Molasses spill in Hawaii destroys ocean habitats, draws sharks to area where humans surf and swim

A dead fish washed ashore is seen in Keehi Lagoon after a massive molasses spill from a Matson cargo ship in Honolulu, Hawaii, September 12 ,2013. REUTERS/Hugh Gentry

Health and safety officials in Hawaii are warning swimmers, snorkelers, surfers, and beachgoers in general to keep clear of Honolulu waters after 1,400 tons of molasses leaked into the water earlier this week. The spill has killed an untold number of fish already, and thousands more are expected to die.

It is slowly choking off coral and other marine life that form a protective buffer against tsunamis, and are a core part of the ocean ecosystem. Officials say the spill could draw sharks to the area.

"So many fish have died that the Hawaii Department of Health has tripled cleanup crews to three boats. Hundreds of fish have been removed and thousands more are expected to be removed, a statement from the department said."

At Hawaii News Now, an interview with Robert Richmond, a Marine Biology and Ecotoxicology Professor at University of Hawai'i at Manoa. "Inside the harbor is just mass mortality," he says. "The corals are dead. The invertebrates are dead."

Prof. Richmond, who works at Kewalo Marine Laboratory, says healthy coral reefs should be vibrant and buzzing with activity, but Honolulu Harbor is the exact opposite after the Matson molasses spill. Richmond says fellow researchers from the lab went underwater yesterday and witnessed corals losing their color and tissue.

"They have little unicellular algae that live inside that basically make them solar powered, so they're losing their major source of energy, but in addition, the coral's just simply dying flat out," explained Richmond.

Richmond says the change in the chemistry of the water is causing their cells to break.

"That's one of the reasons why I think we're seeing the fish, the corals and a lot of the invertebrates dying as quickly as they are – their cells are basically blasting out, coming down," described Richmond.

Experts say it will likely get worse before it gets better, as the plume from the molasses tracks west with the current.