The Puzzling Case of Kaneohe Bay

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Bay in Hawaii

Kaneohe Bay, with Moku O Loe island at right center. Dredge and fill operations in the bay expanded the island from 12 acres to 28 acres. Credit: NASA/James Round

by Carol Rasmussen / OAHU, HAWAII /

The Coral Reef Airborne Laboratory (CORAL) will be the first campaign to study coral reefs at an ecosystem scale. During its operational readiness test in Hawaii last week, we had a chance to talk with two people who have made a lifelong study of their own coral reef in Kaneohe Bay, Oahu, where the CORAL test is taking place. There’s a striking similarity between their observations and those of the CORAL scientists.

“Did you know this used to be called Coral Gardens?” said Leialoha (Rocky) Kaluhiwa, gesturing at Kaneohe Bay. At low tide the bay still looks like a garden, with varied shades of green and patches of coral like ornamental shrubs. In Kaluhiwa’s long lifetime, Kaneohe Bay has undergone a litany of impacts, from dredge-and-fill operations to a level of ocean acidification that some scientists predicted would kill all of the reefs. Yet the bay’s coral reefs appear to be surviving these insults, perhaps even growing in extent.

Coral reef

One of the Kaneohe Bay reefs. Credit: NASA/James Round

If one spot on Earth could prove that scientists need a better understanding of reef ecosystems, Kaneohe Bay is it. Humans started changing the bay about 700 years ago by fishing and other interactions, but in the last century, the rate of change has exploded. After World War II, Hawaii’s fast-growing population brought urbanization, pollution and silt runoff. The bay was dredged to create a ship channel and seaplane runways and filled to build out Moku O Loe island, then privately owned but now the location of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology. Invasive algae spread so thickly in the 1970s and 1980s that two barge vacuum cleaners called Super Suckers are still used to remove them.

Two Hawaii residents

Jerry and Rocky Kaluhiwa are lifelong residents of Kaneohe Bay. Credit: NASA/James Round

Native Hawaiians Rocky Kaluhiwa and her husband Jerry have watched these changes firsthand. “My grandparents taught me about the ocean,” Jerry said. “They taught me what kind of crustaceans we have here, how to catch them and how to prepare them. I’ve passed that knowledge over to my kids.” When Rocky was a child, the bay water was so clean it was thought to have healing properties. “If you had a big sore, they would tell you to go to a certain place in the bay and wash it out,” she said. “Today if you go to that place with that sore, it’ll get infected, because [the water is] totally polluted.” Despite that and other impacts, Jerry said, “We have more coral now [than in the past], and some new corals have come into the bay.”

“Reefs that are doing well can recover from stress or disturbance by increasing the amount of coral,” said CORAL principal investigator Eric Hochberg. He has seen this pattern not only in Kaneohe Bay but in other reefs around the world. It’s only one of many puzzles of how reef ecosystems interact with their changing environment.

In planning the CORAL campaign, Hochberg correlated data on 10 widely recognized threats to coral reefs, natural and human-made, with data on the condition of reefs worldwide. The results were surprising: There were no clear patterns. In some cases, threatened reefs even appeared to be doing better than unthreatened ones. “The question is, are reef scientists incorrect, or are we missing something in our data?” Hochberg asked. “I don’t think we’re incorrect; it makes complete sense that pollution would be bad for an ecosystem, for example. I think the problem is largely the data. That’s the impetus for CORAL.”

Scientists studying coral reefs

Daniel Schar, Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, and Eric Hochberg, Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences, collecting corals in Kaneohe Bay to study their spectra. Credit: NASA/James Round

Like Hochberg, the Kaluhiwas are more concerned about the reef ecosystem than about any single species. “Coral is not only the coral alone,” Jerry said. “If you lift the coral up and look underneath, you can see oyster shells, clams, octopus, all the small fish, hiding between the branches.” The Kaluhiwas know the value of a thriving ecosystem in producing food and revenue and even have some experience with medical use of reefs, a hot area of biotechnology research today. Rocky remembers her great-aunt using powdered coral in compounding traditional medicines, but those recipes are now lost.

Rocky and Jerry have worked for decades to protect the reefs from coral harvesting and other threats, but the resilience of Kaneohe Bay has also taught them that not every impact is a disaster. That came out clearly when they talked about coral bleaching, which has featured largely in Hawaii news media this year. “You’re going to find it here and there [in the bay],” Jerry said. “That doesn’t mean that type of coral is going to die. It’s not. You watch very closely, and you can see green coming up from under the white. Those guys are growing again.”

“Absolutely we should be worried about threats to reefs, but it’s not as simple as some people think it is,” Hochberg said. “We don’t know the answers yet.” The reef areas that CORAL will survey this year encompass every reef type plus a range of environmental conditions that scientists have identified as influencing reefs. With those data in hand, scientists may finally be able to say more about the relationship between reefs and threats that is so puzzling in this beautiful corner of Oahu.