Oahu Coral Group Gears Up To Help Maui’s Battered Reefs

Started by fishermen and firefighters, Kuleana Coral Restoration prioritizes workforce development to aid coral reefs stressed by warming oceans, urban runoff and more.

A community-driven effort to restore coral reefs is getting underway on Maui.

It’s the brainchild of Alika Garcia, a firefighter and emergency medical technician with the Honolulu Fire Department, in partnership with Maui Nui Marine Resources Council and his own organization, Kuleana Coral Restoration.

“I’m not a scientist,” Garcia said. “I’m just a local boy.”

But Garcia’s efforts are paying off. With funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and others, the nonprofit he co-founded is training local workers to restore degraded coral reefs, enhance fish habitat and build coastal resilience.

Alika Garcia heads up a program titled Kuleana Coral that uses NOAA federal available monies to resolve issues related to coral destruction around the islands. At this time most of the work involves the western side and southern shore lines of Oahu.Photographed July 2nd, 2024 (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2024)
Alika Garcia co-founded Kuleana Coral Restoration, a nonprofit that focuses on local workforce development to attract Native Hawaiians, people of color and underserved populations to the marine sciences, particularly coral restoration. The group started in West Oahu in 2019 and has since expanded around the island. Now it’s scoping out projects on Maui.
(David Croxford/Civil Beat/2024)

An avid, lifelong fisherman, Garcia started noticing a few years ago how native fish weren’t as abundant as when he was growing up. He and friend Kapono Kaluhiokalani, a fellow firefighter and fisherman, decided to do something about it.

They watched YouTube videos about how to start a nonprofit and put an ad on Craigslist that read: “Fisher Looking For Scientist.” What resulted was Kuleana Coral Restoration in 2019, a growing nonprofit based in West Oahu.

Through the Craigslist ad, they met Daniel DeMartini, a marine biochemist who is now the organization’s science director.

Since its inception, Kuleana Coral has outplanted more than 2,500 coral fragments on Oahu. After setting up seven project sites on the state’s most populous island, the organization is developing community-based coral restoration areas on Maui and elsewhere in Hawaii.

With Maui Nui Marine Resource Council, Kuleana Coral is planning to restore reefs in Kihei, a South Maui community that experiences heavy sedimentation and urban runoff during storms. It may eventually work in waters off Lahaina, if the West Maui community agrees it’s a priority.

Divers with Kuleana Coral Restoration scope out a damaged coral reef that will receive some restoration help from the West Oahu-based nonprofit. (Courtesy: Baylee Jackson/Kuleana Coral Restoration)

The group’s strategy is to collaborate with land-based partners that help watersheds heal from mauka to makai, or ridge to shoreline.

The watershed work includes revegetating dryland forests that have been overgrazed by cattle or trampled by feral pigs and goats. It also involves eradicating invasive species, erecting fencing to keep out animals that eat native seedlings, installing sediment traps and enhancing wetlands as natural filtration systems.

“We’re working hand-in-hand with the wetlands restoration people,” Garcia said.

The idea is to support a revival of the Native Hawaiian ahupuaa system of land management, where water and nutrients were interconnected and collectively managed from summit to sea.

Breaking Barriers

As a fisherman, Garcia said he’s motivated to support the marine ecosystem he fishes from, not just extract from it. He also wants to attract local residents to enter the marine sciences, where Native Hawaiians and people of color are underrepresented.

Kuleana Coral recruits people who rely on the ocean but perhaps don’t have the time or resources to get certified in diving or marine ecology.

Baylee Jackson is one of those people. Last summer, the West Oahu resident graduated from Kuleana Coral’s COAST program, or Coral Occupational Applications and Scientific Techniques, sponsored by NOAA. Now he’s working part-time as a coral restoration technician and an underwater photographer for Kuleana Coral.

“I was raised on this side of the island and really didn’t ever foresee myself getting a job on this side of the island … and certainly not in the field of marine biology,” said Jackson, who graduated from the University of Hawaii with a bachelor’s degree in that major.

