Concerned residents, government agencies and nonprofit groups are developing an all-volunteer reef-greeter program to raise awareness and educate others on safe recreational practices along the Puako shoreline, a state marine protected area shown here. BELOW: Community members participate in a reef workshop at Hokuloa Church in Puako on Thursday. (Photos by Anna Pacheco/Special to West Hawaii Today)
In an effort to protect the shoreline and reef area of Puako, volunteers have come together to plan a Puako Information Station where they will share reef safety information with others. (Anna Pacheco/Special to West Hawaii Today)
John Kahiapo, a state Division of Aquatic Resources education specialist, teaches interested reef greeter volunteers the difference between the types of nets allowed to be used and the ones restricted off the shoreline of Puako. With the exception of throw nets, no other nets are allowable. (Anna Pacheco/Special to West Hawaii Today)
Justin Viezbicke, a marine conservation coordinator for the Hawaii Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, speaks about the importance of community involvement and education with reef protection during a workshop held Thursday at Hokuloa Church in Puako. (Anna Pacheco/Special to West Hawaii Today)
When Diane Campbell attended a reef docent workshop Thursday, she knew some information about Hawaii’s reefs.
Besides being one of the most diverse breeding sites and feeding grounds for marine life, reefs need protection from various threats, including human-related activities, said Campbell, a Puako resident.
These near-shore ecosystems also need advocates, willing to “honor their wildness and beauty,” as well as educate others about their importance and how to ensure their survival.
“I came because of my love of the reef, and I wanted to put it more into action,” she said to the roughly 20-member audience inside Hokuloa Church in Puako. “I learned, not just today, the structure of live animals, the balancing of all life forms on the reef, and the tremendous effort, political and educational, to keep management in the rightful place.
“Programs like this are powerful, and all are welcome to participate because these reefs do not just belong to me; they belong to everyone.”
The program Campbell was referring to gives residents a direct hand in the management of the near-shore marine resources in Puako.
The all-volunteer program is in its infancy and its name has not been formalized, but its purpose is clear: protecting reefs through education and outreach efforts.
The program is a partnership of government agencies, nonprofit groups and the public.
The main organizers include the Puako Community Association, The Nature Conservancy, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
By the end of this summer, the partners hope to have a modest information station at Paniau, a highly used area at the end of Puako Beach Drive.
There, volunteers, called reef greeters, will reach out to visitors and residents by sharing information on the current ocean rules, as well as how to best enjoy the area’s marine resources, protect its fragile environment and participate in collaborative stewardship opportunities, said Justin Viezbicke, West Hawaii marine conservation coordinator for NOAA’s Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.
The reef greeters will serve as “the eyes and ears” for the agencies responsible for enforcing ocean rules.
When necessary, they will report violations.
Those involved hope to change people’s behavior, making area users more aware of the environment and more attuned to the benefits of a healthy ecosystem.
They also want to increase protection and enforcement throughout the Puako-Anaehoomalu fishery management area, one of nine sites within the state’s West Hawaii Regional Fisheries Management Area.
Another goal is bringing the community together to discuss and find common ground in strengthening marine protection, Viezbicke said.
“Our community has been very active in searching for the means to assure the coral reef ecology regains its health and is protected from adverse effects from use and degradation possible from several sources, such as overfishing, cesspools, aquarium collecting, poaching and alien algae,” said Phil Hayward, a Puako resident and biologist. “This program for reef greeters is an effort to help reach out to visitors and residents using the shorelines and especially to fishermen, to show we care and the need for efforts for reef species’ protection.
“There are 40 years of collected evidence that shows the coral reef fish species are less in number and in productivity.
“At present, the only restriction on Puako’s reef, besides size and catch limits for a few species, is for no lay nets, and aquarium collection must be done 250 meters offshore or past the reef drop.”
The new program is in addition to the Puako Makai Watch, which has existed since 2007.
Under DLNR, Makai Watch consists of three components: education and outreach; monitoring; and observation and incident reporting, said John Kahiapo, an education specialist with the DLNR’s Division of Aquatic Resources.
In 2009, concerns from the community rose regarding compliance with various rules, and those concerns escalated after a turtle was illegally taken in front of a resident.
That same year, The Nature Conservancy received a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to develop a community-based management and implementation plan that minimizes priority threats to Puako’s reefs.
This latest program, involving the reef greeters, was one of the solutions, said Chad Wiggins, The Nature Conservancy’s Hawaii Island marine coordinator.
Thursday’s workshop introduced attendees to the program, its benefits and goals, the volunteers’ roles, as well as methods for approaching area users and dealing with potential violators.
Participants learned about the current rules pertaining to monk seals, whales and turtles, as well as fishing, nets and aquarium collecting.
Basic fish and bird identification and biology were also taught.
In order for the program to be successful, Viezbicke said public-private partnerships are key.
He added that having strong, consistent community involvement is considered especially critical.
Volunteers are being sought to man the Paniau information station during the weekends.
When the station should be open and how long reef greeters are needed, as well as other scheduling details, are still being discussed, he added.
More training workshops will be held and announced once planned.
For more information or to get involved, email email@example.com or call Viezbicke at 327-3697.