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Modeling fine-scale coral larval dispersal and interisland connectivity to help designate mutually-supporting coral reef marine protected areas: Insights from Maui Nui, Hawaii

December 5, 2017

Connectivity among individual marine protected areas (MPAs) is one of the most important considerations in the design of integrated MPA networks. To provide such information for managers in Hawaii, USA, a numerical circulation model was developed to determine the role of ocean currents in transporting coral larvae from natal reefs throughout the high volcanic islands of the Maui Nui island complex in the southeastern Hawaiian Archipelago. Spatially- and temporally-varying wind, wave, and circulation model outputs were used to drive a km-scale, 3-dimensional, physics-based circulation model for Maui Nui. The model was calibrated and validated using satellite-tracked ocean surface current drifters deployed during coral-spawning conditions, then used to simulate the movement of the larvae of the dominant reef-building coral, Porites compressa, from 17 reefs during eight spawning events in 2010–2013. These simulations make it possible to investigate not only the general dispersal patterns from individual coral reefs, but also how anomalous conditions during individual spawning events can result in large deviations from those general patterns. These data also help identify those reefs that are dominated by self-seeding and those where self-seeding is limited to determine their relative susceptibility to stressors and potential roadblocks to recovery. Overall, the numerical model results indicate that many of the coral reefs in Maui Nui seed reefs on adjacent islands, demonstrating the interconnected nature of the coral reefs in Maui Nui and providing a key component of the scientific underpinning essential for the design of a mutually supportive network of MPAs to enhance conservation of coral reefs.