Coral experts from 97 nations gather in Honolulu to brainstorm solutions to dying reefs

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The health of the world’s coral reefs is an indication of the wellbeing of ocean systems all over the planet. That’s the message at an international gathering in Honolulu this week.

Delegates at the International Coral Reef Symposium are unified in one discouraging observation: our reefs are dying. Culpability, they agree, lies with warming waters and careless human interaction with ocean resources.

“Make wise choices of the seafood you eat, make sure it’s sustainable, know where it’s coming from,” said Jennifer Koss of the NOAA Reef Conservation Program. “The practice used to catch is sustainable and not destructive to coral reefs and other habitats.”

A total of 97 nations have sent their scientists, educators and cultural practitioners to the Hawaii Convention Center to address the problem and come up with solutions, not only for coral reef preservation but for the management of the entire ecosystem.

Among the discussions: a proposal to expand the Papahonuamokuakea Marine National Monument by 150 nautical miles from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands’ shores.

“When you look at the perfect position for a large protected area, the Northwest Hawaiian Islands are perfect for a number of reasons: the coral reefs, the palagic fish for the larvae coming in and out,” said Robert Richmond, Ph.D., of UH’s Pacific Biosciences Research program.

But this issue involves more than Papahanaumokuakea. Many at the symposium feel the move to protect regional ocean resources should be taken up by all Pacific Island nations, with the objective to find a balance between what’s being taken and what’s being preserved.”

And one island nation in particular is doing just that. Tommy Remengesau, the president of Palau, has signed into law a measure designating 80 percent of its territorial waters as a no-take zone, where commercial fishing will be prohibited.

“We have to do what science is telling us and what’s sustainable for the future,” Remengesau said. “It’s not just for Hawaii, but Hawaii, Palau, Micronesia, FSM and island communities around the world.”

The marine national monument seminar will be Friday and the symposium continues through June 24 at the Hawaii Convention Center.

Among the key issues delegates will discuss is coral bleaching, which has reached epic proportions after an intense El Niño period.

“We’re measuring alarmingly high rates of those mortality of those corals,” said Terry Huges of Arc Centre Australia. “A lot of corals have died on the northern half of the Great Barrier Reef, nearly half of coral reefs have died in just the last 3 months.”

Professor Hughes’ findings will be announced at the Global Coral Bleaching seminar Monday morning.

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