GREEN
09/14/2013 04:55 pm ET Updated Sep 19, 2013

Molasses Spill Causing Coral Reef Death

The molasses spill in Honolulu Harbor that has already caused the death of thousands of fish is now confirmed to be the cause of mass coral bleaching and death as well.

Robert Richmond, University of Hawaii marine biology professor and director of Kewalo Marine Laboratory, told reporters that evidence of coral death was present not only within the harbor but also in the waters beyond it.

Richmond told Hawaii News Now, "Inside the harbor is just mass mortality. The corals are dead. The invertebrates are dead … They have little unicellular algae that live inside that basically make them solar powered, so they're losing their major source of energy, but in addition, the coral's just simply dying flat out.”

Coral reefs are a huge tourist attraction, which thereby make them essential to Hawaii’s tourism-based economy. But they also serve crucial environmental and ecological functions. Richmond cited a study that valued Hawaii’s coral reefs at $3 billion worth of “ecosystem services,” thanks to their essential roles in blockading waves and preventing coastal erosion.

The Kewalo Marine Laboratory is still trying to determine how exactly the molasses managed to kill so many fish in the harbor. Richmond hypothesizes that the molasses is drawing water from the interior cells of the fish, thereby destroying the cells. “The cells are kind of like liquid-filled balloons, and if you change the outside chemistry of the surrounding water, it can cause the balloons to either expand and explode, or in this case, to shrink down and collapse,” he explained.

Local residents are still trying to grasp the extent of the damage. Keoni Erickson, a tuna boat captain, told Oahu TV station KITV, “I’ve never seen the tilapia die, because they’re survivors. So if they’re dying, something is wrong.”

Other recent developments in the molasses spill include the deployment of two officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to oversee the cleanup and the closing on Friday of Keehi Lagoon to swimmers due to the possible increased danger of ocean predators and water contamination.

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