Aulani Resort’s Rainbow Reef Fish Help Tell Their Own Sustainability Story

Aulani Resort's Rainbow Reef Fish - Sustainability

In Hawai‘i, there is an ‘ōlelo no’eau, a wise saying, that Disney’s Animals, Science and Environment (ASE) team at Aulani Resort has adopted: He aliʻi ka ʻāina, he kauwā ke kanaka. The land is a chief, man is her servant. 

ASE cares for all of the fish at Aulani Resort, including those at Rainbow Reef snorkeling lagoon. In every aspect of their roles, these cast members work to uphold this tradition of serving the land – or, more specifically, the water. This Earth Month, I wanted to share some insight into a unique and innovative program created by ASE that elevates this purpose even further.

Aulani Resort’s Rainbow Reef fish and cast members
Animal & Water Science Manager Raffy Jacinto and Senior Aquarist Eric Curtis look over Rainbow Reef

You see, the team does such a good job caring for our finned friends that these fish are constantly spawning or laying eggs. So many, in fact, that it spurred an idea. What if these eggs could be harvested and hatched? Could this be a way to help replenish tropical fish stocks without impacting the ocean environment? 

The idea turned into a pilot program with Oceanic Institute of Hawaiʻi Pacific University (OI), a research facility dedicated in part to aquaculture, or breeding fish. Aulani Resort provides the fish eggs to OI, and they in turn attempt to hatch and grow them. Over the past few years, the program has seen some surprising and optimistic results, including landmark strides in the successful breeding of the milletseed butterflyfish, the Potter’s angelfish, and the Hawaiian cleaner wrasse, all fish that historically have had only very rare success breeding under managed care. These successes have the potential to lessen the number of fish being taken out of natural reefs around the world. “Aulani Resort’s Rainbow Reef has allowed us to work with species we did not have access to and enabled us to expand our research and conservation efforts,” said Chad Callan, director of OI’s finfish program.

Aulani Resort’s Rainbow Reef fish and cast members
Eric Curtis collects fish eggs from Rainbow Reef with the help of Water Science/Dive Technician Nick Grinwis

So what does this mean for Aulani Resort and Rainbow Reef? Dr. Geoff Pye, Disney’s Animal Health Director, explains. “One of the things that Disney is committed to, whether it’s The Seas with Nemo & Friends at EPCOT in Florida or Aulani Resort in Hawaii, is that we really want to promote sustainability and ensure that the impact we’re having is a positive one,” he said. “The fact that we are now engaged in a project to raise young fish under managed care and not having to collect them from the environment is awesome.”

Aulani Resort’s Rainbow Reef fish

Dr. Geoff believes this research can have far-reaching implications. “I see a time when aquariums are going to be fully sustainable. And I think we’re close to reaching a tipping point where we could soon be able to raise hundreds of species of fish, and at that point, there’s the possibility that some of these fish could replenish wild populations. And that’s really exciting.”

For now, OI has made arrangements to send the fish originating from eggs in Rainbow Reef to other accredited aquariums across the country. In Hawaii, collecting fish for aquarium use is banned, making this effort even more critical to sustain the fish populations in managed care, including those at Rainbow Reef. There are limited species available based on the success rates of those being bred, however Aulani Resort’s work with OI is changing that. It’s the hope of everyone involved that the fish born from this program will act as ambassadors of Hawaii, helping to educate even more guests about Hawaii’s fragile reef environment and how to protect our precious natural resources.

And while some of the fish go on to be world travelers, others continue their mission right here at home. Recently a special delivery at Aulani Resort — several fish born from the Rainbow Reef eggs – came back to grow up in Rainbow Reef.

On your next visit to Aulani Resort, be sure to visit our finned ambassadors at Rainbow Reef, and learn more about ocean conservation and the role they are playing in it.