Scientists continue surveys of a marine protected area in Maui

By Kevin Lino
Schools of fish swim over a healthy reef off Ka`anapali, Maui, on April 23 during a mission in the Kahekili Herbivore Fishery Management Area. Photo by Darla White, Hawaii Division of Land and Natural Resources

Schools of fish swim over a healthy reef off Ka`anapali, Maui, on April 23 during a mission in the Kahekili Herbivore Fisheries Management Area. Photo by Darla White, Hawai`i Division of Land and Natural Resources

To help assess the effectiveness of an unusual approach to management of marine resources in Hawaii, our team spent the week of April 22 conducting underwater surveys of fishes and benthic habitat along the coastline of West Maui in the Kahekili Herbivore Fisheries Management Area (KHFMA). This diving effort, funded in part by NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program, continued a partnership between the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED) and the Maui office of the Division of Aquatic Resources, Hawai`i Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR).

During this mission, we completed 99 surveys in the nearshore (depths <18 m) reef habitats of the KHFMA in just 4 days of diving. CRED divers Ivor Williams and I paired with staff and volunteers from the DLNR to conduct surveys. Each team consisted of one diver focused on fish surveys and one diver focused on benthic surveys. Divers donned thick wetsuits for the long dives necessary to swim along multiple transects and identify, size, and count fish species, identify and count sea urchins, and collect benthic imagery for later analyses. With several sea turtle cleaning stations, a passing manta ray, and sections of gorgeous reef before us and the songs of humpback whale in the background during our surveys, it was inconceivable to not want to collect data needed to monitor marine life in areas like this one in our beautiful state.

The stunning color and spines of the red slate pencil urchin (Heterocentrotus mammillatus) stand out on a reef off West Maui. Sea urchins are protected in the Kahekili Herbivore Fishery Management Area. NOAA photo by Kevin Lino

The stunning color and spines of the red slate pencil urchin (Heterocentrotus mammillatus) stand out on a reef off West Maui. Sea urchins are protected in the Kahekili Herbivore Fisheries Management Area. NOAA photo by Kevin Lino

The state of Hawai`i created the KHFMA along a stretch of coastline approximately 3 km long in Ka`anapali, West Maui. The KHFMA, which was established in July 2009, involves a form of management that is unique in Hawai’i, namely protection of coral reef herbivores (e.g., surgeonfishes, parrotfishes, chubs, and sea urchins), which may not be killed, injured, or harvested within the boundaries of this fisheries management area. The purpose of the KHFMA is to restore natural grazing processes and ultimately increase the local reef’s ability to resist and recover from excessive algal growth that is detrimental to corals. To further promote grazing by local fish stocks, feeding of fishes, other than for legal fishing, also is banned within the KHFMA. The KHFMA does not in any way restrict fishing of other types of fishes or invertebrates.

The yellow tang (Zebrasoma flavescens), as seen in the photo above taken on a reef off West Maui, is an example of the fishes protected in the Kahekili Herbivore Fishery Management Area. NOAA photo by Kevin Lino

The yellow tang (Zebrasoma flavescens), as seen in the photo above taken on a reef off West Maui, is an example of the fishes protected in the Kahekili Herbivore Fisheries Management Area. NOAA photo by Kevin Lino

Although uncommon, this dynamic, targeted management approach appears to be much more acceptable to the public compared to measures of full closure. Therefore, if proven effective as a means of restoring herbivorous fish populations and preventing coral-to-algal phase shifts, this approach has great potential for management of other areas in Hawai`i and beyond.

Another positive part of this project is the hard work and cheerfulness of our DLNR partners, especially Darla White, who always impresses us with her dedication, organization, and enthusiastic outreach efforts. As visitors snorkeled above (and sometimes within) our shallower surveys, I hoped they enjoyed their time in the water, whether or not they knew how our long days and tough work monitoring the area might have been enhancing their experience. After participating for several years in this biannual survey, I find it rewarding to know that the research we conduct there contributes to the evaluation of the effectiveness of this marine protected area.

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