Happily, gratefully, digging in soil plumped and enlivened by 3 inches of rain after a long stretch of too dry, I got to thinking about the “The Dust Bowl” documentary, which vividly imprinted on my mind. Its release seems eerily prescient, given the current drought through much of the nation and Hawaii.
Mostly, though, the film got me thinking anew about how humans lay utter waste to the most splendid creations, some of them millions of years in the making. And so often, we engage in these destructive acts even though we know they're wrong, because of greed and stupidity.
Which brings me to Kauai, or more specifically, the stuff that is running off this island and into the sea, killing the coral at Anini and Makua, and perhaps elsewhere, too.
Because it is almost certain, according to Dr. Thierry Work, a wildlife disease specialist with the U.S. Geological Survey, that land-based activities are the culprit.
I recently interviewed Dr. Work for a short article in Honolulu Weekly, and we talked about the possible causes of the infectious outbreak of cyanobacteria that he characterizes as an “epidemic” at Anini and Makua.
“We know that corals have disease,” he said. “All animals get diseases. The problem is when you have these flare ups on a large scale. That's an unusual event. What is it about North Kauai and what is it about now that this thing is suddenly showing up? That's what we're trying to find out. When these wildlife diseases bloom like this, it's an indication that something has gone awry in the ecosystem.”
He's got his ideas about the specific causes, “but no data yet to back them up,” he told me. Still, all signs point to the usual suspects. One is soil run-off. “We know that sedimentation on corals is not a good thing,” he said. But since the disease has been seen in places without sedimentation, that's not the sole factor.
When I asked if it could be sewage, he replied, “Absolutely. The sediment is only what's visible. It may be a combination of injection wells, a recirculation of [contaminated] sediments....”
So let's stop for a moment and think about Anini and Makua. What do they have in common? I mean aside from hordes of sunscreen-slathered snorkelers, which Work dismissed as a possible cause.
Well, both coastlines are lined with those really big — as in sleeps 8 to 16 — vacation rentals, which are actually mini resorts, with their septic tanks and leachfields, heavily fertilized and irrigated yards and regular pesticide applications in and around the house. All of that flows and seeps into the sea.
To top it off, both areas saw some significant flooding last spring, which increased the amount of chemical runoff and sedimentation landing on the reef. Anini has experienced additional erosion from construction at Princeville, as well as houses built on the bluff at Anini Vista.
When Work and Dr. Greta Aeby returned to Anini last week, they were amazed at the amount of sediment that had accumulated on the reef in just a month. “That sediment's got to be coming from somewhere,” Work said.
It's still unclear whether the cyanobacteria, which Work first observed at Hanalei Bay in 2009, is a new introduction, or was “present at low levels and allowed to bloom.” One thing is certain, he said: “The widespread distribution and number of corals affected is something I've seen only on North Kauai.”
That doesn't mean it isn't elsewhere. Only a fraction of the reefs around Hawaii have been surveyed, Work said, which is why he “really depends on the public to keep an eye out.”
Scientists are now trying to determine the exact cause and extent of the disease, as well as possible impacts on marine and human health. “Like it or not, ecosystem health is very related to human health,” Work said.
In the meantime, there are “things we can do right now to reduce sedimentation and run off from land,” Work said.
Is anything happening in that regard?
“The state will have to take the lead,” Work said. “The regulatory and conservation agencies will have to come to the table. Hopefully management agencies can work on their end to mitigate land-based activities that could be contributing. I’m hoping this serves as a catalyst.””
So given the gravity of the situation, is there any type of task force that springs into action when Work or other scientists discover epidemic diseases on our reefs, the same reefs that support fisheries, provide recreation for the treasured tourist trade?
“All of our reports are sent to the DLNR folks,” Work said. “They're aware of it.”
Thus far, the only official response has come from the mayor's office, which has scheduled an informational meeting for 4 to 5 p.m. next Thursday, Dec. 13, at Hale Halawai in Hanalei.
It's not too late to do something, Work said. There is still live coral at both Makua and Anini, and the most recent visit to Anini seemed to indicate the disease's pace had slowed.
“Nature has remarkable abilities to recover, but sometimes we have to help it out,” Work said.
“The thing we’re concerned about here is the Western Caribbean and Atlantic lost 60 to 70 percent of their corals due to disease, but have no idea why,” Work said. “We don’t want that to happen in the Hawaiian Islands.”