Alika Garcia heads up a program titled Kuleana Coral that uses NOAA federal available monies to resolve issues related to coral destruction around the islands. At this time most of the work involves the western side and southern shore lines of Oahu.Photographed July 2nd, 2024 (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2024)
Instructor Kyleigh Kuball teaches a class on the science and monitoring of coral reefs as part of the contextual application of Kuleana Coral Restoration’s work earlier this week on Oahu. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2024)

Kuleana Coral’s annual report describes the eight-week COAST program as a “community dive initiative aimed at breaking barriers for West Oahu residents to enter marine science and restoration fields.” It pays students a $2,000 stipend and covers costs associated with dive gear, books and certifications.

Despite having deep cultural connections to the ocean, as well as using it for food and commercial fishing, many Native Hawaiians and others struggling to survive in high-cost Hawaii feel they can’t afford to enter the marine sciences. They aren’t able to swing unpaid internships or pay for expensive certifications. Some regard scuba as something done for leisure and not a job.

Garcia studied scientific diving at the University of Hawaii but did not get certified until more than a decade later. He had bills to pay and mouths to feed so he found a stable job as a firefighter and EMT out of college.

Last summer, COAST graduated its first cohort of eight and hired two for staff positions. The students received extensive diving training and took courses in coral ecology, underwater mapping and photography, site reconnaissance and data collection, among other topics. This summer, another cohort is going through the program, located at Ko Olina Resort, and Kuleana Coral expects to grow its team from some of the graduates.

Branching Out

Over the past year, Kuleana Coral has been branching out to Maui.

Jill Wirt, program manager for coral restoration with Maui Nui Marine Resource Council, has been scouting out locations for community-based coral projects her organization plans to do with Kuleana Coral.

Jill Wirt, left, transported pyramid fragment modules to an outplanting site. Wirt emphasizes that no one should touch any live coral without obtaining a permit. (Courtesy: Jill Wirt)

“There’s some patchy reef areas that have really great healthy reef cover, and then there are some patchy spots where restoration could potentially happen,” Wirt said. “It just kind of depends on the permitting.”

The Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources is the state agency that handles coral restoration permits.

Maui Nui Marine Resources Council received $26,000 from Maui County for building capacity for conducting coral restoration on the island and also received additional funding for workforce development from Good Jobs Hawaii, a partnership of the University of Hawaii Community Colleges with employers and organizations.

Wirt’s organization chose to work with Kuleana Coral because they both prioritize community engagement, building local capacity and citizen science — and because there are a number of land-based watershed restoration efforts in South Maui that complement the ocean work.

“If that stuff wasn’t happening, we probably wouldn’t be looking in that area for coral restoration,” Wirt said.

After the organizations get the required permits, outreach events and recruitment of volunteers will ensue.

Members of the COAST cohort prepare for a shore dive as part of their training. (Courtesy: Baylee Jackson/Kuleana Coral Restoration)

Kuleana Coral is also beginning to partner with Maui Ocean Center Marine Institute which operates a coral nursery and is conducting research to study the genetics of coral. It’s providing dive and boat support for collections and outplanting in Olowalu. The goal is to understand why certain coral colonies thrive despite adverse conditions including heavy sediment or warmer ocean temperatures.

The institute is working with Restore with Resilience, a hui of scientists and ocean advocates who are using selective propagation of thermally resilient corals to enhance reef health, a method pioneered by Coral Resilience Lab on Oahu.

“The idea is to increase the presence of these genetically predisposed colonies to thermal tolerance in the wild, because the more of them that are present, the more of them that will be resilient,” said Dustin Paradis, conservation programs manager with MOC Marine Institute.

Kuleana Coral’s focus is less research-based and more hands-on, getting ordinary people out into the water and uplands to do the mauka-to-makai work that will help save Hawaii’s coral reefs from further decline. But laboratory research combined with boots-on-the-ground and fins-in-the-water tasks are complementary and needed, Garcia said.

Paradis agrees.

“There’s more work than we can handle,” he said. “We need all the help we can get, not just us, but the reefs need the help, you know? So, more hands on deck is a better thing.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

Civil Beat’s coverage of environmental issues on Maui is supported by grants from the Center for Disaster Philanthropy and the Hawaii Wildfires Recovery Fund, the Knight Foundation and the Doris Duke Foundation.