Hawaii Molasses Spill: With Thousands Of Fish Killed, Swarms Of Sharks May Move Into Honolulu Waters, Officials Warn [VIDEO]

By Josh Lieberman on September 13, 2013 3:53 PM EDT

hawaii spill
A molasses spill in Honolulu, Hawaii, has killed thousands of fish. Officials warned swimmers that sharks may start moving into Honolulu waters. (Photo: Reuters)

Days after the Hawaii molasses spill sullied Honolulu's harbor, officials are warning people not to swim there, as sharks may be moving into the waters. That's because the molasses spill has killed thousands of fish, creating an attractive buffet for Hawaii's sharks. The Hawaii Department of Health expects the number of dead fish to reach even higher, further increasing the likelihood of shark activity.

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"While molasses is not harmful to the public directly, the substance is polluting the water, causing fish to die and could lead to an increase in predator species such as sharks, barracuda and eels," the health department said in a statement. "The nutrient-rich liquid could also cause unusual growth in marine algae, stimulate an increase in harmful bacteria and trigger other environmental impacts."

On Monday, a leaky pipe spilled 1,400 tons of molasses into Honolulu harbor, an amount that could fill seven rail cars. The pipe is used to move molasses from storage tanks into ships bound for California. Matson Navigation, the ocean transport company that maintains the pipe, has made the necessary repairs. By Tuesday morning, the molasses spill leak had stopped.

National Geographic spoke with Roger Smith, a Honolulu-based scuba instructor who shot a video showing the marine destruction wrought by the molasses spill.

"Every living thing is usually hiding in a hole," Smith said about the Honolulu waters. "But every living thing came out and was gasping to live. Crabs, fish, worms, feather dusters...everything was just laying out in the bottom, just dead. The bigger fish had died, but they had gone to float to the top. The smaller fish were just on the floor."

Gary Gill, the deputy director for the Environmental Health Division of the Health Department, had a similarly bleak take on the molasses spill.

"This is the worst environmental damage to sea life that I have come across, and its fair to say this is a biggie, if not the biggest that we've had to confront in the state of Hawaii," Gill said.

There is little officials can do other than let the molasses leave Honolulu harbor in its own time. Dilution in the form of rain will help degrade and dissipate the molasses. But Hawaii is sunny with little rain right now, beautiful weather which is now an unexpected bummer for Honolulu. Ruth Yender of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Response and Restoration said that weather situation probably won't change anytime soon.

"With the weak and variable tidal currents in the local area, and no significant rainfall in the forecast, [NOAA] expects that the contaminated water may require a week or longer to completely flush out of the Honolulu Harbor and Ke'ehi Lagoon," said Yender.

Matson Navigation insisted that the molasses spill was a "rare" slip-up in their long history of operating in Hawaii, and that they take environmental responsibility seriously. But the company faces tough questions about their preparedness for such a spill. Matson said they didn't know exactly when the molasses spill started, and that they weren't sure how long it had been since the the leaky pipe was inspected. The company said they had no emergency response plan in place.

While molasses spills are not a common occurrence, this is the second such spill this year. In July, a molasses spill in Acatlan de Juarez, in Jalisco, Mexico, killed 500 tons of fish.

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