Last updated: 10:06 PM ET, Sun September 13 2015

Hawaii Expected to Experience the Worst Coral Bleaching in its History

Impacting Travel | Michael Isenbek | September 13, 2015

Hawaii Expected to Experience the Worst Coral Bleaching in its History

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Scientists just declared that higher-than-average ocean temperatures around Hawaii are likely to cause the worst coral bleaching in the island chain’s history — and this is a bad trend for tourism, the Associated Press reported.

Bleaching occurs when warm water cues coral to expel algae, which is a major food source, Ruth Gates, the director of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, told the AP. This causes the marine organisms to lose their color. Gates added that many corals have “only just recovered” from 2014’s mass bleaching. Hawaii also experienced a mass bleaching in 1996.

Chris Brenchley, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Honolulu said to the AP that ocean temperatures in the vicinity of Hawaii are around 3 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than normal.

According to the AP, bleaching makes coral more prone to disease and increases the risk of death. This would be a problem for fish and other sea life that call the coral reefs home.

The AP also pointed out that diseased and dying reefs are “a concern for Hawaii's tourism-dependent economy,” as its vibrant marine life draws many to the islands.

Gates paints a grim picture of these languishing expanses. "You go from a vibrant, three-dimensional structure teeming with life, teeming with color, to a flat pavement that's covered with brown or green algae," Gates said to the AP. "That is a really doom-and-gloom outcome but that is the reality that we face with extremely severe bleaching events."

Gates said to the AP that a large-scale reef die-off in Hawaii has been avoided, and most coral has bounced back, but two years in a row of bleaching is a harder recovery prospect.

"You can't stress an individual, an organism, once and then hit it again very, very quickly and hope they will recover as quickly," she asserted to the AP.

In terms of specific locales, the AP said scientists received reports of bleaching in Kaneohe Bay and Waimanalo on Oahu and Olowalu on Maui. On the Big Island, bleaching sightings have come in from Kawaihae to South Kona on the leeward side and Kapoho in the southeast.

Scientific expeditions to far-flung, mostly-uninhabited islands in the northeastern end of the Hawaiian archipelago have reported coral death after the 2014 bleaching event, the AP said.

Tourists and residents can also give coral a helping hand by not adding to the strain. Speaking to the AP, Brian Neilson, an aquatic biologist with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, said to not fertilize lawns or wash cars with soap so “contaminants” don’t make it into the water.

Neilson also advised not to walk on coral or drop anchor from a boat onto a reef, and also urged anglers to fish responsibly, the AP said.

Scientists have also requested to be alerted of any bleached coral sightings via the state's "Eyes on the Reef" website.

According to the AP, Hawaii contains 85 percent of all coral officially within the United States. This includes 69 percent among the nearly uninhabited islands of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Another 15 percent of U.S. coral is scattered among the Main Hawaiian Islands, ranging from Niihau in the north to the Big Island in the south.

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