Home to one of the largest marine conservation areas in the world, Hawaii’s Papahānaumokuākea encompasses 582,578 square miles of the Pacific Ocean. The protected area provides a habitat for 7,000 diverse species, including 14 million seabirds, the endangered green turtle and Hawaiian monk seal.
Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is bursting with incredible sea life and marine organisms and is the only mixed UNESCO World Heritage Site in the USA. It’s also home to the world’s biggest volcano, and has the highest level of endemism (species that can’t be found anywhere else in the world) of any known marine ecosystem on earth—according to Papahanaumokuakea.gov. Over 25% of Hawaii’s marine life is native to the state and, Hawaii’s coast is home to more than 500 species of oxygen-producing, marine algae.
Located near Koko Head, Honolulu—Hanauma Bay is another protected area and was Hawaii’s first Marine Life Conservation District (MLCD), designed to conserve and replenish marine resources. So far, there are three MLCD’s in Oahu, five in Hawaii and, three in Maui.
Hawaii’s complex coral reef ecosystem provides abundant habitat for marine life, as well as valuable food resources and protection from predators. These delicate reefs do incredible things, like filtering water and protecting against storms—but they’re extremely sensitive to external factors such as pollution and siltation. A concerning and growing issue among coral reefs is coral bleaching, which happens when temperatures exceed their normal range over a short time frame, and the coral succumbs to starvation or disease.
Microscopic algae/plankton also play an important role underwater, as coral and algae work in synthesis to support the marine ecosystem—with the algae producing over 90% of the nutrients that corals need to grow (as written by Alex Rogers in The Deep).
When temperatures remain too high for a prolonged period, the algae go into photosynthetic overdrive, producing coral-harming chemicals which damage protein, DNA and, other molecules in the coral tissues. This causes coral bleaching to happen on a mass scale, with huge areas of coral affected at once. Live coral can deplete at rates of up to 90% in some areas affected by mass bleaching events.
A key Hawaiian value is Malama i ke kai – which means to "care for or protect the ocean", a phrase embedded in the islands’ culture. Residents and businesses occupying the state are highly conscious of protecting these unique ecosystems and preserving Hawaii’s sea life. So much so, that Hawaii is blazing the trail in ocean conservation. The state is also preparing to ban sunscreens that contain oxybenzone and octinoxate in 2021.
Many marine tourism businesses have opted into the Dolphin Smart Partnership, committing to supporting dolphin conversation. If you’re a visiting tourist, look out for businesses with the Dolphin Smart flag displayed when you choose to book a dolphin tour.
Elsewhere in Hawaii, the University of Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology is an independent research unit for all aspects of tropical marine biology. They work to develop new technologies that nurture and protect Hawaii’s marine and coastal biodiversity.
Hawaii Marine Animal Response is a non-profit organisation which focuses on species conservation, education, field support and rescue. They focus their efforts on marine species most likely to be affected by human-related threats.
Project Aware’s mission is to connect the passion for ocean adventure with the purpose of marine conservation. The organisation pioneers regular campaigns to address the threats facing the ocean and support the UN Sustainable Development Goals and 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. One of their key focus areas is preventing waste from entering the ocean and reducing the impacts of marine debris.
Last but not least, a small team of passionate volunteers at Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii have made it their mission to inspire local communities to care for Hawaii’s coastlines through beach clean-ups and public awareness campaigns.