The Hokule‘a kicked off its “Mahalo, Hawai‘i” sail last week with a stop at Olowalu reef, an important but imperiled marine refuge that just became Hawaii’s first globally recognized “Hope Spot.”
Renowned oceanographer and deep-sea explorer Sylvia Earle, who met with Hokule‘a crews during their Malama Honua (“Care for the Earth”) worldwide voyage, launched the international network of Hope Spots in 2009. She and like-minded conservation groups hope the move will spur greater ocean protections against overfishing, climate-change effects and other threats.
Earle’s Mission Blue coalition announced Olowalu’s inclusion Wednesday, shortly before the Hokule‘a left Oahu for Maui. The Hawaiian sailing-canoe replica reached Olowalu on Thursday en route to Honolua Bay.
Now that the 1,000-acre reef off West Maui is a designated Hope Spot, local groups such as the Maui Nui Marine Resource Council, the nonprofit Hawaii Association for Marine Education and Research (HAMER) and the Polynesian Voyaging Society hope their efforts to safeguard it from diverted storm runoff, proposed development and other human activity will gain more attention.
“It really just puts this area, this unique community, on the world stage,” HAMER President and Chief Scientist Mark Deakos said Friday. “It puts this whole conservation vision on a different level, on a global scale.”
Olowalu is often called the “mother reef” because the coral that spawns there also seeds the reefs across West Maui and parts of Lanai and Molokai, Deakos said.
The reef is also home to the oldest known coral in the main Hawaiian Islands, dating back to the 1780s, as well as the islands’ largest manta ray population, he added.
Some 430 individual manta rays from across Maui have been recorded returning to Olowalu looking to feed and have the reef’s endemic wrasse fish clean them of parasites, Deakos said.
However, sightings of those rays have plummeted by 90 percent in the past decade, according to Deakos, whose research at the reef focuses on the creatures. One year the Hawaiian cleaner wrasses that assist the rays disappeared entirely, he said.
Olowalu, like other Hawaiian reefs, also saw more than 50 percent coral bleaching during a severe ocean-warming spike in 2015 and 2016, Deakos said. Some coral species there saw as much as 80 percent bleaching, he added.
At Honolua, Hokule‘a crews were slated to help community members plant hundreds of native tree saplings nearby.
Earle did not attend Thursday’s event at Olowalu, according to sail organizers. She did meet up with the canoe’s crews in Apia, Samoa, in 2014 during the United Nations’ Small Island Developing States conference — the same day then-U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon came aboard the Hokule‘a and pledged his support of the voyage’s purpose.
She also attended the canoe’s June homecoming events.
Olowalu joins more than 60 global Hope Spots mapped out on Earle’s Mission Blue website. Often, they’re areas that need new protection — but they can also represent existing marine sanctuaries where further protections are needed, the website states.
“Nothing else will matter if we fail to protect the ocean,” Earle said during the Hope Spots’ 2009 launch. “There’s still time, but not a lot, to turn things around.”