Catalina Island’s Unique Hydrocoral in Danger: Who Will Protect It?

Organizations hesitate to rescue purple coral despite Ocean Protection Council’s recognition of petition and availability of funds to initiate project.

CATALINA ISLAND — Off of Catalina Island’s Windward Beach coasts near Ben Weston Point, Farnsworth Bank is situated. A popular destination for fishers and divers, there is also a beautiful underwater ecosystem that houses the rare purple hydrocoral, Stylaster californicus, of Catalina. Two spot octopi and giant kelp are also notable species that live in these waters as reported by a marine survey completed in 2012 by the Ocean Protection Council.

While California is usually a haven to support and protect her natural resources, Catalina’s purple coral has been in limbo since the 1970s, waiting to see the day where anchors will not demolish the fragile coral bed.

Coral: A Protected Species

Coral is a mostly protected species in the oceans off the coast of California. A beautiful and valuable species in their native marine ecosystems, home to all kinds of creatures under the sea, coral is also admired by human life to their detriment. California has no true reef-building corals, but instead a type of solitary cup coral, which makes it actually more relatable to a sea anemone or a Portuguese man-of-war. The solitary-cup coral is softer, without a hard structure like a species found in coral reefs, and will sometimes be kept in aquarium tanks.

For some time, the coral was harvested to make jewelry, even though the porous, brittle dried coral does not make very flattering jewelry and coral has seen much destruction from mooring boats, which cast their anchors tearing up pieces of the coral bed.

Catalina Map Farnsworth

In 1972, Catalina declared the purple hydrocoral was a protected species. However, not much has been done since and each year the coral is still decimated. Some say it takes 25 years for 1.5 inches of damaged or broken off portion of this breed of coral to grow back.

Cyndi Dawson, Marine Protected Areas Policy Advisor at Ocean Protection Council, stated issues are still being addressed. “Fishing and diving charters currently visit Farnsworth Bank, located on the back side of Catalina Island, over 200 times per year with each boat’s anchor potentially causing damage to the purple hydrocoral that lives there.”

Dawson continued, “Places where purple hydrocoral grows are highly prized by divers and drive an active dive charter business in this area. Anchor damage to the hydrocoral that breaks off coral heads takes decades to repair and compromises the habitat this coral forms for other species.”

The Petition

About one year ago, Dan Stephens of Ocean Safari Dive Club started a petition to protect this species with the hopes of taking cues from other ocean protection organizations and getting a buoy installed to keep the anchors of diving boats and other vessels from further damaging the coral reef.

Since then, the petition that was launched on change.org by Stephens has gained over 15,000 signatures. But still, there is a barrier to finding a non-profit or other entity to support the next steps.

In Stephens’ petition, he proposed that the answer to the rapid decimation of the coral population in Farmsworth Bank could be relatively simple — at least upon first reading.

“For 35 years Florida National Marine Sanctuary (FNMS) and Hawaii have been using a program that saves hundreds of coral reefs every day,” the petition read. “This program involves putting a permanent mooring buoy over a site so that divers and fishers could visit without repeatedly dropping, setting, and resetting anchors. To date, FNMS has established over 750 of those buoys to protect its marine habitats. The Ocean Safari diving community proposes a similar initiative at Farnsworth Bank.”

Initially, the petition seemed to do its job and funds were granted to support a project, which included putting buoys out near Farnsworth Bank. Stephens contacted Sec. Laird through the Ocean Protection Council website requesting help to install a buoy at Farnsworth Bank. At first, the endeavor was met with a response to save the hydrocoral, but soon more obstacles came.

“Unfortunately we could not locate an entity willing to take this project on despite tireless work and effort by Dan Stephens and the Dive Club,” stated Dawson, the advisor who has been working with Stephens and his partner Gabe Lu to get a mooring buoy out at Farnsworth. “Many NGOs and academic institutions were approached.”

While the idea of placing buoys seems to have worked for marine life in other areas of the United States, there are still issues being addressed namely finding a party who will not only be able to secure a permit from California State Lands Commission, United States Coast Guard, and Army Corp of Engineers, but who will also be able to finance the upkeep and maintenance of the buoy after it has been installed.

