Mapping Coral Reefs in the Hawaiian Islands

The Hawaiian Islands are a globally important case-in-point. In less than fifty years, Hawaii’s unique and highly endemic coral reefs have undergone alarming losses in coral extent and health as well as in fish populations. The Hawaiian Islands are now in a state of extremely variable reef condition driven by a complex mosaic of coastal development, overfishing, and ocean warming. In response to these alarming losses, Hawaii Governor David Ige announced a new effort in 2016 to manage and conserve at least 30% of Hawaii’s reefs by 2030, known as the Marine 30×30 Initiative. Currently, Hawaii’s reefs remain largely unmanaged. The new Marine 30×30 Initiative is requesting regional input data to drive innovative steps in marine spatial planning by which decisions on where and how to conserve remaining reefs will be made. Yet surprisingly, information is lacking on where Hawaii’s reefs and surviving corals are located, and no data exist on the spatially-explicit condition of corals throughout the Hawaiian Archipelago.

For the Marine 30×30 Initiative to succeed, it has been repeatedly stated that conservation and management actions at the scale of the main Hawaiian Islands require the use of technology to bring the spatially detailed condition of reefs into focus, allowing managers to apply tactical conservation effort. The Asner Lab has been asked by the stakeholder community to use a new approach using our Global Airborne Observatory technology to generate maps of coral health in early-to-mid 2019 in support of their effort and upcoming deadlines for the Marine 30×30 Initiative.

Our coral reef mapping approach will propel new initiatives and approaches by an expanding the coral reef conservation community across the Hawaiian Islands. Our missions range from the spatial ecology and conservation of coral reefs to studies of coral bleaching resistance. Current large-area mapping of reefs focuses on the Big Island of Hawaii, which contains the largest reef ecosystem in the Hawaiian Archipelago. This effort is providing a look at how the reef and its corals have responded to the massive 2015 bleaching event. We are looking at a range of processes from coral chemistry to coral-fish-invertebrate interactions. In Kaneohe Bay on the Island of Oahu, we and the Gates Coral Lab are using the Global Airborne Observatory to not only map the location of individual corals but also to detect whether a species is likely to bleach in future. The goal is to learn how to detect and map corals that are resistant or resilient to bleaching during times of heat stress.

This mission to assess coral reefs in the State of Hawaii and to develop a global coral reef monitoring system using the world’s largest constellation of Earth-orbiting satellites falls under the larger Reefscape Project. Reefscape explores coral reefs at new biogeographic scales for science, conservation, management, and resource policy. The project is a multifaceted initiative combining extensive fieldwork, high-tech remote sensing from aircraft and satellites, plus science communication and community outreach.


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Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation
Avatar Alliance Foundation
Len Baker
William R. Hearst III


Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources
Gates Coral Lab

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