The Hawaii Department of Health said thousands of fish have already suffocated and died from a molasses spill earlier this week. The 233,000-gallon spill was caused by a leaking pipe in Honolulu Harbor, officials said.

Fish are dying off en masse in the waters around Honolulu after hundreds of thousands of gallons of molasses spilled into Honolulu Harbor this week -- and there's nothing officials can do to clean it up.

Thousands of fish, suffocated by the sugary sludge, have been killed or threatened. Footage from local media showed fish floating in the harbor, with some seeming to gasp above the surface of the water, which was contaminated by the thick, syrupy sweetener.

"We're working with all the local officials, but as the [Hawaii] Department of Health said, there’s nothing you can do to clean up molasses," Jeff Hull, a spokesman for Matson Inc., the company responsible for the leak, told the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday. "It’s sunk to the bottom of the harbor. Unlike oil, which can be cleaned from the surface, molasses sinks."

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Put another way by Janice Okubo, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health, "It’s sugar in the water. If you know a scientific way to remove it from water, let us know." And once at the bottom, wildlife officials said, the sludge replaces the oxygen-bearing seawater that bottom-dwelling fish use to breathe.

Officials urged residents to stay out of the water, worried that sharks and eels were coming to feed on the dead fish.

"The public is advised not to enter the ocean if they notice a brown color in the water," the Department of Health said in a statement, adding that "the nutrient-rich liquid could also cause unusual growth in marine algae, stimulate an increase in harmful bacteria and trigger other environmental impacts."

The crisis was first reported early Monday morning, when a Matson Inc. ship was loaded with 1,600 tons of molasses for shipping to the West Coast, according to the Department of Health.

A brown haze was reported in the water shortly after. Matson found a leak in a molasses pipeline near one of the harbor's piers and said as much as 1,400 tons of molasses may have fouled the harbor, health officials said.

Divers initially deployed to investigate the leak on Monday discovered the cause Tuesday morning, the company said in a statement. Matson spokesman Hull said that the pipeline has since been patched.

"The discharge of molasses stopped probably a day ago, now, perhaps longer," Hull told The Times. 

Hull said the company had been shipping molasses for about 30 years and had large molasses tanks at the harbor, with transfer piping that runs beneath a main terminal.

"It came as a shock to all of us," said Robert Harris, director of Sierra Club of Hawaii. "I don’t think any of us were aware molasses even existed in Hawaii."

Harris added of the disaster, "I’m not sure there’s anything to do. They do have officials out there removing the dead fish to keep potential sharks from gathering, but I think the damage was too quick – once it was reported, it was too late."

Health officials said they expect the molasses plume to go from Honolulu Harbor into the nearby Ke'ehi Lagoon and then dissipate in the ocean. Spokeswoman Okubo said there was no timetable for when that might happen.

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

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