Reef Depletion and The Future of Our Oceans

Q & A with Surfrider Foundation members Leah Kamoiokalani Sausen and Carl Berg

By Jericho Rell

As surfers it’s difficult to imagine our lives without the reef. It is the major component that shapes some of the best waves in the world. Without these rock and coral formations, our ocean ecosystems would perish and waves wouldn’t be the same.

I met up with Leah Kamoiokalani Sausen, born and raised on the North Shore of Kauai. An avid surfer and activist for clean water and an intern at Kauai Surfrider Foundation, Leah offered some insight into the future of our oceans. I also met with her mentor Carl Berg, the chairman of Surfrider Foundation and a research scientist in water testing and ocean study.

The Surfrider Foundation is a non-profit environmental organization dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of the world’s oceans, waves and beaches for all people, through conservation, activism, research and education.

What inspired you to join Surfrider?

Leah: Being born and raised here on the North shore of Kauai, I grew up with great appreciation for the land and the sea. Most of my childhood memories are at the beach. I love the beach and love surfing. I am really lucky to have a dad that shapes me custom boards. It makes surfing even more special, I get to take this board out that my dad put all his mana in and be in nature and ride some amazing waves and have fun. I feel that the ocean is a healing place and I always come out feeling better. It brings joy in my life. So joining Surfrider Foundation was just natural to me. I want to do something to make a difference whether it is fieldwork or educating others on issues.

What is the state of the reef right now?

In 2004, Surfrider Foundation brought in Dr. Greta Aeby from the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology and a group of researchers to look at the diseased coral.

Carl Berg: What’s happened recently is that somebody has come and started diving around and noticing a lot of the reefs are dead. The long-term trend for Hanalei in there is about twenty-five percent live coral cover, which means there is seventy-five percent dead coral. Last summer when those groups came out, they didn’t find any major change in the present live coral cover. Dr. Aeby came and did find some diseased coral.

We have this huge set of data going for sixteen years that shows that the coral reefs here are holding their own and they are actually pretty good and the fish stocks are pretty good too. Now that’s not case everywhere. We do have events with a lot of sediment runoff. From the GMO fields on the Westside where all this mud washed in and smothered the reef. Things like that have happened in Kaneohe Bay as well. So we have major perturbations that have killed off the reefs. What the department of health is doing and has been doing for decades is monitoring the water at the beaches. And they are also monitoring it for public health.

Are we going to get sick if we swim in those waters? 

Carl Berg: The indicator of the health of the water is bacteria that comes from feces, so it’s fecal indicating bacteria that they do the tests for. Then we can say whether the water is contaminated with feces, which would indicate that there is a lot of diseases that would get us sick out there.

They don’t measure on a routine basis for chemicals. They do, and Leah does, measure the trepidity, or how muddy the water is. That is the measure of how much sediment is in the water and that affects the reefs too.

Leah: I was really interested in what the bacteria counts were where I would go surf. I started sampling Hanalei and Wainiha. So when our professor had us go out and get samples, I chose Hanalei River and it was ten times the amount of what it should be. And that day when I took the sample I saw kids playing right there. So that really inspired me to get involved with Surfrider.

What are the major factors affecting the reef of the islands?

Carl Berg: The structure and what they look like, and percentage of live coral cover that is really determined by the amount of wave action… The thirty, forty-footers that come in all the time. So the major driving factor of the coral reef health here is the surf.

The second thing that we are finding is the amount of sediment that is coming off. But my own research and what I think is most perturbing, is the affects of global climate change. As scientists we don’t know how these things are going to interact. Dr. Paul Jokiel at the University of Hawaii has been studying the affect of temperature and ocean acidification and it is killing off the reefs. I have been looking at ocean acidification throughout Hawaii.

So you have global scale perturbations coming down off the reef. Too many nutrients going in the water, too much mud going in the water, too many people walking on the reef, diving, anchoring on the reef, sewage runoff, runoff from agricultural lands, runoff from department of transportation.

How can we preserve the reef?

Carl Berg: This is a hard question because I am a scientist and I am doing work on ocean acidification and climate change. I think there’s no way we can preserve the reefs. The question is whether they are going to be gone in twenty years, thirty, one hundred, two hundred years. We’ve already hit the point where glaciers in Canada are melted. They are never going to come back again.

We have hit this tipping point where if we stopped putting out C02 today it would still be two hundred years before we got back to what we have. But we are not stopping it now. We are on this downhill slope. The only question is how fast are the reefs going to die off. Are they going to die off by diseases or by the hot water temperatures?

So I don’t think we can. But we can in the short term. The big thing is, this is happening in all the worlds’ oceans not just Hawaii. I don’t advocate not doing anything; we should still be taking measures.

How do you think as a surfing community and as individuals we can become involved?

Carl Berg: Speak out on any new developments and what’s happening to your sewage. If you see or smell something suspicious when you are out in the water you should speak out. Help clean up all the plastic, net patrol, don’t litter your cigarettes, and don’t buy bottled water.

What are the main reasons the reef is important?

Carl Berg:

1. It provides surf breaks.

2. Shoreline protection. It protects the shoreline from being totally washed away when the big waves come in.

3. Food source. It provides us food in the islands where we really have to become more self-sufficient. On this island we are remarkably self sufficient, we have a lot of people that are out there fishing.

4. Self-sufficiency. How we as an island become self sufficient, the reefs are going to help us do that. Especially with climate change and huge amounts of droughts we are going to lose all of our grasslands, all our cattle, food crops. We will become more dependent on the ocean, so the reefs are becoming more important to us. We also know if we over-fish, the reefs will be taken over by seaweed and destroy the ecosystem.

Leah: For all of those who share this love or gain from surfing whether you are a pro surfer or a soul surfer, give back, (not saying that they don’t do their part). Maybe start by making small choices like limiting plastic- no bottled water… or educating. Volunteering in net patrol and beach clean ups. I always think of this quote from a childhood friend:

“…Surfing always makes you feel better. No matter what, when I’m in the water, even if I don’t catch a wave and just swim in the ocean, I always come out a better person.” -Andy Irons


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