EarthTalk: What’s the prognosis for Hawaii’s
coral reefs in the face of global warming, invasive algae
and other environmental threats?
—Bill Weston, San Francisco, CA
run-off, rising ocean levels, increasingly acidic
waters and overfishing are taking their toll on
Hawaii's reefs and the marine life they support.
Biologists are working hard to stem the problem
but must now deal with invasive algaes that are
compromising the whole reef system.
sweeping protections put in place near the end of George
W. Bush’s presidency for large swaths of marine ecosystems
around the Hawaiian Islands, things are not looking good
for Hawaii’s coral reefs. Poisonous run-off, rising
ocean levels, increasingly acidic waters and overfishing
are taking their toll on the reefs and the marine life they
support. Biologists are trying to remain optimistic that
there is still time to turn things around, but new threats
to Hawaii’s corals are only aggravating the situation.
wit, a previously undocumented cyanobacterial fungus that
grows through photosynthesis is spreading by as much as
three inches per week on corals along the otherwise pristine
North Shore of Kauai. “There is nowhere we know of
in the entire world where an entire reef system for 60 miles
has been compromised in one fell swoop,” biologist
Terry Lilley told The Los Angeles Times. “This bacteria
has been killing some of these 50- to 100-year-old corals
in less than eight weeks.” He adds that the strange
green fungus affects upwards of five percent of the corals
in famed Hanalei Bay and up to 40 percent of the coral in
nearby Anini Bay, with neighboring areas “just as
bad, if not worse.” Lilly worries that the entire
reef system surrounding Kauai may be losing its ability
to fend off pathogens.
some 60 miles to the east across the blue Pacific, an invasive
algae introduced for aquaculture three decades ago in Oahu’s
Ka¯ne‘ohe Bay is also spreading quickly. Biologists
are concerned because it forms thick tangled mats that soak
up oxygen in the water needed by
other plants and animals, in turn converting coral reefs
there into smothering wastelands.
and other invasive algal species…don’t belong
in Hawai‘i,” says Eric Conklin, Hawaii director
of marine services for The Nature Conservancy, which works
to protect ecologically important lands and waters worldwide.
He adds that there are not enough plant-eating fish to keep
them under control.
are working hard to battle the algae in and around Ka¯ne‘ohe
Bay. Conklin and his colleagues from the Conservancy have
joined forces with researchers from the state of Hawaii
to develop an inexpensive new technology, dubbed the Super
Sucker, which uses barge-based hoses and pumps to vacuum
the invasive algae away without disturbing the underlying
coral. Once divers clear a given reef of algae, they then
stock it with native sea urchins raised in the state’s
marine lab that can help keep new algal outbreaks in check.
The system has been so successful at reducing invasive algae
at Ka¯ne‘ohe Bay that the state has begun producing
tens of thousands of sea urchins for similar “outplanting”
projects on other coral reefs around Oahu and beyond that
are threatened by invasive algae.
algae and pathogens are only part of the problem. Decades
of overfishing have reduced the biodiversity on and around
coral reefs, reducing their ecological integrity and making
them more vulnerable to climate change. Higher water temperatures
and rising sea levels, two of the more dramatic symptoms
of global warming, are hastening the bleaching of some particularly
vulnerable reefs that have evolved over thousands of years.
NEW SET OF ANSWERS IS FEATURED EACH WEEK!
EarthTalk: I hear the term “greenwashing”
a lot these days but am still not sure exactly what it means.
Can you enlighten?
—Ruth Markell, Indianapolis, IN
is leading the charge against what has come to be
called greenwashing: “The average citizen
is finding it more and more difficult to tell the
difference between those companies genuinely dedicated
to making a difference and those that are using
a green curtain to conceal dark motives.”
In essence, greenwashing
involves falsely conveying to consumers that a given product,
service, company or institution factors environmental responsibility
into its offerings and/or operations. CorpWatch, a non-profit
dedicated to keeping tabs on the social responsibility (or
lack thereof) of U.S.-based companies, characterizes greenwashing
as “the phenomena of socially and environmentally
destructive corporations, attempting to preserve and expand
their markets or power by posing as friends of the environment.”
One of the groups
leading the charge against greenwashing is Greenpeace. “Corporations
are falling all over themselves,” reports the group,
“to demonstrate that they are environmentally conscious.
The average citizen is finding it more and more difficult
to tell the difference between those companies genuinely
dedicated to making a difference and those that are using
a green curtain to conceal dark motives.”
its Stop Greenwash campaign in 2009 to call out bad actors
and help consumers make better choices. The most common
greenwashing strategy, the group says, is when a company
touts an environmental program or product while its core
business is inherently polluting or unsustainable.
Another involves what Greenpeace calls “ad bluster”:
using targeted advertising or public relations to exaggerate
a green achievement so as to divert attention from actual
environmental problems—or spending more money bragging
about green behavior than on actual deeds. In some cases,
companies may boast about corporate green commitments while
lobbying behind the scenes against environmental laws.
urges vigilance about green claims that brag about something
the law already requires: “For example, if an industry
or company has been forced to change a product, clean up
its pollution or protect an endangered species, then uses
PR campaigns to make such action look proactive or voluntary.”
the best way to avoid getting “greenwashed”
is to be educated about who is truly green and who is just
trying to look that way to make more money. Look beyond
advertising claims, read ingredient lists or ask employees
about the real skinny on their company’s environmental
Also, look for
labels that show a given offering has been vetted by a reliable
third-party. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s
Certified Organic label can only go on products that meet
the federal government’s organic standard. Just because
a label says “made with organic ingredients”
or “all-natural” does not mean the product qualifies
as Certified Organic, so be sure to look beyond the hype.
Even some eco-labels
are suspect. If you see one you don’t recognize, look
it up on Ecolabel Index, a global directory tracking 400+
different eco-labels in 197 countries across 25 industry
sectors. The free online resource provides information on
which company or group is behind each certification and
whether or not independent third-party assessments are required.
Stop Greenwash; Ecolabel