HONOLULU (AP) — A Maui tour company is paying the State of Hawaii nearly $400,000 in fines for damaging more than 1,200 coral colonies when one of its boats sank at Molokini, a pristine reef and popular diving spot.
Another tour operator faces penalties for wrecking coral when it illegally dropped an anchor on a Maui reef. And the state plans to sue the Navy over coral ruined when a guided missile cruiser ran aground near Pearl Harbor in February.
The fines began two years ago to punish those who damage a resource critical to Hawaii’s fragile environment and tourism, the state’s No. 1 industry.
“People are going to have to be more careful out here, because if it keeps getting damaged, we’re going to lose it,” said Laura Thielen, chairwoman of the State Board of Land and Natural Resources, which decides how much to fine.
Hawaii is home to 84 percent of all coral under American jurisdiction. Coral reefs provide vital habitats for fish, help protect shoreline areas during storms and support a thriving snorkeling and scuba diving industry.
Experts say coral reefs in the marine national monument, a conservation area, are in good shape. But those near the main Hawaiian island population centers are under pressure from sediment found in runoff, overfishing and invasive algae.
Careless ocean users, who can kill a 500-year-old coral in five minutes, are another danger.
“Each one may be considered fairly small,” said Richard Richmond, a coral expert at the University of Hawaii. “But when you add them together, then the impact gets to be even greater.”
The state imposed its first fine for breaking coral in June 2007, when it ordered a tour operator, Crystal Seahorse, to pay $7,300 for illegally entering a natural reserve and breaking 11 coral specimens there.
Hawaii had the legal authority to impose such fines before, but instead preferred to educate offenders about reefs and have them assist with the cost of restoration. It shifted course after realizing that did not prompt people to take necessary precautions around coral.
Maui Snorkel Charters, which runs tours under the name Maui Dive Shop, was assessed the largest fine so far: $396,000, with part of the money upfront and the rest in installments through 2011.
In 2006, its Kai Anela tour boat headed to Molokini with 15 snorkelers and a captain with little training. No tourists were hurt when the ship sank because of mechanical problems, but the company tripled the original coral damage area by bungling salvage efforts. The state’s staff biologist estimates that the area will take 80 years to recover.
The Navy is another target, for coral wrecked when the U.S.S. Port Royal ran aground. The Navy has spent some $7 million restoring the reef, including dispatching scuba divers to help reattach more than 5,000 broken coral colonies.