HANALEI, Hawaii — When compiling
a list of places that may be described as paradise, Hanalei Bay on the
rugged north shore of the island of Kauai surely qualifies.
perfect crescent bay, rimmed by palm trees, emerald cliffs and
stretches of white sand, has always had a dreamy kind of appeal. It was
on these shores that sailors in the movie “South Pacific” sang of the
exotic but unattainable “Bali Ha’i.”
#The problem is what lies below the surface of the area’s shimmering blue waters.
June, a mysterious milky growth has been spreading rapidly across the
coral reefs in Hanalei and the surrounding bays of the north shore — so
rapidly that biologist Terry Lilley, who has been documenting the
phenomenon, says it now affects 5 percent of all the coral in Hanalei
Bay and up to 40 percent of the coral in nearby Anini Bay. Other areas
are “just as bad, if not worse,” he said.
growth, identified by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey as both a
cyanobacterial pathogen — a bacteria that grows through photosynthesis —
and a fungus, is killing all the coral it strikes, and spreading at the
rate of 1 to 3 inches a week on every coral it infects.
is nowhere we know of in the entire world where an entire reef system
for 60 miles has been compromised in one fell swoop: This bacteria has
been killing some of these 50- to 100-year-old corals in less than eight
weeks,” Lilley said. “Something is causing the entire reef system here
in Kauai to lose its immune system.”
discovery of the new coral disease is only one of a number of ailments
afflicting nearly all the world’s coral reefs, which are threatened by
poisonous runoff, rising oceans, increasingly acidic waters and
this one could jeopardize a multibillion-dollar tourist industry in
Hawaii, which depends on the stunning displays of color and wildlife for
divers and snorkelers. That is especially true along the beaches of
Kauai, where the north shore with a few exceptions remains a place of
pristine natural beauty.
very alarming,” said Wendy Wiltse of the federal Environmental
Protection Agency in Honolulu. “All of us are concerned about it. We
want to do more. Part of the problem is we don’t know what to do,
especially in the case of a disease that’s spread by a pathogen. It’s
not like we can put antibiotics in the ocean.”
at the U.S. Geological Survey reported last week that the disease had
reached “epidemic” proportions. “This is the first time a
cyanobacterial/fungal disease on this scale has been documented in
Hawaiian corals,” Thierry M. Work, USGS wildlife disease specialist,
said in an analysis released Wednesday.
say there are no signs so far that the bacteria killing the coral are
dangerous to humans or wildlife, though they are conducting further
Lilley, who does not hold a graduate degree but dives daily around the
reefs all across the north shore, said he has documented a large number
of cases of black-and-white toby fish feeding near diseased corals that
turned completely black, lost their fins and died.
has also videotaped a sea turtle, seen feeding on seaweed growing out
of an infected coral, whose eyes seemed to have rotted away. When Lilley
saw it, the creature was bumping blindly into the reef in an attempt to
disease was first spotted around Hanalei in 2004, but “at very low
levels,” and is the fourth coral disease outbreak documented in the
state since 2009, said Greta Aeby, a coral expert with the University of
Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology who has been working with Lilley to
document the phenomenon.
reefs are in decline. They are faced with the chronic stressors of
land-based pollution, overfishing and human use. The reefs have been
dealing with these problems for years, and are starting to show the
signs,” she said. “We need to help people understand the seriousness of
the situation before it is too late.”
said the rapid growth of the coral disease this year follows two years
of heavy sedimentation traveling down the Hanalei River, which he
believes could be traced to development upstream and heavy rains.
mud often coated the corals, he said, and studies paid for by a
community group showed high levels of heavy metals in the water —
studies that were dismissed by the state Department of Health, which
said such metals are natural to the volcanic soil of Hawaii.
said other studies have shown high levels of sewage-related bacteria in
the Hanalei River, likely because the town of Hanalei has no sewer
system, and homes are connected to cesspools and septic systems.
have also been some studies of sediment and nutrients, primarily in
Hanalei River, and during rain events, there is excessive suspended
sediment in the river, exceeding water quality standards,” she said.
“I’ve seen plumes extending into the ocean. I’ve seen sediment settling