Molasses spill killing marine life in Hawaii

The floor of Honolulu Harbor is scattered with dead crabs, fish, lobsters, worms and sea fans. Bright yellow and blue fish, goat fish, squirrel fish and eels are swimming closer to piers and the shore than usual. The water is a murky brown color. The reefs are destroyed, and now experts are warning swimmers to stay out of the waters because of an increased risk of shark attacks.

It sounds like the wreckage of an oil spill -- but this ecological disaster was caused by something seeming innocuous: it was caused by leaking molasses.

More than 233,000 gallons of molasses spilled into the water through a pipeline leak on Monday. That's enough to fill a third of an Olympic-sized swimming pool. More than 2,000 fish have already turned up dead, and the numbers are expected to continue rising.

The broken pipe is used to transport molasses onto cargo ships operated by Matson Navigation Company. The section that was leaking is not in full operation, but the company declined to say why it was used that day.

In a statement, the company said, "Matson regrets that the incident impacted many harbor users, as well as wildlife. We are taking steps to ensure this situation does not happen again."

Though molasses may sound somewhat harmless, its impact is on par with that of an oil spill. Oil rises to the surface, where it can eventually be cleared. Molasses sinks to the ocean floor, where it suffocates reefs and sea animals that inhabit the reefs, explained Hawaii Department of Health spokeswoman Janice Okubo.

Matson said the molasses will dissipate on its own. But marine biologists say the damage is already done: the reefs will take thousands of years to recover, if ever.

The health officials expect sharks to be attracted to the area by the masses of dead fish. The water is expected to remain brown for at least a few weeks, until the tides have naturally flushed the area.

Gary Gill, deputy director of the health department, told reporters Thursday morning that the state would let "nature take its course," in cleaning up the spill, but the department is deploying boat crews to collect the dead fish and other animals.

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    Danielle Elliot is a freelance science editor and reporter for CBS News. She holds an M.A. in science and health journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in broadcast journalism from the University of Maryland. Follow her on Twitter - @daniellelliot.