HONOLULU (KHON2) — Waikīkī has one of the most iconic beaches and coastlines on the planet. Situated in the marshy land of southeast Honolulu, it attracts millions of visitors each year.

The commodification — commercialization of people, places and things — of natural resources can have a toll on the environment and its ecosystems, and Hawaiʻi’s beaches and marine life are not exceptions.

Get Hawaii’s latest morning news delivered to your inbox, sign up for News 2 You

“Many reefs in the region are now so degraded that there is little living coral, collapsing to the point where they no longer provide shelter for fish,” said the REEFrame science lead Mark Hixon from UH Mānoa’s School of Life Sciences.

The University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa announced that they will be working toward restoring Waikīkī’s reefs with coral nurseries.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has recommended that a coral reef restoration project off iconic Waikīkī Beach be given the $9 million grant which is expected to operate from summer 2023 to mid-2026.

“NOAA is excited to be supporting our partners’ innovative efforts to restore coral reefs off the coast of Waikīkī Beach,” said Carrie Selberg Robinson, director of NOAA‘s Office of Habitat Conservation. “Coral reefs provide countless benefits for fisheries and coastal communities, and reef restoration projects are crucial for preserving the future of these important habitats.”

The project is a collaboration between the REEFrame project, the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, Conservation International, the Hawaiʻi Division of Aquatic Resources, the ocean technology firm Natrx, the ocean engineering firm Oceanit and workforce development nonprofit ClimbHI.

“REEFrame offers a way for our keiki to gain valuable hands-on experience with leading environmental organizations and businesses,” said Julie Morikawa, president of ClimbHI. “We look forward to building widespread participation with this project from our local communities.”

Diamond can be seen in the background of Waikīkī waters in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi. (Photo/University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa))

Hixon provided a bit of explanation on coral erosion.

“Unfortunately, many reefs around Oʻahu and other highly populated Hawaiian Islands now have few parrotfish and other seaweed eaters. Our reefs are in danger of being lost to ocean warming unless we help them recover with these interventions,” said Hixon.

UH said that this project is one of only 150 projects that are working to restore 30 coastal and lake regions. The grant is part of a larger pot of money estimated at $562 million.

Millions of beachgoers ascend on Waikīkī each year in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi. (Photo/University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa))

“We are honored to work with the people of Hawaiʻi on this innovative and inclusive approach to restoring our precious coral reefs,” said Matt Ramsey, senior director of Conservation International Hawaiʻi.

The announcement regarding the monies to fund this project was given by Vice President Kamala Harris on Friday, April 21.

“We need to do everything we can to ensure that our present and future generations will have the opportunity to enjoy the many benefits of healthy and thriving coral reefs,” added Ramsey.

According to UH, these investments are a part of the Biden-Harris Administration’s Investing in America agenda that is an effort to make communities and the economy more resilient to climate change.

A diver inspects the ecosystem in Waikīkī waters in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi. (Photo/University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa))

The awards are made under NOAA’s Climate-Ready Coasts Initiative and are funded by the Biden-Harris Administration’s historic Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and bolstered by the Inflation Reduction Act.

The projects details are as follows.

The team is proposing to build two permanent coral nursuries on a bare rock seafloor. It will be located in about 55 feet of water about three-fourths of a mile off Waikīkī Beach. This, of course, is contingent on planning and working with local stakeholders and pending numerous permits.

The Hawaiʻi Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR) will be on the ground to facilitate the permitting process for the project.

  • A photo shows a rendering of a coral nursery. (Photo/Natrx and University of Hawai'i at Mānoa)
  • A photo shows a rendering of a coral nursery. (Photo/Natrx and University of Hawai'i at Mānoa)

Each nursery will be 100 feet by 100 feet and about 6 feet tall.

It is hoped that construction will begin in 2025 once they have completed environmental studies, obtained permits and created and finalized specific plans.

The nurseries are made of stacked 3D-printed concrete modules in organic shapes with many holes and overhangs for fishes and other sea life, the nurseries are intended to serve two purposes:

  • “Corals of opportunity” — which are living coral colonies dislodged by storms, ship groundings, anchor drags or other disturbances — will be attached to the structures for temporary keeping until they are later transplanted to areas lacking coral. The process is similar to transplanting nursery trees after a forest fire, helping to restore the forest.
  • By attracting fish, especially parrotfish (uhu) and other seaweed eaters that keep reef surfaces clean so corals can flourish, the complex structure of the nurseries will gradually be colonized by naturally settling coral larvae, eventually becoming coral reefs in their own right. A preliminary experimental study off Waikīkī by Hixon and his lab demonstrated the feasibility of this approach.

“This project is a positive step towards habitat restoration for the fisheries of our islands,” said Brian Neilson, DAR Administrator.

  • Coral is essential for the life and sustainability of marine life in Waikīkī waters in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi. (Photo/University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa))
  • Coral is essential for the life and sustainability of marine life in Waikīkī waters in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi. (Photo/University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa))

“Essentially, the project will assist the natural process of coral regrowth by providing the structural framework that is needed for a healthy reef ecosystem. This is why we call the project REEFrame,” said coastal engineer Mike Foley of Oceanit.

Matt Campbell of Natrx — the partners working to create the 3-D models — said that the “three-dimensional framework of the nurseries will attract fish and corals, eventually becoming productive fishing reefs in their own right”.

UH said the team intends to consult with local and cultural organizations during the design phase of the project. The aim is to learn from ocean users, incorporate historical Indigenous practices where appropriate and educate the public about the goals of and the science and engineering behind the project.

“The team recognizes the cultural, economic and biological value of the Waikīkī region and aims to minimize any impacts in helping to restore this valuable resource,” explained UH.

Coral bleaching is more common as climate change continues to warm Earth’s oceans. Coral bleaching occurs when heat waves cause corals to turn white and often die.

When a coral dies, it usually ends up being cloaked in seaweed unless eaten by uhu or other fish. This frees the area for more, new coral to grow.

Coral can best be understood as functioning like trees in a forest. They provide the habitat that many species rely upon for survival.

Get news on the go with KHON 2GO, KHON’s morning podcast, every morning at 8

Therefore, if there is no coral, then there are no reefs, no fisheries, no natural breakwaters and no sustainable sources of new beach sand which reduces coastal erosion as sea levels continue to rise.