“The question comes down to one of pub lic access versus the protection of the resource.” That was the consensus of the `Ahihi-Kin‘au-Keone‘o‘io Advisory Group at its November 16, 2004, meeting, where the group voted 8 to 1 to advise the state Natural Area Reserves System Commission and the Department of Land and Natural Resources that they immediately close the reserve’s two popular snorkeling coves and the trails that lead to them.
The advisory group, made up of Maui residents representing commercial, cultural, and natural resource interests, is not alone in its belief that ‘Ahihi-Kina‘u is in danger. Dr. Richard Brock spelled it out in bold letters in a recent report for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Sevice: “Institutions do not rely on the honor system when displaying rare art and artifacts and the NARS [Natural Area Reserves System] should not either when it comes the protection of the absolutely unique anchialine re sources of the ‘Ahihi-Kina‘u NAR.”
Brock’s statement was contained in his November 2004 report, “Anchialine Resoures in Two Hawai‘i State Natural Area Reserves: ‘Ahihi-Kina‘u, Maui Island and Manuka, Hawai‘i Island with Recommendations for their Management,” prepared for the FWS Pacific Islands Coastal Program. ‘Ahihi-Kina‘u’s salt water pools were the state’s premier example of anchialine resources, he said, housing six of the state’s eight rare species of hypogeal (shrimp that live in the pond and the water table below) shrimp and uncontaminated by alien fish.
“Additionally, biologically intact anchialine habitat (i.e., habitat devoid of alien fish) today is among the most unique and probably the rarest aquatic habitat in Hawai‘i and in the nation,” Brock wrote.
The state DLNR and its Board of Land and Natural Resources have embraced a policy concerning use priorities in sensitive areas: Protection of natural resources comes first, then the public, then commercial interests. Commercial kayaking in ‘Ahihi-Kina‘u was stopped by the BLNR last year, but hiking access is still allowed and daily hundreds of people, mostly visitors, use the area.
In addition to Brock’s report, a recent rapid assessment of ‘Ahihi-Kina‘u by a team of state, university and Bishop Museum scientists found evidence of regular poaching, fish feeding, and use of the barren ‘a‘a lava as a toilet. The two reports together led the Natural Area Reserves System Commission to urge the Land Board to do everything in its power to protect the resources there.
The recommendation came at the January 12 meeting of the commission, which advises the Land Board on management of the state’s Natural Area Reserves System. The commission asked the board to restrict at once access to ‘Ahihi-Kina‘u NAR. The commission also agreed to ask the Department of the Attorney General for formal advice on the commission’s and the Land Board’s powers to restrict access.
At the January commission meeting, the most urgent plea for protection came from Brock, who said he had witnessed first-hand the sweeping devastation that even one introduced species can do to a pond system.
Anchialine ponds are salty, land-locked pools that rise and fall with the tides. Brock’s report states that there are between 600 and 700 such pools in Hawai‘i, 80 percent of which are on the island of Hawai‘i. Marine life in 90 percent of all of the state’s anchialine ponds has been degraded by the introduction and spread of alien fish, primarily tilapia and mosquito fish, Brock’s report states.
These pools are unique in that they are dominated by tiny shrimp, known in Hawai‘i as ‘opae, that live both in the pond and in the water-filled crevices below. The shrimp suppress algae growth thereby allowing other species, including fish, mollusks, tunicates, insects, and sponges, to thrive. But a single introduction of alien fish can wreck a whole system.
Elsewhere, people have introduced alien fish into the ponds to control mosquitoes; in one case, the state itself was directly responsible (the Vector Control branch of the Department of Health put fish into anchialine ponds at Keahole). Alien fish may also be introduced for later harvesting as bait or food. The fish prey on the shrimp and eventually eliminate the shrimp living in the parts of the pond that receive daylight. This allows macroalgae to take over.
He goes on to note that six of the eight crustacean species in Hawaiian anchialine pools are on a federal list of Candidate Species and two are classified as Species of Concern.
‘Ahihi-Kina‘u has about a dozen clusters of ponds along three kilometers of coast. During field surveys in November 2003 and April 2004, Brock found the common shrimp species (Halocaridina rubra and Metabetaeus lohena), as well as four much rarer species (Antecardina lauensis, Calliasmata pholidota, Palaemonella burnsi, and Procaris hawaiiana) in most of the ponds.
