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Baseline assessments for coral reef community structure and demographics on West Maui

July 5, 2017

The coastal and upslope terrains of West Maui have had a long history of impacts owing to more than a century of human activities. Resource extraction, agriculture, as well as residential and resort development have caused land-based pollution that impairs water quality and adversely impact the adjacent marine ecosystem. Today, West Maui’s coral reefs are chronically impacted by the effects of land-based pollution, mainly sedimentation and nutrients, with documented losses of 30 – 75% in coral cover over the last 20 years. Nonetheless, despite their current status and levels of environmental impact, these coral reef communities represent a key local resource and a counterpoint to the overall low coral reef development levels both island- and state-wide. This is of high relevance because the occurrence of coral-rich assemblages and accreted reef complexes statewide is sparse. Only limited segments along the coastlines of Maui, Hawai‘i, Lana‘i, Moloka‘i, and Kaho‘olawe, harbor mature, fringing coral reefs; and unfortunately, many of them are seriously threatened by terrestrial runoff.

This report describes the results of baseline assessment surveys of coral reef benthic structure, coral community demographics, and coral condition. These surveys are intended to provide benchmarks for continued monitoring efforts and provide a gauge for comparing and evaluating the effectiveness of management actions to reduce land-based sources of pollution in priority watersheds on West Maui. Within this context, 12 permanent, long-term monitoring sites were strategically established adjacent to the 7 primary stream drainages (Wahikuli, Honokōwai, Mahinahina, Kahana/Ka‘opala, Honokeana, Honokahua, and Honolua) within the five priority watersheds (Wahikuli, Honokōwai, Kahana, Honokahua, and Honolua). Herein, benthic cover and composition, coral demographics, and coral condition of the monitoring sites are described and contrasted in the “Benthic Characterization” and “Synthesis and Discussion” sections of this report.

The baseline assessments revealed that although some areas harbor prominent coral reef structures with high live coral cover and multispecies assemblages, others are characterized by sediment-impacted corals in impoverished and species-poor communities. Mean coral cover varied widely, from 49% at Wahikuli-shallow to 4.6% at Mahinahina-shallow. Similarly, coralline algal cover averaged 12.7% at Ka‘opala and Honokeana-north, but was altogether absent at the Mahinahina sites. Macroalgae was a minor component of the benthos across all study sites, representing only up to 2.3% at Mahinahina-south, while turf algae varied considerably, from 41% at Honokeana-north to 84% at the Honokahua site. Consequently, the Benthic Substrate Ratio (BSR) also varied considerably region wide, with the highest values (≥ 1), suggesting a healthier reef condition reported for the Wahikuli, Honokeana, and Honokōwai sites; and the lowest (≤ 0.5), suggesting impairment in structure and function, recorded at the Honolua and Honokahua sites. Adult colony densities were the highest at the Wahikuli (27 col/m2) but lowest at the Ka‘opala (7 col/m2 ) site. And, colony partial mortality peaked at the Ka‘opala (33%) and was the lowest at the Honokeana Bay (12%). Moreover, in-situ and derived estimates of water turbidity and sediment loading revealed that the Ka‘opala and Wahikuli stream sites ranked the highest for turbidity, whereas the Honokōwai and Ka‘opala sites ranked highest for sediment loading.

Chronic and episodic terrestrial sediment stress has resulted in coral reef community demise, clearly illustrated at the Honolua, Honokahua, and Ka‘opala sites, where coral benthic cover and colony abundances ranked the lowest and levels of turf algae ranked among the highest. Left unattended, land-based pollution impacts will continue to negatively affect the coral reef communities of West Maui. And, under the current turbidity and sediment loading conditions, the coral-rich habitats in the Wahikuli and Honōkowai Watersheds are probably at greatest risk, given they harbor the most prominent and well-developed reefs in the region, characterized by the highest coral cover, colony densities, and structural complexity.

Publication Year 2017
Title Baseline assessments for coral reef community structure and demographics on West Maui
DOI 10.7289/V5/SP-PIFSC-17-001
Authors Bernardo Vargas-Angel, Darla White, Curt D. Storlazzi, Tova Callender, Paulo Maurin
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype Other Government Series
Series Title NOAA Data Report
Index ID 70189157
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center