In Hawaii, coral is the basis of life. What happened to it after the Lahaina wildfire?

Abraham “Snake” Ah Hee rides the waves when the surf is high and dives for octopuses and shells when the water is calm. The lifelong resident of Lahaina, Hawaii, spends so much time in the ocean that his wife jokes that he needs to wet his gills.

But these days, Ah Hee is concerned that the waters along his hometown of Maui may not be safe after the deadliest U.S. wildfire in a century scorched more than 2,000 buildings and left behind piles of toxic debris in August. He is concerned that the runoff could carry pollutants into the ocean, where they could enter coral, seaweed and the food chain.

“With all these things happening, you don’t know if the fish is good to eat,” Ah Hee said.

Scientists say there has never been a major urban fire next to a coral reef anywhere in the world, and they are using the Maui wildfire as an opportunity to study how chemicals and metals from burned plastics, lead paint and lithium-ion batteries can damage fragile reef ecosystems.

The research, already underway in the waters off Maui, could ultimately help inform residents, tourists and tropical coastal communities around the world as climate change increases the likelihood of extreme weather events of the kind that fueled the wildfires.

A bill before the state House would provide long-term funding for water quality monitoring, hoping to provide answers to residents whose lives are intimately connected to the ocean.

For now, government officials are urging the public to limit their exposure to the ocean and seafood until scientists understand what may be passing through the food chain.

“I know a lot of people keep wondering, ‘Is the water safe?’ Can we go out? Is it safe to fish and eat the fish?” said Russell Sparks, a Maui aquatic biologist with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. “We just want to reinforce the message that we know it’s frustrating, but people can be patient. We have never encountered anything like this.”

Coral reefs are sometimes called the ‘rainforests of the sea’ because they are so crucial to healthy oceans. They consist of stony corals, hard skeletons formed by thousands of individual living coral polyps that symbiotically harbor algae. Fish, crabs and other species find refuge there. Scientists say a quarter of the ocean’s fish depend on healthy coral reefs, which also protect coastline communities from powerful waves during storms.

One of Hawaii’s oldest stories, the ancient chant called The Kumulipo, reflects the central role of coral in the island chain. It says that a coral polyp was the first living thing to emerge from the darkness of creation. Starfish, worms, sea cucumber and other species followed. Man came last.

“So the first life form is a coral polyp. That’s your base. The basis of life is a coral,” said Ekolu Lindsey, a Lahaina community advocate who has long worked to restore his hometown’s coral reefs, fisheries and traditions.

Lahaina’s coral reefs had problems even before the fire, including overfishing, abuse during kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding trips, warm ocean temperatures and sediment flows from vacant fields and construction sites, Lindsey said.

Much of the coral off the coast of the fire zone was already degraded before August, Sparks said, but there were some spots of nice reef, such as in an area north of Lahaina Harbor toward Mala Wharf.

Sea Maui, a whale watching and snorkeling tour company, has in the past regularly taken snorkelers to the Mala Wharf Reef, where they often saw turtles and sometimes monk seals. Now the company’s boats avoid the reef because of drainage concerns and out of respect for the city, said Phil LeBlanc, partner and chief operating officer.

“We don’t like disaster tourism,” says LeBlanc, who instead directs trips south to Olowalu or north to Honolua Bay.

Researchers from the University of Hawaii at Manoa received a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to test the water shortly after the fire.

In October, they placed 20 sensors off the coast of West Maui that measured temperature, salinity, oxygen, turbidity and chlorophyll every five minutes. They have six sensors that measure where water flows to find clues about where contaminants might move and accumulate, said Andrea Kealoha, a professor from Manoa and Maui native who is leading the research project.

The citizen science group Hui O Ka Wai Ola is collecting additional samples, even after heavy rains.

Researchers examine tissue fragments from fish, seaweed and coral for signs of heavy metals and contaminants from burned wood, metal and plastic.

Their grant covers work through August. So far they don’t have enough data to draw any conclusions, but they aim to release some results within a month.

Kealoha suspects that in the next two to five years, scientists will be able to detect pollutants accumulating in plants and animals. Degraded reefs and lower water quality could emerge in the same time frame, and she urged a long-term monitoring plan that could be supported with state funds, she said.

The wildfire’s impact could also extend beyond Maui, as scientists believe currents are carrying water from Lahaina waters to nearby Lanai and Molokai.

“Fish you collect to eat from a reef on Molokai may very well contain compounds washed into the water by Lahaina rainfall and carried by ocean currents across the channel and to the reefs of neighboring islands,” says Eric Conklin, the fish you collect to eat from a reef on Molokai. Nature Conservancy’s director of marine sciences for Hawaii and Palmyra.

Authorities have tried to limit the harmful runoff. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is working to remove debris and ash. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has applied a soil stabilizer to prevent ash and dust from spreading. Maui County officials installed protective barriers along storm drains and coastal roads to contain debris.

Lindsey, the community advocate, lost his home in the fire. Immediately after the fire, he was more focused on where he would live and the well-being of his family than on the reef. But he also noted that the environment determines his spiritual, mental and physical health.

He recalled how seeing turtles, seals and hundreds of crab tracks on the beach opposite the remains of his home prompted him to take up surfing two months after the fire. Heavy rains in January and uncertainty about drainage have kept him out of the water ever since. But he still believes in nature’s ability to heal.

“When you see commodities coming back like I did, it fills your heart,” Lindsey said. “Wow, we really ruined this place and if we left it alone, nature will restore itself.”

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