Introducing the Team Behind Hawai’i’s Reef Conservation

Aloha! 🌺 As we embark on our 30th year at CORAL, we’re thrilled to spotlight the dedicated teams leading the charge in coral conservation. First up, our Hawai’i team. In Hawai’i, coral reefs are the heart of culture, tradition, and environmental health. These reefs are crucial for the local economy and coastal protection, hosting an incredible array of marine life. Yet, they’re under siege from climate change, overfishing, and pollution. That’s where our team steps in. 

For over 15 years, we’ve been all in, working tirelessly in Hawai’i to shield the reefs from pollution and advocate for cleaner, more sustainable wastewater systems. Our team embodies the spirit of malama i ke kai (caring for the ocean), crafting innovative solutions to protect these critical ecosystems and the communities that rely on them. So, let’s get to know the champions behind our efforts!

Manuel Mejia, Regional Program Director

Manuel is at the helm of our Hawai’i conservation efforts, mixing science with local know-how to do right by the reefs. He’s the proud owner of two master’s degrees—one in agricultural and biosystems engineering from McGill and another in environmental science and policy from Columbia. Manuel’s conservation journey has taken him around the world, from the Philippines to New York, and even aboard Hawaii’s traditional voyaging canoe, the Hokuleʻa.

  • Favorite CORAL Memory: Getting to meet the team in person after starting with CORAL during the pandemic and diving with his teammates. 
  • Outside of Work: Manuel loves hanging out with his dog, hitting the tennis courts, cooking up a storm, and, believe it or not, jumping off mountains for a bit of hang gliding and paragliding fun – he’s done it with his family and even on his honeymoon!

I love that we get to integrate science and human dimensions of coral conservation in our daily work resulting in better outcomes for the communities we work with and the coral reef ecosystems we are caring for.  I love seeing data-driven solutions making positive impacts for people and nature.

Manuel Mejia

Makayla Rickard, Maui Nui Program Manager

Makayla is deeply committed to enhancing the sustainability of Hawai’i’s natural resources. With a bachelor’s degree in Sustainable Science Management from the University of Hawai’i, she’s tackled island sustainability and resource management head-on. Her experience ranges from conservation work in the Pu’u Kukui Watershed Preserve to marine environmental consulting, highlighting her versatile approach to environmental protection. Makayla has also lent her voice and expertise as a board member for Kipuka Olowalu, proving her dedication to her community.

  • Favorite Part of the Job: Makayla thrives on CORAL’s strategy to build resilient coastal communities, which allows her to engage with the local communities she holds dear in Hawai’i. 
  • Outside of Work: Family time and beach days top her list of favorite things!

Supporting my community and coral reefs at the same time is a dream come true!

Makayla Rickard

Erica Perez, Senior Program Manager

Erica is a true ocean guardian, armed with degrees in marine science and conservation biology from the University of Hawai’i at Hilo. For nearly two decades, she’s been diving into Hawaii’s environmental challenges headfirst, championing community-led solutions and fighting the good fight against wastewater woes to keep our reefs resilient. Leading the charge on the Clean Water for Reefs Puakō project, Erica’s been a key player in turning the tide, ensuring both our marine buddies and communities thrive.

But Erica’s passion doesn’t stop at Puakō’s shores. She’s a major force in statewide efforts like the State Cesspool Conversion Working Group and is all about keeping our groundwater clean and clear. With Hawai’i Wai Ola, she’s pioneered the first citizen science water quality gig in Hawai’i County, proving that when it comes to protecting our oceans, Erica’s not just talking the talk—she’s swimming the swim. Her work is a testament to her belief that together, we can make a big splash in safeguarding Hawaii’s marine life and ecosystems.

  • Favorite Part of the Job: Erica’s favorite part of her job is being deeply involved in local climate initiatives and empowering communities with the science and data needed for positive change.

It’s incredibly rewarding to see our efforts in improving water quality translate into tangible, positive outcomes for both the environment and the local communities who depend on it.

