10 Things You Can Do to Help Save Hawaii’s Coral Reefs

Did you know that Hawaii is home to 80% of the coral reefs within the United States? It’s true! And those coral reefs provide the world—that’s right, the WORLD—with oxygen, clean water, medicine, and fresh fish in addition to beautiful snorkeling spots. Therefore, it’s very important that we all do our part to come together and help preserve Hawaii’s coral reefs.

Why should I care?” Because coral reefs are vital to everyone, not just to the marine life who inhabit them or to the people who live in Hawaii. Continue reading to learn more about why you should care and how you can help, no matter where you are.

Save Hawaii’s Coral Reefs

Our coral reefs are dying. But there is hope! Coral reefs can begin to heal themselves if we make simple changes in our daily lives to allow them to do just that. We’ve outlined some important things that you can do to help.


Understand the Bigger Picture About Coral Reefs

Understand that coral reefs, which act as natural barriers to coastlines, are the basis for an entire community of plants and animals in their environment. In other words, they are ecosystems! Once a coral reef dies, the ecosystem that is built upon it will collapse as the creatures that inhabit it die out or leave.

In addition to supporting rich, diverse ecosystems that are home to about a fourth of all identified marine life and act as a protective barrier to coastlines, coral reefs are invaluable from a medical standpoint. Known as the medicine chests of the sea, coral reefs are home to many marine creatures that produce compounds used for human applications, including the treatment of leukemia.

Did you know that marine plants like algae are responsible for creating roughly 70-80% of the oxygen in our atmosphere?

To sum it up, coral reefs are invaluable. They support numerous industries ranging from medicine to tourism and provide us with most of the air we breathe, no matter where we are! We have an obligation to make sure that the beauty and resources that coral reefs provide are available for future generations.

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Be Mindful of Sunscreen

As written about in the National Geographic, Huffington Post, and Washington Post, among other notable publications, common ingredients in sunscreen, like oxybenzone, cause damage to coral reefs. As reported by the Washington Post, “measurements of oxybenzone in seawater within coral reefs in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands found concentrations ranging from 800 parts per trillion to 1.4 parts per million.”

According to the article, that concentration is 12 times higher than what is needed to harm coral!

Of course, skincare is important, especially with the knowledge we have regarding skin cancer. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and that saying is applicable to both protecting your skin and Hawaii’s reefs. When choosing your sunscreen, it’s important to make sure that it is “reef safe.” You can do this by checking the active ingredients list for titanium dioxide and zinc oxide as the active ingredients. One of our favorite reef safe sunscreens is Hawaiian Sol, which is not only organic but also made locally.

Additionally, by wearing long-sleeved clothing or clothing that covers more of your skin, you lessen the amount of sunscreen that you need to use. There is also clothing that offers UV protection that ranges between 45+ and 100+ SPF. Retailers like Target and Costco often have these items for sale during the summer.

As awareness about harmful chemicals in sunscreen spreads, there have been multiple bills introduced to help solve the issue at hand. Nathan Eagle of CivilBeat.org wrote an informative article titled, “Efforts Underway To Rid Hawaii of Coral-Damaging Sunscreen,” which touches upon two of them: SB210 and SB260.

If you want to help but don’t know how, we recommend contacting local Representatives* and members of the Senate** to let them know how important it is to make sure that Hawaii’s coral remains healthy for future generations, not just for aesthetics but because coral and marine creatures make important contributions to science and help keep us alive! We have listed the active bills pertaining to sunscreen and products containing oxybenzone below:

  • HB600 Bans the sale, offer for sale, or distribution for sale of sunscreen or personal care products containing oxybenzone. Effective July 1, 2018, HB818 Requires advertisements or displays for sunscreens containing oxybenzone in the state to include a conspicuously displayed statement that the use of oxybenzone in nearshore waters poses serious hazards to coral and reef health.
  • HB819 Prohibits the sale, offering for sale, or distribution of any sunscreen containing oxybenzone in the State unless the sunscreen label contains a warning that the use of oxybenzone in nearshore waters poses serious hazards to coral and reef health.
  • SB210 Prohibits the use or application of sunscreen or sunblock containing oxybenzone or cosmetics with sunscreen containing oxybenzone while on a beach.
  • SB260 Bans knowingly selling in the state personal care products containing oxybenzone or octinoxate, except for medically-licensed prescriptions. Takes effect on 10/1/2017.

Referring down to Entry #6: Encourage Politicians to Act, we also encourage you to support petitions, like this one, which ask to ban the sale of coral-damaging sunscreen in Hawaii. Every action you take makes a difference, whether it is donating your time or money to organizations, signing petitions, or contacting members of the government. As the saying goes, “even a ripple might become a wave,” and we can use that momentum for the greater good.

