Sunscreen Initiative Leads to Reduction of Oxybenzone in Kahaluʻu Bay

The results are in: oxybenzone levels have dropped dramatically at Hawai‘i Island’s Kahalu‘u Bay. 

Thanks to tens of thousands of visitors who responded positively to The Kohala Center’s ongoing “Reef-Friendly Sun Protection” campaign, oxybenzone levels have dropped 93 percent or more at water sampling sites in the bay between the start of the campaign in April 2018 and November 2019. 

Kahaluʻu Bay

Cindi Punihaole, director of The Kohala Center’s Kahalu‘u Bay Education Center, attributes this to the dedication and aloha with which program staff and community stewards, known as ReefTeachers, approach bay visitors to educate them about ways to protect the bay’s delicate ecosystem, including wearing protective clothing and using mineral-based sunscreens. 

“What these results show is that community stewardship works,” Punihaole said. “We are able to have meaningful conversations with hundreds of visitors every day to let them know about the damaging effects chemical sunscreens and physical contact with corals can have on our vulnerable reefs. We approach our guests as Aloha Ambassadors, asking for their help to care for Kahaluʻu’s marine ecosystem. A significant majority of our guests are unaware and want to do the right thing, they just need to be shown how.”

With County of Hawai‘i beach parks reopening this week, Kahalu‘u Bay’s fragile ecosystem becomes vulnerable once again to damage resulting from swimmers and snorkelers stepping and standing on coral reefs, as well as diminished water quality due to sunscreen chemicals and other pollutants. While Kahalu‘u Bay Education Center’s retail operations will remain closed indefinitely, program staff will be present on a daily basis beginning next week to provide on-site education about proper reef etiquette and the benefits of reef-friendly sun protection. 

“We are putting out a plea to visitors to the bay to please extend social distancing practices to our corals and marine life, too,” said Kathleen Clark, marine stewardship and education specialist at The Kohala Center. “We urge swimmers and snorkelers to always use reef-friendly sun protection, and to keep a safe distance from marine life, corals, and even rocks that provide juvenile coral and limu (seaweed) a place to grow. If you must stand, please stand on sand. We all have a role to play in helping Kahalu‘u Bay heal and caring for all of Hawai‘i’s marine ecosystems so that they will continue to care for us.” 

Oxybenzone levels declined from 93 to 100 percent at four of the five water sample collection sites. The northernmost sample site saw an increased presence of the chemical, which Punihaole attributed to visitors who do not access the bay from Kahalu‘u Beach Park and thus do not receive on-site education through the campaign. 

Laboratory tests confirm that oxybenzone, an active ingredient found in many common sunscreens, is contributing to coral decline. Oxybenzone and other chemicals affect coral growth and reproduction, and also harm fish and other marine life. While the effects of these chemicals on human health are not yet clear, studies have shown that these chemicals are absorbed through the skin into the body, prompting the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last year to request safety data on 12 sunscreen active ingredients.

 Currently, the FDA designates only two active ingredients as “generally recognized as safe and effective”: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which are naturally occurring compounds used in the mineral-based sunscreens the campaign recommends.

Punihaole noted that West Hawai‘i accommodations, businesses, and the local Chamber of Commerce have also been supportive of the campaign and have helped to magnify its message, with several hotels and tour operators distributing educational materials and retailers featuring reef-friendly sunscreen products prominently in their stores. Mineral-based sunscreen manufacturers have also provided the campaign with thousands of product samples to distribute to visitors to the bay. 

“Our guests have appreciated the assertive measures we are taking to try to save the health of our island’s coral reefs and marine life,” said Mendy Dant, executive vice president of Fair Wind Cruises and Kona Sunrise Charters. “They are often not familiar with what exactly reef-safe sunscreen is, but once they hear about the reasons to use it, they are all for it and want to support the best environmental behaviors. Wearing UV protective clothing and swimwear has also been very popular with our guests.” 

The campaign emphasizes that the most reef-friendly approach people can take to protect themselves from the sun is also the best for their own health: covering up. Clothing such as sunwear shirts and rash guards, hats, wraps, and board shorts reduce exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays while also keeping chemicals out of marine ecosystems.

Small amounts of mineral-based sunscreens with non-nano zinc oxide or titanium dioxide listed as active ingredients are the next best option. Sunscreens containing oxybenzone, avobenzone, octinoxate, octocrylene, and a host of other chemicals should be avoided.

Starting on January 1, 2021, Hawai‘i state law will prohibit the sale or distribution of sunscreens containing oxybenzone or octinoxate. Scott Head, vice president of resort operations at Waikoloa Land Company, described how the campaign has aided them in providing education to their guests. 

