An alien seaweed introduced here 31 years ago has spread rapidly throughout Hawaii and has even reached the remote, unspoiled Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, which has scientists worried.
HONOLULU An alien seaweed introduced here 31 years ago has spread rapidly throughout Hawaii and has even reached the remote, unspoiled Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, which has scientists worried.
Researchers on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's research ship Hiialakai were scheduled to leave Friday in the first major effort to gauge the spread of Hypnea musciformis. The study is part of a mission of the 10-day cruise through the protected waters to educate science teachers about the marine environment.
"If there is a lot, then we're going to have to do something drastic like mount a campaign to go up there and haul it out of the ocean," said Isabella Abbott, an award-winning botanist at the University of Hawaii and the state's top seaweed expert.
The seaweed, also known as hookweed and commonly found in the Caribbean, was introduced to Hawaii in 1974 from Florida for aquaculture purposes. But after a failed attempt to cultivate it for a commercially valuable ingredient, the algae was abandoned in Kaneohe Bay.
It has since spread to every major Hawaiian island except Kahoolawe and the Big Island, plaguing beaches, choking reefs and overtaking native algae. It is not known why those two islands have been untouched.
On Maui, the nonnative, invasive algae has piled up on beaches, such as Kihei. Residents there have used various seaweed-removal techniques, including using a modified potato-digging machine to pick up the unwanted beach cover which, left alone, rots into a foul-smelling slime.
Abbott first noticed traces of the algae in 2000 on the lobster cages used by researchers near Mokumanamana, also known as Necker Island, located about 350 miles off Kauai. In the following years, a few more sprigs would be present.
"This year, you could weigh them," she said.
So Abbott advised other scientists that it was worth examining further.
"This will be the first chance to actually have divers looking at it instead of just seeing what gets tangled in lobster traps," said biologist Randy Kosaki, research coordinator for the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve. "Our hope is that it's just confined to Necker Island."
The 10 mostly uninhabited islets and atolls in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands extend 1,200 miles northwest of the main Hawaiian Islands. The islands are home to more than 70 percent of the nation's coral reefs and to endangered Hawaiian monk seals and other sea life.
"There's very few invasive or alien species there," Kosaki said. "That's why this is especially disturbing. Finding an invasive algae anywhere is not good news, but especially somewhere we like to characterize as being free from these things."
Scientists say if nothing is done now, it will be extremely difficult to contain or eradicate the seaweed.
Abbott is doing her part to rid the seaweed, which has no known natural predators. She has even given out Hypnea recipes in hopes people will start consuming it.
"I haven't found anything that is going to sweep the world like Krispy Kremes," she said. "If I could do that, we could get rid of this alga very quickly."
Source: Associated Press