Erica Perez

Brian Kastl, Maui Nui Project Manager

Brian brings a world of experience to his role at CORAL, with a Master’s degree in stream restoration and sediment transport from the University of Hawai’i. His journey in conservation has taken him across the Pacific and Caribbean, where he’s applied his ridge-to-reef expertise to safeguard clean water for coral reefs. Brian’s work is deeply rooted in collaboration with local communities, developing coastal watershed management strategies that resonate with the needs and knowledge of those who call these places home.

He’s racked up some serious miles and milestones in aquatic conservation, working with big names like The Nature Conservancy, IUCN, Asian Development Bank, and even National Geographic. Whether he’s leading research dives, teaching courses, or developing projects that make a splash, Brian’s dedication to our oceans is as deep as the Mariana Trench. With his mix of serious science and a knack for collaboration, Brian’s making sure our coral reefs have a fighting chance.

  • Favorite CORAL Memory: A standout moment for Brian was being on Moloka’i with the team, launching a drone to capture a traditional Hawaiian fishpond from above. Local kids gathered around, thrilled to see their heritage from a new perspective. This moment served as a powerful reminder of how ancient practices can inform today’s conservation efforts.
  • Outside of Work: When he’s not leading conservation efforts, Brian finds balance and inspiration in nature, whether he’s hiking the ridges or catching waves on the reefs.

I love how highly supportive and dedicated my CORAL colleagues are!

Brian Kastl

Sarah Severino, Maui Nui Program Research Coordinator

Sarah is our go-to guru for all things marine science in Hawai’i. With a Master’s from Hawai’i Pacific University, she’s spent over a decade diving into projects that help protect our island’s natural treasures. Whether she’s studying the capacity of Hanauma Bay or assessing the impact of dredging projects, Sarah’s work is all about keeping Hawaii’s waters happy and healthy.

She’s managed big projects with NOAA, worked on conservation for marine sanctuaries, and even led studies to make sure our reefs and marine life are thriving. Recently, Sarah took the lead on a project for Mālama Pūpūkea-Waimea, proving she’s not just about the science – she’s about action and results. Sarah’s excited to blend science with community efforts at CORAL, making sure Hawai’i’s natural resources are resilient and ready for future generations.

  • Favorite Part of the Job: Sarah values CORAL’s holistic view of science, which includes both traditional and community-based perspectives, making their conservation initiatives more impactful. 
  • Outside of Work: Sarah enjoys snorkeling, swimming, paddle-boarding, and gardening. She’s a carnivorous plant enthusiast, with a collection that’s been growing for over 7 years.

Seeing the natural resource rehabilitation and monitoring work we support empower communities to protect their special places for future generations fills me with hope and determination.

Sarah Severino

Joy Millheim, CORAL Assistant

Meet Joy, our CORAL Assistant extraordinaire! With a career as colorful as the reefs we protect, Joy brings a wealth of experience from managing estates for ultra-high-net-worth individuals to running her own successful LLC as a household recruiter. After welcoming her daughter into the world, Joy sought a lifestyle that blended family time with her love for the ocean. Swapping the LA hustle for Hawai’i’s serene shores, she found her perfect match in CORAL. Joy is the organizational powerhouse behind our Hawai’i team, supporting Manuel and the crew with everything from scheduling to event planning. Whether it’s keeping deadlines in check or managing the minutiae of daily operations, Joy’s meticulous attention ensures our conservation efforts flow smoothly.

  • Favorite CORAL Memory: Joy’s most cherished moment was touring the Kipuka Olowalu site with the entire Hawaii team.
  • Outside of Work: Joy loves beach days with her family, exploring hiking trails, and losing herself in a good book. She is also passionate about rescuing pitbulls!

My favorite thing about working for CORAL is that each and every person is cherished!

Joy Millheim

Until Next Time

Big Mahalo to Manuel, Makayla, Erica, Brian, Sarah, and Joy for their determination and boundless enthusiasm. They’re not just protecting Hawaii’s reefs; they’re inspiring all of us to take better care of our blue planet. Here’s to the next 30 years of innovation, collaboration, and conservation. Together, we’re not just dreaming of a brighter, bluer future—we’re making it happen 🌊💙

Click here to learn more about our work in Hawaii and how you can help. Every action counts. Together we can keep the spirit of malama i ke kai alive for generations to come 🪸

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