J.A. Maciolek first documented these species in ‘Ahihi-Kina‘u in 1986. Because the ponds appear to have survived mainly intact over the years, “The question arises, Is the present level of management adequate to protect these extremely rare anchialine species and their habitat? The short answer is no,” Brock wrote, noting that chronic, small-scale degradation by visitors in the form of human wastes and trampling in the ponds will impact the pond ecosystem.
More important, he continued, is the threat of an alien introduction and its eventual establishment, for which “there are no legal remedies for removal.” All it would take, he said, is one visitor bringing in just one egg-bearing mosquito fish for the ponds’ “unique biological attributes of the system [to] be lost.”
Brock offered the Waikoloa Anchialine Pond Preserve in North Kona as an example. Since 1985, signs describing the pond system and prohibiting entry had protected the ponds. But in December 2003, someone released adult tilapia and mosquito fish into a part of the system, and within six months, Brock states, all the ponds in the eight-acre area, which included two-thirds of the entire preserve, were infested with alien fish and all the shrimp had disappeared. Brock says the chemical rotenone is the only thing that could kill the fish, but it is currently prohibited by the EPA for use in nearshore waters.
Brock recommended that trails within 100 meters of the anchialine ponds at ‘Ahihi Kina‘u be blocked or rerouted, except for those closest to Keone‘o‘io. “Trails should be constructed with fences as needed with signage that keeps people on specific trails and there should be financial consequences for individuals caught not following posted rules…Cultural use should be allowed to occur where it does not impinge or impact on the anchialine resource in the NAR. If native practitioners require ‘opae ‘ula (Halocardina rubra), they should be directed to areas away from the NAR and entry to those areas of the `Ahihi Kina‘u NAR that are closed to the public should require a special permit,” he wrote.
Over four days in late 2004, a team of scientists conducted a rapid assessment, following up on one done in 2003. They found some improvement since the shut-down of commercial kayak operations and the placement of portable toilets in the area. They found no evidence of kayak damage at two popular snorkeling sites, and the strong scent of urine that had been detected in 2003 in ponds near the “Fishbowl” site was no longer present.
However, the team did find evidence that visitors continued to relieve themselves near both snorkel sites, that they continued to trample the coral, and that poaching of fish and `opihi was rampant. `Opihi were not found in the size and number that they were in 2003, and there were four reports of poaching in the four days the team was surveying the area. Discarded fish-food packets were evidence that visitors continued to feed fish.
In a January 6, 2005, report to NARS program manager Randy Kennedy, Dave Gulko of the Division of Aquatic Resources stated that he also had concerns about the possible endocrine-disrupting effects that chemical in sunscreens and insecticides might have on coral larvae settlement, as well as the possibility that shrimp poaching may be occurring in at least one anchialine pool.
Like Brock, Gulko recommended limiting public access to the natural area reserve and suggested several measures to accomplish this, such as restricting the number of parking spots and charging a fee for entrance. At last month’s commission meeting, members at tempted to vote on a measure to restrict hiking through the NAR, but Deputy Attorney General Linda Chow advised the commission that the NAR rules allow hiking, nature study and kayaking and that banning any of those activities would require a rule change. The Land Board can close an entire area, but it can’t ban activities that are specifically identified as permitted uses, she said.
NARS Commissioner Scott Derrickson disagreed. While the NARS Commission may not have the power to restrict access, the Land Board does have emergency powers to close an area. He moved that the commission advise the Land Board to close the NAR from Keone‘o‘io to ‘Ahihi Cove, excluding the “Dumps” parking lot. While the Maui NARS staff is working to restrict parking in the area through the strategic placement of boulders, it does maintain the “Dumps” lot. The NARS Commission has often proposed gating the road that runs through the NAR, but had been told by DLNR director Peter Young and former DLNR deputy director Dan Davidson that the road belonged to the county. The commission asked Davidson to find out if the county would consent to barring the road with a gate, but Davidson left the DLNR without reporting back to the commission the result, if any, of his queries.
In January, the context of the discussion changed when Maui NARS manager Bill Evanson reported that the county claims the road belongs to the state. The state had tried to dedicate the road to the county, he said, but the county has refused to accept it because of its substandard condition.
Gate or no gate, Chow reminded the commission that any motorized vehicles, be they boats or cars, are by rule prohibited in the NARS, raising the question of whether the “Dumps” parking lot should even exist.
— Teresa Dawson
Volume 15, Number 8 February 2005