Habitat Conservation

Coral Reef Habitats of Hawaii

Hawaii is one of the most isolated archipelagos in the world and as a result, possesses some of the highest marine endemism recorded for a number of taxa. Hawaii's location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean exposes its coral reefs to large open ocean swells which play an important coral habitat role in structuring the coral reef community. The archipelago consists of two areas: the main Hawaiian Islands (MHI) made up of populated, high volcanic islands with non-structural reef communities and fringing reefs abutting the shore, and the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) consisting of mostly uninhabited atolls and banks. This chain of islands stretches for over 1,400 miles across the Pacific from the island of Hawaii in the southeast to Kure Atoll in the northwest. Coral communities within the archipelago range from newly formed colonies at the edges of recent lava flows to established atolls currently undergoing subsidence. The Hawaiian archipelago is uniquely suited for the study of the structure and function of coral reefs in the formation of near shore habitats and ecosystems surrounding islands. The extent of endemism and diversity of habitats between and among the islands is considerable throughout the whole archipelago.

Coral reefs were important to the ancient Hawaiians for food, cultural practices, recreation and overall survival. According to the Hawaiian Creation Chant, the kumulipo, the coral polyp was the first creature to emerge from the sea during the creation of the world. The early Hawaiians recognized that coral reefs are a building block of our islands and used coral in religious ceremonies to demonstrate honor and care for ocean resources. Currently Hawaii's coral reef communities provide us protection from storm waves, create the large surf that makes Hawaii world famous, Red Pencil Urchin supply food for sustenance, and are critically important to the State's approximately $800 million annual marine tourism industry.

Over 70% of the State's 1.2 million people live on Oahu, mostly concentrated in the Honolulu metropolitan area. In addition to this resident population, nearly seven million tourists a year visit Hawaii. This large number of people has put pressure on Hawaii's coral reefs through various direct and indirect means. Many coastal areas adjacent to urban areas are impacted by land-based sources of pollution, overfishing, recreational overuse, and invasive species. Despite these stressors, Hawaii's coral reefs remain in relatively good condition, particularly compared with other reefs around the world.

In developing the coral reef management objectives and research priorities consideration was given to linking the Hawaiian archipelago as a whole. This linkage is critical because while some objectives have a more exclusive focus (e.g. urban development, population impacts) the knowledge gained from many of the objectives can be applied throughout the archipelago. The management objectives and research priorities for the main Hawaiian Islands are based on the Local Action Strategies and a and extensive process of peer review and input.

Photos courtesy of Robert O'Conner, NMFS PIRO