“We take our responsibility as stewards of this land seriously, which includes the critical reefs that surround the island,” Head said. “We share this responsibility with the many visitors who love spending time here and prize our unique ecosystem. The Kohala Center has been a great partner in this, helping us raise awareness and shape behavior with beach signs that make a true difference in how our beaches are cared for by those who frequent it.” 

Since launching the campaign, the center has distributed more than 25,000 informational pamphlets and 10,500 samples of mineral-based sunscreens; swapped 144 containers of chemical sunscreen for full-size, mineral-based alternatives, and collected 436 pounds of chemical sunscreen for safe disposal. 

While the substantial decrease of oxybenzone in the bay is cause to celebrate, Punihaole cautions that the levels still exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s risk quotient by as much as seven times at the sampling point closest to shore, where most swimmers and snorkelers enter and exit the water and many of the bay’s resident honu (green sea turtles) congregate to feed. 

“The day we launched this campaign, the oxybenzone measurement nearest the shoreline was 736 times higher than the EPA risk quotient, so the fact it’s come down that much is huge,” Punihaole said. “But we’re determined to get the levels below what the EPA considers high risk, ideally down to zero. We have to continue our work. The bay is asking for our help. We need everyone’s kōkua to save this cultural and ecological treasure.” 

Dr. Craig Downs, executive director of Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, which facilitated the collection and analysis of both sets of water samples from Kahalu‘u Bay, agreed.

“Public education is an effective way of reducing actions that cause chemical pollution on our reefs,” Downs said. “Building relationships with more area businesses, particularly the retailers that sell or distribute sunscreens that threaten coral health, and encouraging them to switch to and promote reef-friendly alternatives instead would also have a major impact on water quality and ecosystem resilience.” 

The ReefTeach program at Kahalu‘u Bay was started in 2000 by area residents who were concerned about the increasing volume of people visiting the bay and the impact it was having on the bay’s vibrant but fragile ecosystem.

The Kohala Center assumed management of the program in 2008. ReefTeach volunteers have educated more than 700,000 beachgoers about “reef etiquette,” behaviors that include not kicking, standing on, or stepping on coral, feeding fish, and touching honu. In 2018, the program began to also focus on other stressors that impact water quality and ecosystem health, including pollutants such as sunscreen chemicals. 

To learn more about reef-friendly sun protection and reef etiquette, visit or contact Cindi Punihaole at

Kohala Center Awarded $152,000 To Assist Island Farming Cooperatives

The Kohala Center, Inc., a community-based non-profit on Hawaii Island, has been awarded a $151,913 grant by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to assist several farming cooperatives on Hawaii Island and Maui. USDA announced the grant awards today under the Small Socially Disadvantaged Producers Grant program, which offers technical assistance to help producers develop new markets and grow their operations.

Click to view release

Click to view release

In its grant proposal, the Kohala Center states it will use the funds to provide technical assistance to  Palili `O Kohala Cooperative (Hawaii Island), Maui Aquaponics Cooperative (Maui), Kau Agricultural Water Cooperative (Hawaii Island) and Cho Global Natural Farming Cooperative (Hawaii Island).

“Rural cooperatives are in a position to employ special marketing strategies to increase the bottom line for their farmers but may not always have the experience to do so,” said Russell S. Kokubun, chairperson of the Hawaii Board of Agriculture. “The Kohala Center has been a valuable resource for the agricultural community and this grant will expand its ability to strengthen these farming cooperatives, which the Abercrombie Administration recognizes as vital contributors to our economy and food-sustainability.”

Hawaii was one of 13 states that received funding under the Small Socially Disadvantaged Producers Grant. For more information on this grant, go to the USDA website:

Kohala Center Receives $175,000 USDA Rural Development Grant

Chris J. Kanazawa, State Director for USDA Rural Development, announced the selection of the Kohala Center, Inc., to receive a $175,000 grant. The funding is being provided through USDA Rural Development’s Rural Cooperative Development Grant (RCDG) program.

“Through this Rural Cooperative Grant, USDA Rural Development is enabling the Kohala Center to expand its capacity to support rural cooperatives that help expand businesses, retain or create new jobs and to increase economic growth in the communities throughout our Hawaiian islands,” Kanazawa announced.

The Kohala Center is an independent, not-for-profit, community-based center for research, conservation and education. With this grant funding, the Kohala Center intends to expand the Laulima Center which supports the development of cooperative businesses with technical assistance throughout the state of Hawaii. Funding is projecting to assist 30 distinct groups, 20 existing businesses, 8 existing cooperatives, and 5 new cooperative entities.

