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Coral Reef Protection

      Coral Reef Protection

E malama o ke kai (to care for the ocean)

As an olelo noeau (Hawaiian proverb) states, “Malama i ke kai, a malama ke kai ia oe!” which means care for the ocean and the ocean will care for you. The Hawaiian word “Malama” (mah-lah-mah), means to take care of, tend, attend, care for, preserve, protect, beware, save, maintain. Malama is often heard in reference to taking care of Hawaii’s natural resources- Malama ka ‘āina.

Coral Reef Protection and Ocean Etiquette

When engaging in the marine environment we should remember that the ocean and near shore reefs are home to a multitude of species. The biology of the coral reef is an amazing interaction of elemental forces and the balance between all the species that visit and inhabit the reef. Humans have a role in preserving the health of the reef, and humans have the ability to reduce their impact and have a positive effect on the well-being of this natural resource.

Mauka to Makai (“mah oo-kah” to “mah ky-ee” from the Mountains to the Sea)
An ahupua’a is an ancient concept of resource use and management based on families living in a division of land that connects the mountains to the reefs and the sea.” Hawaiians understand that the land and the oceans are connected. They also understand the need to care for the land and especially the water flowing down the streams, as it will affect everything downstream including the near shore reef and the ocean ecology, it is all connected.
Hale Moana (house of the ocean)
To be an ocean lover, is to be a nature lover. The ocean is more than sea water, it has a living community that envelops the globe and covers 70% of our planet. And what we do in one part of the ocean ultimately affects the entire ocean. Also we should not forget that our conduct on land also affects the oceans too. Greenhouse gasses, carbon dioxide, litter, and toxic waste, can affect the ocean. So we should strive to live consciously and responsibly on land and in the ocean to help protect our precious oceans. Every thing that we can do to reuse and recycle our trash on land will in turn protect the sea and its inhabitants. On land we should use water wisely, use fresh water sparingly, using chemicals minimally, and dispose of toxic substances responsibly is all part of being responsible stewards of our oceans.
Storm Drains: Storm drains connect directly to the ocean. Never use storm drains to dump chemicals. Anything on the streets or storm water canals will quickly find its way into the sea. Even washing your car on the lawn instead of in the street can help prevent phosphates from running directly into the storm water system. After rain, storm water runoff washes all the trash and chemicals from the streets into the sea. Any trash on the roads and parking lots like: cigarette butts, motor oil, gasoline spills etc will eventually find its way into the ocean.
Near Shore Areas: At the beaches, try to use the designated parking areas, and protect the dunes and unpaved areas from erosion and degradation from parking and vehicular traffic. Even if you have to walk a little further to reach the water, it will ultimately benefit the ocean. Disturbed soil is susceptible to erosion from wind and water, and soil and dirt (silt) will contaminate the sea water and choke out the reef organisms like coral, by increasing siltation, and turbidity. To be healthy Coral needs clean pure ocean water. And because many marine organisms “breathe” the sea water they also need clean water to be healthy. Bad water quality is to sea creatures what bad air quality is to people.
Streams and gullies: Streams are important as niche ecosystems. A lot of stream health depends on regular water flow. Many streams have been diverted to take water for agriculture and residential use. This results is reduced stream flow that negatively affects the health of the stream life. A minimum stream flow must be maintained to allow species to survive, and also to migrate up and down the streams. Ocean species also rely on the streams for spawning and breeding. We need to be conscious that overusing water from streams has a negative impact on streamline and ocean life. Gullies are often dry unless during rainfall. Many dry gullies quickly fill with rainwater runoff, and can flash flood. This is important to maintain gullies so that floodwater can find its way to the low lands. If gullies are filled in or otherwise altered, the rainwater runoff can pick up too much dirt and create a dirty storm water runoff called “brown water”. Brown water entering the ocean is very bad for the ocean creatures. Usually bad land management practices and agriculture contribute to erosion and the loss of soil to streams and contribute to the brown water problem. Another factor for stream health, is deforestation. Uplands traditionally have high rainfall, and historically were where the forests grew. farming and tree harvesting have lead to a denuding of most of the upper elevations, and the deforestation over the last 200 years or so has drastically altered the island’s rain fall patterns, and also affected the rain absorption capacity and runoff patterns. Sadly most of the Hawaiian islands are now experiencing moderate to heavy erosion because of deforestation and agriculture.
Sand Dunes: Do your best to protect the dunes at the ocean front, dunes keep the margin between land and sea separate. The dune vegetation is rooted in loose sandy soil and is easily disturbed buy human activity. In Hawaii there are several native grass species that help to hold the dunes together, but are quite fragile and susceptible to damage from foot traffic. Always use the designated walkways when crossing dunes to access the ocean. Never drag your equipment over the dune’s vegetation, And do not set up your picnic on the dune itself. But better on the sand in front of the dune. The exception is the grassy lawn areas that are well suited to human traffic. The green lawn areas (the ones that are mowed) located at beach parks, and shorefront properties are meant for human use. The sparsely vegetated dunes, with delicate plants and spiky native grasses are not meant for human activity. Loss of dunes means loss of beach sand and excessive erosion, also destabilized dunes, and the dune’s sand and surrounding soil can find its way into the reef area and smother out the se life there. So to be aware of the role of sand dunes, and protect dunes through your actions, you are in turn protecting the ocean.
Trash: Always take your trash away from the beach with you. Make an effort to ensure that trash does not blow away from you, or blow out of a trashcan, and get into the ocean. Much trash is accidentally introduced into the ocean each year. And much of it stays in the ocean for years and maybe even decades. The ocean cannot dispose of trash itself, so it needs human assistance to remove these contaminants. If you see some trash in the ocean, pick it up and take it out.  If you see large trash items, alert the lifeguards or parks rangers, so that they can arrange for it to be removed properly.
Beach combing: In Hawaii our Sand is made up of rock, shell, and coral. The wave’s action and the action of coral munching critters will break down the dead shells and coral fragments into smaller and smaller particles that will eventually make up our beach sand. Pure volcanic sand is black, pure coral sand is white. Shell sand is creamy to yellow in color. And there are an infinite variety of combinations. In Hawaii beaches are often named after their distinctive sand color. Black sand, Red sand beach etc. When you are beach combing you will come across chunks of coral debris, broken shells, and even living rocks. It is better to leave these in the ocean or on the beach where you found them, They are in the process of becoming sand, and the more coral debris you leave on the beach the whiter the beach sand will eventually become. If you play with the shells and explore the coral fragments, please return them when you are done. So that they can continue to contribute to the sand cycle, and re-mineralize the ocean. Always check any shell to see if it is alive first. Living shells will die quickly of left out of the water for too long. Never take a live shell out of the water or off the beach.
Marine reserves and protected Areas: However there are many protected areas where you may not take any shell or rock specimen whatsoever. Please read the signs, and maps to be sure that you are not violation an y of these areas. Living Rocks; Some rocks at the seashore have algae and small creatures attached, these rocks need to stay in-situ, close to the shore or in the ocean, where the living portion can stay in the water. The algae and resident creatures on the rocks are also part of the living reef ecosystem too. Even the very tiny and microscopic ones live there too.

