Study to be highlighted in webinar: Molokini thrives during the COVID-19 pandemic – Maui Now


Surgeonfish school at Molokini. PC: Alan Friedlander.

With no boats around at one of the most popular snorkeling sites in Hawaiʻi, Molokini thrived during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s what a small team of researchers discovered during a year-long study that started in April of 2020. Their findings will be presented during a free webinar set for 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 28. 

Researchers involved in the study will share their findings which compare Molokini during the pandemic vs. past and present times. This presentation is part of Maui Nui Marine Resource Council’s monthly Know Your Ocean Speaker Series, sponsored by the County of Maui. Registration is free but is required in advance of the webinar. Register here.

Molokini survey. PC: Alan Friedlander.

Molokini Marine Preserve is normally visited by approximately 1,000 tourists every day. During COVID-19 when tourism was switched off and there were no tour boats and no snorkelers at Molokini, researchers had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to understand how human activity affects how wildlife uses the reserve. 

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“Many animals are afraid of humans, but since people visit Molokini every day, we didn’t know how they would use the habitat if we were absent,” said Kevin Weng, Associate Professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. “COVID caused a ‘natural experiment’ that dramatically reduced human presence, allowing us to see wildlife in a more pristine system.”

“Tourism at Molokini provides benefits to the local economy and gives people an appreciation for what a healthy marine ecosystem looks like,” said Alan Friedlander, Chief Scientist for the National Geographic Society’s Pristine Seas program. “What is needed is the right balance of tourism at Molokini so that both people and wildlife benefit from this exceptional place.” 

The study was made possible by more than 55 donors who collectively contributed cash, lodging, airfare, boat use and vehicles for the four researchers working on the project. In all, more than $3,500 was raised through a fundraising effort led by Maui Nui Marine Resource Council, as well as the value of the in-kind contributions. 

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Led by Maui resident Russell Sparks, Aquatic Biologist, Department of Land and Natural Resources, Division of Aquatic Resources on Maui, a small team of scientists with expertise in coral reef ecology and animal movement studies in the Hawaiian Islands studied the ecosystem at Molokini for a little over a full year. The study ran from a period of the COVID-19 pandemic shut down in April 2020, to a period of moderate activity resumption in November 2020 and into a full return of tourism in May of 2021.

The team included Alan Friedlander, Chief Scientist, Pristine Seas, National Geographic Society, and a researcher at the Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology. Friedlander has studied Molokini extensively for nearly two decades and is the co-author of five research publications on Molokini conducted in collaboration with the Maui Division of Aquatic Resources. Other members include Kevin Weng, Associate Professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, Whitney Goodell, National Geographic Fellow and marine ecologist with the Fisheries Ecology Research Lab, University of Hawaiʻi, and Laura Gajdzik, scientist at the Division of Aquatic Resources.

“Maui Nui Marine Resource Council is humbled to have been involved in supporting this unique study,” said Meredith Beeson, Project and Research Coordinator at MNMRC. “We’re excited at the chance to share the eye-opening findings with the public.”

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