Hawaii Marine Life Conservation Districts

Jul 14, 2020 | General Information

More than just helping visitors to enjoy Hawaii’s attractions on land, on water and under water, and in the air, Tom Barefoot’s Tours is committed to preserving and protecting nature’s bounty in the state. In particular we support the mission of Marine Life Conservation Districts (MLCDs) to rebuild fish stocks and maintain healthy fish, coral reefs and other marine life for future generations of visitors and locals to enjoy.

Most visitors to Hawaii come to engage in some form of water activities or at least to experience the beauty of shoreline or underwater scenes. In this connection, as discussed in our articles on Hawaii’s Coral Reefs, it is important for both visitors and locals to be aware of the fact that reefs cause waves to break and sustain the fragile ecosystems of the ocean and its marine life.

Marine fishes that inhabit nearshore waters of the Hawaiian Islands truly are treasures to be protected. Over 400 species of inshore and reef fishes include a remarkable diversity of species. For example over fifty species of brightly colored wrasses are found among the reefs and nearly thirty species of angelfishes and butterflyfishes. Different coastal habitats each have their own kinds of marine life. Coral reef is the best known providing fish with food resources and protection from predators. It is for this reason that reefs attract a great deal of marine life.

Coral creatures create much of these reefs. When polluted, reef habitats become degraded and lose their ability to support diversity of marine life. Thus protecting reef and other nearshore ecosystems is necessary.MLCDs in Hawaii were created to conserve, protect and replenish marine resources.

Introduced to Hawai’i in 1967 with Hanauma Bay on Oahu, MLCDs are established by the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) and carefully managed by the DLNR’s Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR). The selection and approval process are systematic and complex but the goal and end-result for MLCDs are an undisturbed natural state. Living and non-living materials cannot be consumed or removed but the good news is that swimming, snorkeling and diving are permitted.

In our article on Tropical Fish/5640″>Hawaii’s Tropical Fish, we celebrate the remarkable diversity among Hawaii’s hundreds of species of fish and offer just a few examples to inspire additional interest. Each one of these species and the 400-plus species of Hawaii’s fishes has its own unique role in the nearshore environment and seeks out a different habitat. Some fish are at home in sandy bottom areas, others in boulder-strewn waters off rocky shorelines. Tidepools provide “nursery” areas for young fish of many species.

A healthy reef provides fish with abundant food resources and protection from predators. Individual coral animals which create much of a reef are sensitive to changes in water quality as are the microorganisms which form the base of the food chain. A reef habitat that becomes degraded as a result of pollution or siltation will lose its ability to support a diversity of marine life.

For all of these reasons, protecting reefs and other nearshore ecosystems is necessary and challenging. Hence the creation of MLCDs by the State of Hawaii to conserve and replenish marine resources. MLCDs allow only limited fishing and other consumptive uses or prohibit such uses entirely. They provide fish and other aquatic life with a protected area in which to grow and reproduceand have become home to a great variety of species. MLCDs are among our most popular sites for snorkeling, diving and underwater photography.

MLCDs were introduced to Hawai‘i in1967 with Hanauma Bay on Oahu. At the present time there are eleven MLCDs statewide. MLCDs are established by the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR).The DLNR’s Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR) regularly conducts surveys of marine ecosystems throughout the state. As a result other areas in Hawaii may be recommended for MLCD status.

Hawaii’s Protected Marine Reserves
Oahu has three MLCDs: Hanauma Bay, Pupukea, and Waikiki. The Big Island has five MLCDs: Kealakakua Bay, Lapakahi, Old Kona Airport, Waialea Bay, and Waiopae Tidepools. Maui County has three MLCDs: Honolua-Mokuleia, Manele-Hulopoe, and Molokini Shoal.

Warm waters surrounding Maui are home to protected marine reserves like Molokini and Honolua Bay with clear crystal waters and beautiful coral formations teeming with tropical fish. Molokini is the best known and most popular for snorkeling of the MLCDs in Hawaii. Both Molokini and Honolua exemplify the reasons why MLCDs are so valuable and important for Hawaii’s ecosystem and tourism.

Only a tiny island about 3 miles off the southwest coast of Maui,Molokini is an ancient volcano that rises out of the sea in the Alalakeiki Channel between the islands of Maui and Kahoolawe. The northern rim has eroded away allowing the sea to flood the crater, forming its unique crescent shape. The island is a state bird sanctuary and the inside of the crater is an MLCD. Water visibility on a typical day exceeds 100 feet and it’s not unheard of to have visibility exceed 200 feet.

The old volcano walls protect the inner crater from ocean swells making it a safe spot to snorkel with the whole family. Shallow water next to the shoreline allows sunlight to reach the bottom, growing lots of coral for fish to make their homes. The outside southern rim of the crater is famous for being one of the best wall dives anywhere on the planet. The back wall is an underwater 350-foot vertical drop.

Molokini has an encyclopedia of marine life, much more than briefly described in our article on Hawaii Tropical Fish. Here is just some of the marine life you can expect to see in Molokini’s MLCD: butterfly fish, parrot fish, damsel fish, surgeon fish, moorish idol, tang, wrasse, squirrel fish, soldier fish, perch, chub, trigger fish, the Humuhumunukunukuapuaa, goat fish, snapper, hawk fish, jacks, emperor fish, big eye scad, cornet fish, and needle fish. You also are likely to see eels, crustaceans, invertebrates, and reef sharks and sometimes even whale sharks, manta rays, and Hawaiian monk seals.

Honolua means “twin bays” in Hawaiian and refers to the neighboring bays of Honolua and Mokuleia.Honolua Bay is part of the 45-acre Honolua-Mokuleia Marine Conservation District located roughly 10 miles north of Lahaina.The Bay and surrounding area has a rich history that goes back to the reign of Pi’ilani who ordered that a footpath be built to connect the six bays of West Maui in his domain. This path was known as Honoapi’ilani, meaning “the bays of Pi’ilani”.

In modern times, Honolua Ranch, that became Honolua Plantation, grew taro, coffee, mango and aloe, raised cattle, merged with a pineapple company and formed the Maui Land and Pineapple Company that dedicated several thousand acres of land to conservation before Honolua Bay was declared a MLCD in 1978.

It should be noted that locals protesting the threat of development in Honolua Bay led to the state’s purchase of what become an MLCD. Honolua Bay also is an historically rich spot. In 1976 the voyaging canoe, Hokulea, was launched on its historic sail to French Polynesia that helped to boost interest in ancient Hawaiian culture.

The coral in Honolua Bay is home to many of the reef fish described in Hawaii’s Tropical Fish and many others as well:butterfly fish, parrot fish, damsel fish, surgeon fish, moorish idol, tang, wrasse, box fish, flag tails, cardinal fish, squirrel fish, soldier fish, big eyes, chub, trigger fish, Humuhumunukunukuapuaa, goat fish, snapper, peacock bass, hawk fish, jacks, mullet, and even large schools of big eye scad.


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