Industry steps up to protect the reefs in the Islands

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New studies show that a chemical common in sunscreens, oxybenzone, can damage reefs and contribute to coral bleaching. Aqua-Aston Hospitality and other organizations are distributing reef-safe sunscreen.
New studies show that a chemical common in sunscreens, oxybenzone, can damage reefs and contribute to coral bleaching. Aqua-Aston Hospitality and other organizations are distributing reef-safe sunscreen. Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Hawaii Tourism Authority

Hawaii's coral reefs, damaged by bleaching in three consecutive years, are vital for protecting shorelines and numerous sea creatures that call them home. They are also big tourist attractions for swimmers and divers.

Hawaii's tourism industry is stepping up to protect the important natural resource.

Coral bleaching occurs when water temperatures rise too high, forcing the type of colorful photosynthetic algae that live inside, zooxanthellae, to flee. The coral then turn white, hence the term "bleaching." The coral cannot survive without the symbiotic relationship, and when ocean temperatures do not return to normal quickly enough, the reefs may die.

Other stressors, such as pollution, agricultural runoff and other disturbances can make it more difficult for the coral to recover. Craig Downs, executive director of the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Virginia, has been studying the effects of sunscreen on the environment since 2005. A study he released in 2015 as well further research this year show a common UV-absorbing chemical found in sunscreen, oxybenzone, can poison coral in multiple ways. It contributes to bleaching, hinders reproductive growth and causes coral deformities.

The Hawaii legislature introduced a bill in 2017 that would have banned sunscreens using oxybenzone, but it has not been approved.

"In Hanauma Bay you can visibly see the pollution from sunscreen in the water during the busy time," Theresa van Greunen, Aqua-Aston Hospitality's director of public relations and promotions, said about the popular Oahu snorkeling site. "The water is foggy, you can see it in the water, especially later in the day."

Hotels and other businesses that have frequent contact with tourists are getting involved. Aqua-Aston Hospitality started its "For Our Reef" program earlier this year, including installing reef-safe sunscreen dispensers on their properties, offering sunscreen trade-ins and organizing beach clean-ups and awareness campaigns.

"We saw it as a problem that may detract from tourism," van Greunen said. "As one of the largest hotel management companies in the state, we saw an amazing opportunity to raise public awareness and let people know what they can do to prevent coral bleaching from getting any worse."

The Bishop Museum and the Waikiki Aquarium in Honolulu have partnered with Aqua-Aston and joined the fight, installing reef-safe sunscreen dispensers on their properties and participating in the awareness campaign. Bishop Museum researcher Richard L. Pyle said the deep-ocean reefs he studies are not as affected by human activities but still feel the impact of pollution and other contaminants.

"Most of the reefs down deep where I work are isolated from most human activities," he said.  "There are a few exceptions, however; in particular, human activity on land can cause runoff to enter the water. Not only does this run-off affect the shallow reefs, but it can also affect the deep reefs by reducing the visibility of the surface layer and thereby preventing sunlight from reaching the depths."

Aqua-Aston sees the effort to protect Hawaii's reefs, and the wider environment, as a long-term project, van Greunen said. The company hopes to reach out to more corporate partners in 2018 and is also working to reduce the environmental impact of its properties, including an initiative to cut the distribution of bottled water.

"We want to be a leader in the industry in this area," van Greunen said. "I think a lot of people want to help, they want to protect the reefs, but they aren't sure what to do. If we can get all visitors to the state to do this one thing [cut out sunscreen with oxybenzone] for the environment, it all adds up."

Downs is committed to spreading the word on oxybenzone to the public and said he wished the ban on it had been approved in Hawaii, but he was pleased the issue got as much attention as it did in its first year of debate in the legislature.

"I was most surprised at how 'everyday Hawaiians' were engaged about the issue," he said.  "It was a local fisherman who explained to me that this was an existential issue for many families and businesses. Reefs are declining; the resources of those reefs are declining. This cuts into families and businesses that rely on these resources. This same fisherman said that sunscreen in Hawaii was a self-defeating and suicidal social behavior. We kill the reefs we need and enjoy by our use [of it]. It was this fishing family and other local business who inspired us to 'slap down' and engage this issue strongly in Hawaii."

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