Hawai'i Coral Reef Network

Hawai'i Coral Reef Initiative Research Program

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As an island state, Hawaii hosts exceptional and beautiful coral reef ecosystems. The 410,000 acres of coral reef comprise almost 85% of all coral reef ecosystems under US jurisdiction. The state’s coral reefs ecosystems have over 5,000 known species of marine plants and animals, many of which are endemic. Besides their vast coverage throughout the state, these coral reef ecosystems are culturally, economically, and biologically critical to Hawaii’s future. Areas of intensified land and human uses are expanding, which results in adverse impacts to our reefs – sedimentation, eutrophication, and pollution. The effects of overfishing and algae further compound these adverse impacts. As a result, there is a need to strengthen resource management capacity to insure the sustainability of Hawaii’s coral reef ecosystems.

The University of Hawaii (UH) established the Hawaii Coral Reef Initiative (HCRI) Research Program in June 1998. Its primary purpose is to support monitoring and research activities aimed at building capacity to manage Hawaii’s coral reef ecosystems. In December of 1998, the Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR) of the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) and UH entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to jointly manage the HCRI Research Program.

To fulfill its mission, the program works with local, state, and federal agencies, as well as private organizations in order to achieve the following goals:

    • Assess major threats to coral reef ecosystems and provide information for more effective management;
    • Advance understanding of biological and physical processes that affect the health of coral reefs and build management capability;
    • Develop database and information systems to store and access data and results;
    • Conduct public awareness programs on threats to coral reef ecosystems; and
    • Implement education and training for coral reef scientists and managers.

Funded Projects

In 1998-99, the Hawaii Coral Reef Initiative Research Program has supported four monitoring and research activities, which include the development of a data management system. In addition, HCRI has initiated a long-range strategic planning project to consider future management needs. 

  • Coral Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program (CRAMP). The Hawaii Coral Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program (CRAMP), led by Dr. Paul Jokiel of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, is an integrated, statewide, coral reef research program. Its common database and rapid information dissemination system provides a means for managers and researchers to detect and respond appropriately to environmental threats to Hawaii’s reefs. CRAMP is designed to identify the controlling factors, both natural and anthropogenic, contributing to the stability, decline, or recovery of Hawaii’s reefs. 
  • Kaneohe Bay Decision Support System. Led by Dr. Mark Ridgley of the University of Hawaii’s Department of Geography, this project is investigating one mechanism to unite coral reef scientist’s research with the decision-making requirements of resource managers. The application of a "decision support system" methodology illustrates necessary trade-offs that occur given different future scenarios. This community-based coral reef management process has resulted in several recommendations to improve coral reef management in Kaneohe Bay. Key items include establishment of no anchoring zones, moving commercial activities out of sensitive coral reef habitats, and shifting snorkeling operations away from sea turtle foraging grounds.
  • Fish, Algal, and Coral Ecology Team (FACET). A shift toward algal dominance typically characterizes degraded or declining coral reefs. This research project, being led by Dr. Cindy Hunter of the Waikiki Aquarium, will identify major organisms involved in these shifts and specific conditions that effect biological processes involved in controlling reef stability or decline. This experiment provides us with the first description of fine-scale successional change in algal community development, species dominance, and diversity on Hawaiian coral reefs. In addition, it seeks to estimate changes in biomass for major functional components of the benthos-turfs, fleshy and coralline algae. These results demonstrate how rapidly algal communities can establish and develop on Hawaiian reefs under elevated nutrient conditions, particularly in the absence of herbivorous grazers. 
  • Genetic Variation and Status in Hawaiian Coral Species. The research team, led by George Roderick of the University of California at Berkley, has been using coral DNA from their collection, field samples, and material from the Waikiki Aquarium. The team has developed DNA-based genetic markers for shallow-water corals using a variety of techniques, including markers based on nuclear "microsatellites" and mitochondrial DNA. These markers will be useful for a number of coral researchers world-wide as most of these markers should work on other species. These markers can be used to address questions concerning population structure, systematics, and conservation or management units. In addition, researchers have initiated a genetic repository of coral specimens and coral DNA that can be used as a baseline for continuing work on reef degradation as well as restoration.

For 1999-2000, HCRI Research Program intends to sponsor four projects (the three below, plus a second year for CRAMP). In addition, HCRI Research Program will be strengthening the professional training component for DAR staff, broadening its public outreach and education efforts, and developing a website/e-zine (electronic magazine) to profile management initiatives, research, and the ecosystem.

  • Impacts of Aquarium Fish Collecting and the Effectiveness of Marine Protected Areas in Hawaii. Ongoing monitoring of 23 sites along the 230 km Kona coastline of the Big Island of Hawaii have documented significant declines in eight species of reef fish targeted by the aquarium industry. Under the direction of Dr. Brian Tissot (Washington State University), surveys will serve as a baseline prior to the closure of nine marine reserves were aquarium collecting will be prohibited and will enable managers to evaluate the effectiveness of marine protected areas as a tool to manage coral reef fisheries. 
  • Support for Maroalgal Ecology and Taxonomic Assessment for CRAMP Sites. The role that marine algae play in a coral reef system is often overlooked because of lack of knowledge that they are the primary producers in the system, and frequently because there are no competent phycologists who can aid studies or become important players in solving reefal problems. The coral reef ecosystem in Hawai’i contains about ten times more algal species than coral species, some of them regulating space that permits coral recruitment. Drs. Isabella Abbott and Celia Smith (University of Hawaii) will lead this effort.
  • Ecological Success of Alien/Invasive Algae in Hawaii. Results of this study (to be led by Cindy Hunter of the Waikiki Aquarium) will be used to generate distribution maps of alien and invasive algal species throughout the state of Hawaii. This will provide managers with the ability to visualize the extent of current distributions, to monitor rates of expansion and invasion of new areas, and to assess the effectiveness of management actions. Sites heavily impacted by alien/invasive algae, as identified by Hawaii State managers and this study, will be extensively surveyed and compared to control (non-impacted) sites in order to determine specifically how these aliens are affecting native reef ecosystems. This research will provide much needed information on the distribution, abundance, growth, and reproductive capabilities of pest algae, as well as the potential for their removal by natural grazers. This information will allow managers to more precisely predict the type of habitat that alien and invasive algae are able to invade, as well as conditions in which they are least successful. This fundamental research is crucial to enabling management measures for controlling the populations of alien and invasive algal species and for evaluation of fisheries management options to insure the health of Hawaii's coral reef ecosystems.

For more information about the Hawai'i Coral Reef Initiative Research Program
Contact: DavidsonPlan@hawaii.rr.com

Last update: 1/25/2005