Maui marine protection and research center proposed

Nov. 21—The nonprofit associated with the Maui Ocean Center is proposing the construction of a four-story, $12 million building that would house a sea turtle hospital, coral nursery, research laboratories and classrooms on the aquarium's property in Maalaea.

The nonprofit associated with the Maui Ocean Center is proposing the construction of a four-story, $12 million building that would house a sea turtle hospital, coral nursery, research laboratories and classrooms on the aquarium's property in Maalaea.

Members of the Maui County Council, sitting as the Council's Planning and Sustainable Land Use Committee last week, expressed support for the planned marine conservation and research center and referred a zoning change proposal to the Maui County Planning Commission.

The project also must secure a special area management permit and be reviewed by the South Maui Advisory Committee before it can be considered for final approval.

The Maui Ocean Center Marine Institute, incorporated as a nonprofit in 2016 and introduced at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Honolulu, has been doing most of its business out of a pair of shipping containers on the aquarium's Maalaea property.

Since 2020 the marine institute has been the only sea turtle rehabilitation outfit in the state and has rescued 648 turtles under a National Marine Fisheries permit. Sick and injured sea turtles are airlifted to the Maalaea center from all over the state.

The nonprofit is also home to one of only four land-based coral nurseries in the United States and works to restore damaged coral reefs.

In addition, it maintains a repository for rare and endemic corals of Hawaii in partnership with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, and it has developed research partnerships with the University of Hawaii and Stanford University, among others.

More than 500 students from Maui received education about Hawaii's marine environment at the facility in 2021, according to the nonprofit.

Tapani Vuori, general manager of the Maui Ocean Center and board president of the Maui Ocean Center Marine Institute, told Council members that the space provided by the new building would bolster its marine research and education pursuits and broaden its sea turtle rescue rehabilitation operations and its coral reef restoration and conservation efforts.

"Maui will become a hub for marine science research, and we will get connected with universities across the nation and even globally, " Vuori said at a meeting earlier in the month.

All of the funding for the project is expected to come from a few wealthy people who believe in the nonprofit's mission, Vuori said.

Under the proposal, the new facility would include housing space for visiting scientists. The cost of housing for visiting researchers has been identified as an obstacle in the past, he said.

Hannah Bernard, executive director of the Hawaii Wildlife Fund, urged the Council members to greenlight the proposal.

"We need to have a facility like this on Maui, " Bernard said. "The sooner the better. It's a wonderful thing."

Council member Kelly Takaya King first brought the zoning change to the Climate Action, Resilience and Environment Committee, the panel she chairs.

King, who represents South Maui, said the work of the marine institute will not only help lessen the growing impacts of climate change on coral reefs, but help alleviate Maui's dependence on tourism by providing jobs and venues for scientific study.

"The potential of this project is extremely exciting, for our biodiversity and our economic diversity, " she said.