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The major coral reefs of Maui Nui, Hawai‘i—distribution, physical characteristics, oceanographic controls, and environmental threats

June 25, 2019

Coral reefs are widely recognized as critical to Hawaiʻi’s economy, food resources, and protection from damaging storm waves. Yet overfishing, land-based pollution, and climate change are threatening the health and sustainability of those reefs, and accordingly, both the Federal and State governments have called for protection and effective management. In 2000, the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force stated that 20 percent of coral reefs should be protected by 2010. In 2016, the Governor of Hawaiʻi committed to effective management of 30 percent of Hawaiian coastal habitats by 2030 to protect coral reefs. At present, the amount of coral protected in the main Hawaiian Islands is less than 1 percent.

Most of the large, highly diverse coral reef tracts in the main Hawaiian Islands surround the four islands of Maui, Molokaʻi, Lānaʻi, and Kahoʻolawe, collectively known as Maui Nui. This report provides fundamental information on the location, extent, coral cover, threats, and connectivity of these major coral reef tracts in Maui Nui essential for identifying areas for management and protection.

By combining high-resolution bathymetric data with available maps, publications, and satellite and underwater images, nine major coral reef tracts are identified in the coastal waters of Maui Nui. Three very large reef tracts lie along the south side of Molokaʻi, two on the east side of Lānaʻi, and four off Maui. The factors that make these Maui Nui coral reef tracts a major and important resource for Hawaiʻi include their vast size and high coral cover (nearly 16,000 acres of reef, most of which has more than 50 percent live coral cover); diversity of shape, size, and location; and separation between reefs while retaining connectivity via currents. The decline in the health of these coral reefs over the past several decades has been slow but persistent. Punctuation of the decline by large-scale disturbance events, such as the thermal bleaching that occurred in 2015, is accelerating the loss of viable reef areas by an order of magnitude.

The economic, cultural, and recreational value of these coral reef tracts highlights the importance of their long-term survival to the local communities and all of Hawaiʻi. There is scientific consensus that increasing pressures from climate change, overfishing, and land-based pollution will virtually assure the continued, and perhaps accelerating, decline of Hawaiʻi’s coral reefs unless action is taken. Information presented in this report, coupled with the results of numerous scientific studies, provides scientific underpinning to help establish a network of large-scale, connected Marine Protected Areas to meet the Federal and State governments’ call for effective management and protection of coral reefs in Maui Nui.

Publication Year 2019
Title The major coral reefs of Maui Nui, Hawai‘i—distribution, physical characteristics, oceanographic controls, and environmental threats
DOI 10.3133/ofr20191019
Authors Michael E. Field, Curt D. Storlazzi, Ann E. Gibbs, Nicole L. D'Antonio, Susan A. Cochran
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Open-File Report
Series Number 2019-1019
Index ID ofr20191019
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center