“Given The Kohala Center’s work in strengthening Hawaii’s local economy and given the demand for business and coop development services, especially on the part of small food producers, processors and distributors, we are delighted by the USDA’s support”, said Matt Hamabata, The Kohala Center’s Executive Director. “This continuing partnership will bring Hawai’i closer to reaching our ultimate goal of a vibrant and resilient economy.”

USDA, through its Rural Development mission area, administers and manages housing, business and community infrastructure programs through a national network of state and local offices. Rural Development has an active portfolio of more than $172 billion in loans and loan guarantees. These programs are designed to improve the economic stability of rural communities, businesses, residents, farmers and ranchers and improve the quality of life in rural America.

Hawaii Education Program Seeks to Increase STEM Education Through Gardening

Many teachers use creative methods to keep their students engaged in the curriculum they are teaching. Some methods work far better than others. For one group in Hawaii, teachers are using gardening to boost their science, technology and math classes, while placing an emphasis on Hawaii’s need for more experiential science learning related to agriculture and sustainability.

More than 100 teachers attended the Statewide School Garden Teacher Conference in Ho ‘Aina O Makaha, Oahu, last year as part of the Hawai‘i Island School Garden Network. Photo Credit: The Kohala Center

The Kohala Center is using funding from USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture through the Secondary Higher Education and Ag in the Classroom Challenge grants program to organize the Hawai‘i Island School Garden Network. This network, consisting of 30 elementary, middle and high school teachers, will establish a School Learning Garden program that will integrate core curriculum and STEM education with hands-on, garden-based learning.

Over the course of one year, participating teachers will complete six learning modules that include a summer intensive, various school garden visits, a mentoring/teacher observation program and a garden-based research project. Each is designed to help them develop the skills and confidence needed to be a sustainability educator in a school garden setting.

As Hawaii is at the threshold of an agricultural renaissance, island residents understand the urgent need to return to more sustainable food and energy systems and to improve the state’s environment and human health. However, for this renaissance to be successful, the education pipeline needs to motivate students to gain the education needed for change to happen. School gardens are a logical place for experiential science learning and schooling for sustainability to start. The long-term goal of the project is to create an agricultural education program at the elementary and secondary levels that motivates and qualifies greater numbers of Hawai’i students to complete college-level agricultural science degree programs.

Food, water, energy, waste and economics play into the whole system of the garden every time a gardener goes out to work. Farming and gardening today have become a science with an emphasis on technology. The Hawai’i Island School Garden Network hopes to develop a team of educators who will bring science and the art of food production together in soil/seed to table programs.

Queen of the Sun: What are the Bees Telling Us?

Media Release:

The Kohala Center invites you to “Queen of the Sun: What are the bees telling us?playing November 9 -11 at 7 pm at Honoka’a People’s Theatre. Queen of the Sun is a profound, alternative look at the global honeybee crisis from Taggart Siegel, award-winning director of The Real Dirt on Farmer John (showing in Honoka’a @ 5 pm on Nov 9 & 11). Special event night on Wednesday, November 10th with local beekeepers.

Dryland Forest Grant Awarded

Media Release:

The Hawai’i Forest Industry Association (HFIA) has been awarded a $10,000 grant from Hawai’i County’s Department of Research and Development for its Ka Pilina Poina ‘Ole, “Connection Not Forgotten” project. This community-driven project provides interpretive materials and forest stewardship opportunities that connect two naturally and culturally significant destinations in North Kona; Ka’upulehu Dryland Forest Preserve and Kalaemano Cultural Center.

With grant monies, HFIA has already initiated the project, which involves sustaining fragile endangered dry forest ecosystems and sharing their unique historical, cultural, restoration, and scientific aspects to benefit Hawai’i residents and visitors. A Mauka-Makai (mountain to ocean) “Connection Not Forgotten” informal talk story evening is being planned for February 25, 2010 at the Kalaemano Cultural Center at 6 PM. Call 808-933-9411 no later than February 19 to RVSP for this free event.

Volunteer and Outreach Coordinator Yvonne Yarber Carter has started developing educational and interpretive materials, stories for an audio story center, and curriculum for the stewardship outreach program. The story center will feature live voices from oral histories, bringing connections to the past alive. Educational materials include field learning guides for youth visitors. These rich remembrances and cultural stories are made possible through a partnership with the gifted Ku’ulei Keakealani, Director of the Ka’upulehu Cultural Center at Kalaemano, who has deep ancestral ties to the lands…

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