FES grad helps protect Hawaii’s marine ecosystem

Carlie Wiener at work

Above: York alumna Carlie Wiener (right) snorkels in Hawaii where she did research for her master’s degree

As much as she loves York and Canada, ocean-loving alumna Carlie Wiener (BA ‘05, MES ’07) just had to escape the cold of winter and head for surfer’s paradise in Hawaii. But Wiener’s no idle surfer girl – she parlayed the change of scene into a project for her master’s degree program in York’s Carlie WienerFaculty of Environmental Studies and, after fast-tracking her graduation, headed back to Honolulu to work for the State of Hawaii’s Division of Aquatic Resources.

Right: Carlie Wiener leads an educational tour of Hawaii’s waters

Wiener, who also holds a BA in communication studies from York’s Faculty of Arts, leaves this week for a month-long trip to Hawaii’s Northwestern Islands to assist four teams of researchers studying marine life and archaeology in the last large-scale coral reef wilderness remaining on the planet. When she’s finished, she will take up new duties as an outreach coordinator with the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology on a contract that will keep her in the sunny South Pacific for another two years.

“This place is so special, one of the last apex-predator-dominated ecosystems in the world,” Wiener said, referring to the many shark, bluefin tuna and other species that teem in the waters around the coral reefs that are larger than Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

HiialakaiOn her voyage to the islands aboard the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) research vessel Hiialakai (right), Wiener will be stopping at the historic Midway Atoll, locus of the famous Second World War naval battle, and a number of other tiny islands, all of which requires special permission available only to researchers and scientists. Her duties include assisting divers and keeping a daily journal and blog with text and pictures that she will take during the expedition. It’s all part of the educational outreach work she has been performing since she began working as an intern with the State of Hawaii.

In 2006, Wiener won a grant from the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada to study the effects of marine tourism on the coastal ecology. While compiling information for her project in Hawaii, Wiener “fell in love with the place” and became involved in local efforts to educate the public about seemingly harmless activities such as feeding fish, stroking seals and turtles, and tramping through coral reefs – all behaviours that have a detrimental impact on the complex and highly balanced marine ecosystems.

For example, some stores in the tourist areas of Hawaii sell fish food to tourists, who happily serve it up to the local fish population. While this may be okay in a petting zoo, feeding fish in the wild makes them aggressive towards humans and spoils their taste for marine algae. In areas where the practice continues, fish are now habituated to it and swarm people as soon as they enter the water, ignoring their regular diet of algae and seaweed and creating an imbalance which is threatening the coral reef. The fish are also literally biting tourists, leaving large red marks on swimmers’ extremities.

To help combat the problem, which is still legal in some heavily travelled areas, Wiener helped start a public anti-fish feeding campaign and persuaded several local retailers to stop selling fish food to tourists and help educate them about the problem.

Human interaction with marine life also threatens the already endangered Hawaiian monk seal (right), a particularly cute animal that is disturbed by tourists rubbing them to the point where they abandon their pups and breeding grounds, threatening the remaining population of about 1,200 animals. In fact, it is illegal to touch many of the species in Hawaii’s coastal waters; however tourists continue to do it, due to a lack of public education.

These problems occur mainly in the heavily populated areas of the main Hawaiian Islands where controlling human behaviour is problematic. In the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where Wiener will spend the next month, the marine life is strictly protected in what was declared a national monument and previously a sanctuary by President George W. Bush in 2006. Wiener is particularly proud of her involvement in helping prepare the application to have the area listed on the US tentative list for eventual declaration as a World Heritage Site, which is pending.

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are in what is now called the Papahânaumokuâkea Marine National Monument and comprise the world’s largest marine conservation area – 105,564 square Papahânaumokuâkea Marine National Monument coral reefnautical miles of ocean, coral reefs and atolls that extend west from the main islands for 2,000 kilometres.

Right: Coral reef in Papahânaumokuâkea Marine National Monument (photo: James Watt)

Although she would someday like to complete a PhD, for now Wiener plans to support her surfing habit by working to preserve this still largely unspoiled marine ecosystem by telling the story to tourists and the schoolchildren of Hawaii.

By David Fuller, York communications officer