Hawai‘i’s waters are home to a growing alien nation of species that just shouldn’t
be here. A new campaign aims to head them off at the pass.
January 19, 2005
By Kawehi Haug
This isn’t your ordinary invasion. It doesn’t come with military might or green-skinned
pseudo humans with overgrown almond eyes. There is no aircraft with flashing lights
landing in the yard to the supernal soundtrack of do-do-do-do. In fact, there’s almost no
telling anything’s there at all. This invasion, although alien, is of an earthly nature, and is
—as the most dangerous invasions are—stealthy and underhanded.
Hawai‘i residents have long been under the false impression that the islands’ reefs are in
good working order. But thanks to a devoted pack of scientists and researchers who
spend their lives (cynicism be damned) discovering what’s wrong with the world, there is
increasing evidence that proves all is not well. While folks fret over a coquí frog
stampede and a Salvinia overgrowth that rivals the speed of sound, equally destructive
forces are at work beneath the surface of the ocean—our ocean. According to the State of
Hawai‘i Aquatic Invasive Species Management Plan, which was drafted last year by the
Department of Land and Natural Resources, Division of Aquatic Resources, marine
invaders—algae, invertebrates, fish and disease-causing organisms—are starting to choke
the life out of Hawai‘i’s coral reef ecosystem.
The bad news is, there isn’t much to be done about it. At least not yet. Despite scientists’
best efforts to draft a battle plan that would keep the invaders from staging an all out
coup on the native Hawaiian coral reefs, it looks like they’ll be forced to surrender.
The threats to the coral reef are out of control. More than 287 known alien marine species
are in Hawai‘i, and the number continues to grow as invaders arrive on the hulls of large
commercial ships, foreign fishing vessels and cruise ships. Alien algae are thriving,
encroaching on the coral territories of native algal species that are struggling to stay alive.
Algal pests dominate Kane‘ohe Bay and O‘ahu’s south shore, as well as the south shores
of Maui, Moloka‘i and Kaua‘i. The orange keyhole sponge is smothering native coral
species in Pearl Harbor, Honolulu Harbor, Wiliwili Harbor, Port Allen and Kane‘ohe
Bay. Snowflake coral is killing native black coral, the foundation of a $30 million-a-year
industry. Mangroves, pickleweed and alien mullet are overtaking and harming the
restoration of native fish ponds on Kaua‘i, O‘ahu, Moloka‘i and Hawai‘i Island. And
while Hawaiian reefs haven’t yet felt the damaging human impact that Western Atlantic
reefs have suffered over the past couple of centuries, they are not immune to the threat.
Steve Coles, a Bishop Museum research zoologist, has spent the last year studying the