State taps Kewalo Laboratory scientists to help with coral survey

Published On: Sep 12 2013 07:14:11 PM HST   Updated On: Sep 12 2013 08:04:14 PM HST

 No one really knew how well fish and coral were doing in a harbor before Matson’s massive molasses spill.

Many considered the water quality pretty bad.

But the fish kill produced evidence of a broad spectrum of marine life.

"I was very impressed, sad, but impressed by the quality of life in the harbor. But I have to tell you it is likely that  as soon as the sucrose is flushed from the harbor and the harbor chemistry goes back to normal, those fish will come back,” said state land director William Aila.

But that may not be the story for the coral colonies.

The first survey of coral reefs in the vicinity of the spill took place today.

Crews weren't able to take any coral samples.

Instead, they focused their efforts on documenting what they could and taking water samples to better understand the effect of the molasses spill.

They saw lots of dead or dying corals.

"The worse thing we saw is there is a lot of death. There is quite a bit of coral bleaching and skeletons, which is disappointing,” said Luc Rougee of the Kewalo Marine Laboratory.

At this point though, scientists can't say if the coral was already dead before the spill or if it was a direct result of the molasses.

"Bleaching can happen quickly. It can happen over a prolonged period of time or if they are shocked enough they can bleach and slough off their tissue," Lougee said.

Without a baseline, it's tough to draw any firm conclusions.

Once scientists get permits to collect coral samples, they hope to learn more about how the corals died.

It will take many more trips to collect information that will help shed some light on

exactly what is happening in the harbor waters and how best to avoid a similar disaster.

 "The take-home story is we had something that perhaps we should have been prepared for. We weren't," said Aila.

State health officials say it could weeks, maybe months for the molasses to dissapate from the harbor. Until then, the casualty count is growing.

So far, some 2,000 dead fish have been collected.

The state health department is testing water in about a dozen areas.

On Thursday it added two new spots to test in the Kapalama canal.

Officials will continue to monitor the molasses plume.

Enviromental health deputy director Gary Gill said he does not expect the spill will affect Oahu’s south shore or the Pearl Harbor or Ewa area.

"The best thing to do is what we are doing now to deal with the polluted waters and that's letting nature clean the water out through rains, wind, tides, and currents," said Gill.

If necesary, the state could tap other options, which include having ships run their propellers to help flush the harbor out, or using special equipment to vacumn molasses from the ocean floor.

But, Gill warns there could be downsides to stirring up the ocean sediment.


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