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Save the Parrotfish

Why parrotfish? Known in the scientific community as the lawn mowers of the reefs, parrotfish spend up to 90% of their day eating the algae that grows on and smothers coral. They also help by replenishing sand and keeping beaches, well… sandy. Studies show that a large individual parrotfish in Hawaii can poop out over 1 ton of sand annually!

Fisherman can save parrotfish by being pono (moral) fishers and, as an extension of that, follow laws that are in place to prevent overfishing. Too often, overzealous spearfishers go after parrotfish because they are easy to catch at night while they are asleep.

The rest of us can do our part by not harassing marine life while diving, snorkeling, or swimming, and by making an effort to find out whether the fish we buy for meals was responsibly sourced. Simply by asking restaurants and grocery stores whether they offer sustainable seafood, we can create a demand for seafood that was farmed or caught responsibly. If you are interested in learning more about which seafood you can enjoy guilt-free, we recommend checking out the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch.

Listen to parrotfish scrape

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Support Sustainable Businesses

Reef safe and certified eco-tour companies, resorts, and hotels make choices that are best for the environment, from providing reef safe sunscreen to participating in the statewide reef stewardship project. By supporting reef safe businesses, you are promoting sustainable tourism and encouraging other businesses to adopt an environmentally friendly model.

Hopefully, one day, there will be no need for the distinction between an environmentally friendly business and one that is not, as being environmentally friendly becomes the standard.

To find environmentally friendly and reef safe businesses check out these resources:

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Encourage Politicians to Act

Whether you support regulations for clean water, have reservations about construction as it affects the environment, or have concerns about fishing at national, state, or local levels, it is important to make an effort to have your voice heard. It is up to you whether that means calling or sending a well-written letter to your local politician’s office or signing a petition.

With the advent of social media it has become increasingly easy to keep our fingers on the pulse of what is going on in the world and, in becoming more connected, we are able to do more to help.

Currently, there is an online petition on Change.org started by Marine Scientist, Dr. Mark Deakos, who is a part of the Maui Nui Marine Resource Council and the Executive Director of Hawaii Association for Marine Education and Research, to put a moratorium on seawalls being built along the Olowalu coastline in order to prevent the destruction of beaches, coral reefs, and coastal habitats for vulnerable marine species.

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Protect Our Watersheds

To say that watersheds are important would be an understatement. Why are watersheds important? To put it simply, they are required to support life for plants, animals, and humans. Watersheds provide drinking water, protect oceans, mitigate flooding, and support the economy–and those are just several of the amazing purposes that watersheds serve.

There are two watersheds on Maui: the West Maui Mountains Watershed and the East Maui Mountains Watershed. The West Maui Mountains Watershed offers both volunteer opportunities and accepts donations and the East Maui Watershed has different options for donations that assist them with costs related to upkeep. In terms of value, watersheds are priceless, so the time and money spent on their upkeep are more than well worth it.

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Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

By living sustainably you can reduce your carbon footprint and help reverse the effects of global warming. Small, everyday choices like recycling or using reusable bags instead of plastic ones might not seem like much, but changes to your daily life can have a huge impact on the environment.

“Think of the true cost of everything you buy, the cost to the environment. How was it made, how far away did it come from? Buy local foods that aren’t associated with the carbon travel costs. Eat lower on the food chain. It takes 10X more energy each time you go up the chain.”

Ku’ulei Rodgers,

Coral Reef Ecologist, Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology

In addition to following “the three R’s,” (reducing, reusing and recycling) you can also help the environment by composting biodegradable waste in your garden, purchasing sustainable seafood, avoiding purchasing items that are made from coral or other marine life, conserving water, and becoming an advocate for reef conservation!

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Keep the Beach Clean of Debris

According to NOAA’s Marine Debris Program, plastic litter and other debris that make their way into the ocean can have devastating effects on coral reefs. Not only do these plastics damage the reefs by falling on them and getting stuck inside the coral, they can also carry invasive species that can travel hundreds of miles and harm local ecosystems.

By keeping plastic debris and other litter—bottles, drinking straws, diapers, carry-out food containers, cans, fishing line, etc.—off the beaches and out of the ocean, you can do your part and help save Hawaii’s coral reefs!

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We must act now to reverse the effects of damaged and dying coral. If we all do our part, we can save our reefs!

Local Guide

We are local Maui guide experts and Hawaii enthusiasts who love to share the Aloha spirit and our favorite things to do on Maui.