WAILUKU, Hawaii (AP) — The reef at Olowalu is the largest and best developed on Maui, and it is a spawning ground that has helped populate reefs around the Hawaiian islands.

But decades of runoff and recent coral bleaching events have taken their toll on the sprawling marine hub.

The Olowalu reef was designated Thursday as a Mission Blue Hope Spot. The reef is the first in the state to receive the title, The Maui News reports (http://bit.ly/2vlvog6 ).

Mission Blue founder and oceanographer Sylvia Earle created the designation with the hopes of bringing awareness and support to places that Mission Blue deems "critical to the health of the ocean."

Mission Blue is a California-based organization that works to promote ocean exploration and research and protect marine life.

Mark Deakos, executive director and chief scientist of the Hawaii Association for Marine Education and Research, kick-started Olowalu's push for "hope spot" recognition.

"Some of the oldest coral ever dated in the state exists here at Olowalu," Deakos said Thursday. "Over 300-year-old corals, over 430 individual manta rays have been identified here. ... It's a very unique place, and we're very excited about all these groups coming together ... to really make an effort to preserve it and make sure it doesn't fall fate to what some of our other reefs around the island have done."

Through the years, construction has surrounded the reef, as hotels and housing projects have been erected west and south of Olowalu. But local residents have fought to ensure the area itself remains mostly undeveloped.

As the owner and operator of Mike Severns Diving, Pauline Fiene was "blown away by the massiveness" of Olowalu's reef when she started diving there in the late 1980s and called it "the most breathtaking reef I had seen in Hawaii."

Tiare Lawrence, who represents the community-based hui Malama Olowalu, said the group wants to seek funding and grants for the reef now that it has been designated a Hope Spot.

"The best benefit (of being a Hope Spot) is it will help us get our story out there and start to build a lot of community awareness and partnerships with international organizations that are working on similar issues," Lawrence said.

Lawrence said Malama Olowalu recently created a community marine management area for the reef and plans to start meeting with residents to discuss the reef's future.