Tide pools: When exploring rock pools and rocky shorelines, please respect the creatures that live there too. Every pool is a microcosm, a mini world full of creatures. Many of these creatures may appear dead or inanimate. Especially in the inter-tidal zone, the creatures that you encounter may be waiting for the next high tide to come before they resume their activity. Opihi (Limpets ), Uni (Urchins), and shell fish, crabs and shrimp, and anemones etc. should not be disturbed.

Do not disturb marine Life:
When onshore: you may encounter a resting or nesting turtle, or even a sleeping monk seal. Please respect these creatures and keep your distance, and appreciate them from afar. Do not allow children or pets to harass or disturb these creatures.

When you are snorkeling, sailing or kayaking: you should not get in the way of turtles, and should not attempt to touch them or ride them. Larger creatures like monk seals and sharks should not be approached or touched, it is recommended to stay a respectful 150 away from a Monk Seal, these creatures are endangered with declining populations. Any interactions can ultimately alter their behaviors and may negatively affect the overall survival of their species. All Marine mammals are protected by the marine mammal protection law which prohibits people from approaching any whales and dolphins within 50 feet. Humpback Whales are specifically protected under federal law, and people and boats should stay back 100 yards (300 feet).

Fishing and Overfishing: Fishing can deplete the marine community of beneficial reef species. Many fish serve as a positive part of the reef eco system, especially many herbivorous algae eaters that help to control algae levels, and are vital for reef health. Some fishermen will accidentally capture and kill non-target species (bycatch), and sadly many Moray eels (puhi paka) are killed by fishermen. Morays are a carrion eating species and do their part help to keep the reef clean. The over fishing of native species, leaves ecological niches open for exploitation by non-native invasive fish species. This shift upsets the natural ecological balance of the reef). Whenever fishing for food or recreation, never take more than you can eat. And never kill anything you are not going to eat. Do not over-fish one area, or overexploit the recourse. Do not take juvenile fish, or pregnant or gravid (with eggs) females. There are fishing guidelines webpage available called Hawaii Fishing Regulations, for a list of protected species, fishing rules and regulations.

Fish Collectors: There is also a problem of fish collectors who trap colorful reef species for the Aquarium trade. Irresponsible Fish Collectors are associated with the recent loss of a tremendous number of reef-dwelling specimens, of fish, and marine invertebrates. Do not buy wild-caught aquarium fish or inverts, from unlicensed or disreputable sources (even on the mainland). If fishing for food or recreation, never take more than you can eat.

