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Troubled waters: A debate grows over the management of the Waikiki Aquarium

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    The Waikiki Aquarium’s Barrier Reef exhibit features live coral with more than 100 species of fish.
  • DENNIS ODA / 2014
    The sailfin tang, in foreground, is among the fish on display at the Waikiki Aquarium. The tang is an herbivore that eats invasive algae.

Recently, concerns have been raised about the current state of affairs at the Waikiki Aquarium. As Aquarium director for the past 11 years, I can offer my assurance that the facility is operating under the highest standards of excellence.

In support of our mission to inspire and promote understanding, appreciation and conservation of Pacific marine life, the Aquarium’s exhibits, education programs and research focus on the unique aquatic life of Hawaii and the tropical Pacific, and include more than 3,000 marine specimens.

Thanks to the expertise and input from our more than 30 staff and 400 volunteers, the Waikiki Aquarium has celebrated the opening of several new exhibits that have been widely recognized for their ecological accuracy. We have also addressed many long-standing maintenance issues, and have built up a robust program of research and reciprocal relationships with other top-ranking aquariums and universities.

As part of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, the Aquarium is an important landmark for our community to learn about Pacific marine life and plays an active role in many significant scientific studies. Among these:

» Studying the endangered Hawaiian monk seal: The Aquarium’s two Hawaiian monk seals serve as ambassadors of their species to our 320,000 visitors annually, and as subjects for non-invasive research. The Aquarium also actively supports NOAA’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program and hosts injured or sick wild monk seals until they are well enough to return to the wild. 

» Studying coral and the implications of climate change: World-renowned for its expertise in coral propagation, the Aquarium is involved in studies on ocean acidification, calcification rates, water temperatures and coral bleaching rates with scientists from the UH, the University of California at Santa Cruz, Hawaii Pacific University and elsewhere. The Aquarium also hosts a conservation program that propagates rare and endangered corals, and has provided almost 3,000 propagated coral fragments to public aquariums and researchers worldwide. Probably, each and every U.S. mainland aquarium displaying live corals has some specimens from us.

» Researching Hawaii’s endangered green sea turtles: After a 10-year hiatus, the Aquarium is displaying captive-bred juvenile green sea turtles. A new outdoor turtle exhibit, complete with an awning and interpretation center, will open in the near future. The Aquarium also participates with NOAA biologists in a study of turtle growth rates, and with Sea Life Park in research aimed at unraveling the mysteries of their life history.

» Removing invasive algae from fragile reefs: The spread of non-native marine algae is one of the greatest threats to Hawaii’s marine ecosystems. In collaboration with UH-Manoa’s Botany Department, the Aquarium has hosted community reef cleanup days since 2000, making this the longest-running alien algae removal project in Hawaii. The Aquarium also supports research on removing algae through biological control.

» Developing food independence for the facility:?Behind the scenes, the Aquarium is expanding its live feeds area with the goal to provide all the food for the Aquarium’s marine life, especially jellyfish and the many rare fish on exhibit. It will also provide another platform for expanded research around plankton and aquaculture.

It is these, perhaps lesser known, activities that make the Aquarium so much more than an entertainment venue. Our education programs cater to more than 30,000 local schoolchildren annually, and our research and conservation activities continue to expand. Just recently, we received a $110,000 grant to promote marine education, and a $300,000 grant to support reef conservation programs. These and other programs will allow the Aquarium to continue its momentum as one of the premier marine conservation institutions in the Pacific. 

To ensure we meet the highest standards of care delivered to the Aquarium’s living specimens, every six months, two separate sets of evaluations are conducted by a veterinarian, and by two independent external assessors who are part of the Office of Research Compliance’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee. Our in-house disease and quarantine specialist also conducts daily examinations of all exhibits and weekly examinations with the UH’s veterinarian.

I am thankful for the opportunity to have played a role in the Aquarium’s achievements and scientific contributions over the years. The Waikiki Aquarium needs our community’s support and care. Let’s look to the future, and partner together, for its continued success.A debate grows over the management of the Waikiki Aquarium

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