There’s a cool new wave breaking from coast to coast in the USA and beyond as sunscreens containing certain coral reef-harming chemicals, like oxybenzone and octinoxate, are being banned.
Hawai`i led the charge last July when Governor David Ige signed legislation that, starting in 2021, will ban the sale of products containing those two chemicals. The Western Pacific nation of Palau became the first country to disallow them last November with a ban that takes effect in 2020. Most recently, Key West, Florida took a stand to protect their reefs with a similar ban, effective 2021. This is encouraging news; not only are there already many great reef-friendly brands available on shelves, but other major sunscreen distributors, who have previously retained control of the industry will be forced to get reef-friendly if they want to continue doing business in these beachy tourist destinations.
One reef-friendly option currently available, All Good, recently hosted an educational “Talk Story” community event on this topic. The evening started with beer and bites from Honolulu Beerworks and ended with a journey through the past, present, and future of coral reefs. The talk was presented by University of Hawai`i at Mānoa Research Professor and Director Robert H. Richmond, Ph.D. Dr. Richmond delightfully introduces himself by saying, “Just call me Bob, the coral reef sexpert.”
While the Doctor hailed recent legislation to reduce the oxybenzone levels damaging global water quality and executing a “death by a thousand paper cuts” of our reefs, he also enlightened the audience to other modern lifestyle, land-based impacts on reef health. Sediments and pesticides are seeping into the ocean from poorly-treated land; air pollution is raising the oceans’ acidity levels; and a slew of chemicals are funneled into the water system via sewers carrying away urine laden with medicines prescribed by those same pharmaceutical companies that lobby against sunscreen bans for their own profit. Their bottom dollar would suffer from the ban of chemicals which they themselves supply!
Scientists have discovered that high levels of estrogen pollution in waters surrounding sewage outpours are sending false signals to the corals whose reproductive process also uses estrogen, thereby disrupting their cycles. This pollution is directly attributed to the increased number of women on birth control pills urinating into the sewer system. Coastal areas and groundwater sources near sewage outpours have been found to be affected by chemicals from painkillers, opioids, and antidepressants.
Dr. Richmond walked the audience through the six stages of coral reproduction, then talked about how our choices as a society have been destroying coral reefs at an unprecedented rate by blocking their reproduction. Scientists noted major coral bleaching events here in Hawai`i in 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017 — four consecutive years recording high incidences of coral death, previously unseen in this region in over one thousand years of recorded history, according to Dr. Richmond. He went on to say that at Oluwalu, a reef system containing some of Maui’s oldest reefs, aged between 200 and 400 years old, swaths of reef have been lost in a matter of just a few weeks.
To battle this growing problem, scientists, citizens, politicians, and companies like All Good are fighting the three biggest land-based polluters affecting coral reefs: sunscreens, pesticides, and gasoline. Fishermen, who had been accidentally overfishing near corals requiring lawn-mowing fish to eat coral-killing bacteria, were recently forced to go beyond the reef and to switch spots regularly in order to allow the return of the fish necessary to maintain the delicate balance of the reef ecosystem.
Dr. Richmond closed his presentation with what he calls his life’s work: a graph of five possible coral reef evolutionary scenarios. The track we humans are currently on leads to total annihilation of the reefs, as do three of the other tracks, in which only minor changes are made, such as if we were to discontinue the fight for more sunscreen bans now that we have enacted several. But then there’s the fifth track, the “optimistic” track, on which we drastically reduce the damaging effects of land- and air-based sources, including making environmentally responsible choices about what we put in and on our bodies. On that path, climate change will have been battled on every possible front and brought under control. On that path, our live coral cover will increase from the current 40 percent to 70 percent.
“Coral reefs are threatened, but they are not doomed,” Dr. Richmond said. “And it’s all up to us.”
How’s that for a call to action?