Convict Tang and cleaner Wrasse     photo Mila Zinkova,    courtesy of

Overharvesting: Limu (seaweed) collectors have been collecting edible seaweed for generations. Intensive harvesting for private consumption and commercially have lead to over-harvesting and extinction of certain species in many areas. Conservation techniques are being employed to restore barren areas and some management is creeping back in. Whenever there is an economic incentive to overexploit a species it will intimately be threatened. Opihi are small limpet shellfish that are a local delicacy. These little guys cling to rocks at the tide zone. They take a long time to re-grow, reproduce and re-populate, so they are often over-harvested. Opihi are almost extinct on Oahu due to over-harvesting. Only Opihi over a minimum size may be collected. Shells must be at least 11/4 inches wide, or the meat a half inch wide, to legally harvest them in Hawaii.

Chumming and Fish Feeding: Fishermen and snorkelers sometimes used put food in the water to attract fish. The food whether it be fish guts, meat, or frozen peas, actually contaminates the water. In addition, it also alters the natural behaviors of marine life, including attracting unwanted species too. Through education “fish feeding” (the practice of placing attractants in the water) is slowly disappearing. Never chum the water or bait the fish because it alters fish behavior and it ultimately harms the reef.
Introduced Invasive Species: A worldwide problem is the accidental introduction of non-native, species into an ecosystem. Most invasive marine species have come to Hawaii on or in ships hulls. There is also a smaller problem of exotic aquarium fish and pets being released into the wild. Never release an aquarium fish or plants into a pond, stream or the ocean. Do not even flush them down the toilet. Many pets in stores and aquarium fish are not native to Hawaii and will cause tremendous harm to native species and upset the natural balance if they are released and reproduce. Non-native species have no natural predators, and can quickly overrun ecosystems, and out-compete the native species. Return any unwanted pet or fish to an Aquarium or pet store, where they can properly re-home the pet or take care of it responsibly.
Coral care: Do not step on or touch living coral reef. Take care when snorkeling or surfing do not to put your feet down. Try to stay floating and only put your feet down on sandy seafloor or rocks if you have to. The hard sea floor has many species including corals and coralline algae’s that are very delicate and vulnerable to damage from contact with human hands and feet and other contacts like kayaks, boards, boats etc. The sea floor is also home to many other creatures, like urchins, snails, starfish, sea worms, sponges and soft corals that have delicate bodies or create fragile structures they built for protection. Stepping on these creatures or their homes can be very destructive to them and to your feet too. Take care when launching a Kayak, or other board or boat so that you do not crunch the reef. Boaters & kayakers especially when dropping an anchor near a coral reef. It is better to always use a fixed mooring when one is available. Snorkelers and Scuba divers should try to stay off the sea floor and not stand on the reef. All ocean users should know the areas where the reef is and where the best ingress and egress points are. Keep in mind that many coral areas may become exposed at low tide, especially shallow during low Spring tides.
Coral Reef: Coral reef builds up very slowly over time. Coral can grow on lava rock or on old dead coral. The rocks and the old pieces of coral are the substrate (foundation) on which the reef builds itself. When you take any rocks or pieces of “dead” coral you are taking away the building materials that the reef needs to grow. A piece of dead broken coral will be recycled by the reef. A pinkish coralline algae grows over rocks and old coral, and forms a layer where new coral can grow. The coralline algae is also excreting a “crustate” of calcium carbonate (reef like substance) that acts like a glue to join all of the broken pieces of coral and rocks, and shells together. With the help of the coralline algae, the reef can heal itself and can put itself back together after a piece is broken off. The broken pieces are regularly recycled and rejoined together. This process is how the reef can continue to rebuild itself and grow up higher towards the sun. So please do not take away or buy chunks of coral (dead or alive) because it is important to keep it in the ocean so that it is available for help the reef grow and stay healthy.
Souvenirs and Products: Coral and marine Species find it way into products you can but like souvenirs, shells for sale, and jewelry. Rare and endangered black Coral is made into beautiful and desirable jewelry. The high price it commands has lead to its overharvesting, and has lead to its near extinction. Black coral may take thousands of years to grow. To deter the over-harvesting and exploitation of endangered species, do not buy souvenirs or coral products that have taken the resource away from local reefs. Also, the majority of shells you see in gift stores are imported from the Philippines where the reefs are being exploited there. Take care when buying any by-product from any coral reef, because you could be driving an industry that may harvest materials irresponsibly, and negatively impact the reef. Never buy any turtle shell or ant products made with any turtles.

Because coral reef organisms are very delicate, please:

  • Do not disturb or harass marine life.

  • Do not remove marine life from its natural habitat or shells.

  • Do not step on or touch coral.

  • Do not stir up sediment near coral.

Other tips:

  • Think and act ecologically in and around the ocean.

  • Try to choose resorts and local businesses that support coral reef protection.

  • Avoid buying souvenirs made from coral or other marine organisms.

  • Support local initiatives by paying conservation fees, even if they are voluntary.


David Dorn and the Action Team