Hawaii’s coral reefs in fair shape but declining, report finds

  • A school of yellow tang pass over a variety of corals in Honaunau Bay. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)

  • A raccoon butterflyfish and yellow tang pass between coral in Kahaluu Bay. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)

  • An assortment of reef fish inhabit the reef in Kahaluu Bay. (Photos by Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)

  • A honu (green sea turtle) swims over the reef in Kahaluu Bay.

HONOLULU — Coral reefs in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, including those in Hawaii, were found to be in “fair ” shape in the first-ever nationwide condition status report for U.S. coral reefs released Tuesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

But the report also warned that the nation’s coral reefs are declining and vulnerable because of warming ocean waters, fishing, disease and pollution from the land.

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“Most importantly and immediately, global climate change and warming sea surface temperatures are the single biggest threats to coral reefs worldwide,” said Heath Kelsey, director of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Integration and Application Network, which developed the report with NOAA.

This is the first time coral reefs in all U.S. states and territories were assessed using standardized monitoring data, creating data sets that offer a base line of coral health on a national scale.

“I’m here because our corals are in a fragile state,” U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said in a virtual news conference held to announce the results. “Climate change and ocean acidification have put corals on the brink of extinction. Time is running out, and we have a narrow opportunity to save them.”

The report, using data collected between 2012 and 2018, found that coral reefs near higher-density human populations are more degraded than remote reefs, a consequence of land-based sources of pollution and fishing impacts.

The report evaluated coral reefs in four categories : corals and algae abundance, reef fish populations, influence of climate on coral reefs, and human connections to reefs. Scores ranged from “very good,” “good,” “fair” and “impaired” to “critical.”

Officials said the report represents a snapshot of reef condition and is intended to serve as a resource for communities and decision-makers across the U.S.

“We hope the report starts a dialogue about the various factors and potential solutions to the threats affecting coral reefs,” said Jennifer Koss, director of NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program.

The report incorporates status reports released in 2018 for American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, Hawaii and the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and the Pacific Remote Islands, along with reports released in May for Florida, Flower Garden Banks, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

In those reports the condition of the coral reefs in both the Northwest Hawaiian Islands and main islands were judged to be “fair,” although the waters around Oahu were in the worst shape, having been labeled “impaired” with the highest climate score and the lowest fish score compared with the other regions.

The report noted that the main islands experienced back-to-back severe coral bleaching in 2014 and 2015, while parts of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands experienced severe bleaching in 2014.

Frequent and severe bleaching events are known to greatly undermine coral reef ecosystems. Climate models have shown that this will continue, with consecutive coral bleaching events expected every year by 2055.

According to the report, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are in better shape overall, but they still scored in the “fair ” range because of issues associated with temperature stress and ocean acidification.

“In the long term, failure to reduce carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases that cause ocean acidification and rising temperatures may make management efforts futile,” the report said.

However, it noted that there are promising management measures being implemented across the state in an effort to prevent further decline of reefs.

Schatz, who grew up in the islands and called the fight to save the reefs “personal,” said Hawaii is leading the way in protecting the oceans, with both scientific and culture-based knowledge to draw from.

In his remarks, he named more than 20 Hawaii organizations and agencies that are working to improve the oceans and reefs, from Malama Moanalua and the Surfrider Foundation to the state Division of Aquatic Resources.

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“I wanted to name all of them because it’s important to recognize that coral preservation doesn’t happen in Washington, D.C.,” the senator said. “It can be enabled by some of our actions and some of our programs, but the real work happens at the local level.”

Along with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Schatz has introduced the Restoring Resilient Reefs Act, a bill that would increase federal funding for corals by nearly $10 million, bringing the total amount to $35 million over five years.

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