Lack of Funding?

After approaching several NGOs and educational institutions, Gabe Lu, a member of Ocean Safari Dive Club, forwarded his take on why there seems to be no funding for Farnsworth Bank. Among some of the most common reasons seemed to be that the entities pursued were afraid to take on the liability of the project, the cost was too high, the responsibility of maintaining the buoys were strenuous, they did not have the resources to take on a project like this one, some may not be suited to do such projects and also some programs do not have this type of project in their jurisdiction.

Staff at The Log can personally attest to the final bullet point. While gathering information and trying to locate the contacts for the project (or locating anyone who had vast knowledge about the hydrocoral in general), it was a difficult task. For one reason or another, the reefs at Farnsworth Bank are overlooked time and time again.

Dawson summarized some of the major issues in finding a party willing to commit to the project, stating, “We secured funds to support this project, but the key issue was finding a grantee that has the capacity to take on the significant permitting that will need to happen to place the buoys.”

Dawson continued, “It will require a permit from U.S. Coast Guard, State Lands, Coastal Commission and Army Corp of Engineers. Another key sticking point was finding an organization that will legally commit to the upkeep and maintenance of the buoy indefinitely or have the funds available for removal if it can no longer be maintained.”

Frustrated, Stephens stated, “Most of these NGO’s and organizations are just offices with pretty pictures on their walls of nature scenes. They collect money, but really they don’t get their hands dirty.”

“Real change comes from the divers, hikers, birdwatchers who are out there in the environment; the people who see what is going on,” Stephens continued. “The NGO’s are too distant from the places they say they are protecting. I know my judgment is harsh, but it is the way I feel and we as environmentalists don’t have the time to be soft — the planet doesn’t have time to wait.”

While these organizations may seem callous and unfeeling to some, there is also the measure of liability, cost, and the maintenance of such a buoy. Especially a buoy in the location of Farnsworth Bank where there will be no fiscal profit to maintain it such as buoys placed in a harbor location. Organizations on Catalina Island were also approached initially, but it appears there was either no interest or nothing came from those contacts.

A Model for the Future?

Dawson said while this project has not had complete success yet, it could provide a basic model for other projects like it that may be beneficial to protecting other ocean life.

“Piloting and clearly documenting the process to install dive boat mooring buoys at Farnsworth will not only provide protection for Farnsworth, but will lay out the process for others to pick up at other locations in California where there is high interest. We remain committed to exploring options as they arise to get this project done,” Dawson stated.

What might be the most disappointing bit of information is that almost any organization with the funds and resources to begin this project has the ability to, but the interest has just not been there so far.

“Anyone can take on the buoy project, not just an NGO,” Dawson stated. “They would just have to have proof of fiscally sound management and success completing projects of similar scope and scale. The bottom line is an organization must take on not just the installation but the upkeep and maintenance.”

One of the biggest questions is why — why hasn’t anyone really taken the initiative to do anything for the hydrocoral in Farnsworth Bank like some other species in California? Surely, there are other creatures that are ignored the way the hydrocoral has been, but for what purpose?

Lu theorizes, “I think that anchoring on our hydrocoral reefs is a bad habit that people have been doing for as long as anyone remembers, even since anyone was concerned about conservation. Because everyone was doing it, no one was really trying to fight against it before we launched our project. Mooring buoys have been implemented on many reefs around the world, but California is one of the slower places to start implementing it — it’s similar to our use of plastic bags. Even though numerous countries started to ban plastic bags, the US has been slow to implement it.”

In the end, we’re left wondering: What are the next steps to ensuring the hydrocoral along with the other creatures in this environment are protected? At this time, no organization has claimed the project and until that is done, the purple hydrocoral will be waiting, hopefully avoiding too much further damage. How much longer will it continue to wait before a resolution is made? And by that time, will it be too late?

For more information about Farnsworth Bank and the project to save the hydrocoral, contact the Ocean Protection Council for California Marine Protected Areas at COPCpublic@resources.ca.gov.

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