish ponds do an excellent job of trapping sediment and preventing it from travelling to the reef, where it causes damage.  When sediment reaches the reef it blocks sunlight and prevents new coral growth.  Sediment’s abrasive nature also acts like sandpaper, wearing down the existing coral.

One of the biggest challenges to reef protection, said Richmond, is getting separate organizations to see that they share common interests.  He stressed that they don’t have to fight for their own policies when it comes to water, land and other resources.

Richmond also addressed the issue of culverts on the wharf, calling it “insane” that they were not included in the original plan.  He said culverts would have an immediate impact in improving the reef adjacent to the wharf.  The culverts would allow water to flow in and out, effectively ‘flushing’ the reef of unwanted sediment deposits when tidal changes occur.

Richmond spoke before the monthly meeting of the Governor’s Community Advisory Council on Molokai.  This body attempts to address the needs of the Molokai community and bring those issues before the Governor.  There are currently five members and all five positions expire in April.  The Council is currently seeking applications to fill all five spots.  For more information contact Charen Ching at 586-0001 or


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