The Nature Conservancy, NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program and seven U.S. coral reef jurisdictions completed a $13.5 million, 10-year partnership to support the effective management and protection of coral reefs. Here’s a peek at how that partnership translated to work on-the-ground and in-the-sea – and what that means for Hawai‘i’s reefs.
Where We Work
Hawai‘i’s reefs provide conservation, cultural and economic benefits to coastal communities, generating more than $1 million a day from fishing, tourism and other ocean-dependent businesses. The islands of Maui Nui, Moloka‘i, Lana‘i, Molokini and Kaho‘olawe have some of the largest and healthiest coral reefs in the state. But these natural treasures are threatened by land-based sediments and pollutants, overfishing, climate change and invasive species, causing a 90 percent decline in some of Hawai‘i’s most valuable nearshore fisheries and reducing live coral cover on some reefs by up to 40 percent. In 2015, Hawai‘i experienced unusually high ocean temperatures and the first mass coral bleaching event in its history, with some reefs experiencing up to 90 percent coral mortality. Impacts from rising sea surface temperatures, sea levels and acidification are predicted to intensify as the climate continues to change. The pace and scale of our conservation efforts must increase to meet Hawai‘i’s goal of effectively managing 30 percent of nearshore waters by 2030.
Since 2001, The Nature Conservancy’s Hawai‘i marine program has been building local community capacity to protect and restore coastal and marine resources and ensure conservation results endure. We support community partners through strategic conservation planning, science-based monitoring and research, direct management of local threats, strategic communications and outreach, and community engagement for improved local management. Our collective conservation work is grounded in Hawai‘i’s rich traditional knowledge and history of sustainable resource management. This accessible and participatory approach has resulted in increased community capacity and public support for improved marine resource protection.
Our work has directly benefited more than 200 square miles of coral reef habitat at 20 sites. Partnership efforts have provided training and technical assistance for nearly 500 individuals, developed 10 new management plans to improve coral health and supported 14 organizations directly and through regional networks.
- Built Maui Nui’s first community network with partners, organizing six community groups into the Maui Nui Makai Network to manage over 20 square miles of important marine habitat. The Partnership facilitated semi-annual Network meetings, resulting in a governance framework, strategic plan, intellectual property rights agreement, fiscal sustainability, how-to-guide for community-based planning, website to broaden outreach and community engagement, and increased capacity for effective co-management with the State.
- Developed 10 site-based conservation action plans (CAPs) in partnership with the State Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) for existing marine life conservation districts (MLCDs) and community areas that harbor beloved reefs where people live and work. The plans identify conservation actions and traditional Hawaiian practices that can be taken to address threats to coral reefs. Many of the plans are being actively implemented to improve reef habitat.
- Completed reef and reef fish baseline monitoring at seven Maui sites and established the most comprehensive baseline in west Hawai‘i. When scientists reported that one West Maui community site had no fish of reproductive size, the community developed an administrative rules proposal to rebuild fish stocks.
- Developed a sustainable finance plan in collaboration with the State of Hawai‘i’s Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR) for the Molokini Shoal MLCD. The plan is being used by DAR to seek more secure funding for this and other State marine protected areas.
- Formed the South Kohala Coastal Partnership to strengthen collaboration and community partnerships and support management implementation of projects that abate threats to the region’s coral reefs.
- Organized 10 field trips for key decision makers to educate them about the Ka‘ūpūlehu Marine Reserve and the National Estuarine Reserve at He‘eia.
- Translated science into accessible summaries and interactive presentations that the Conservancy and partners have used to build broad community and public support for effective community-based management of local marine resources.
- Assessed the effectiveness of a voluntary rest area for ‘opihi (Cellana exterata), a prized intertidal fishery species. The study found ‘opihi size and abundance increased in both the voluntary no-take areas and in many areas down current.
Success Story: A Community Unites to Save Its Reef
In the 1980s, the coral reefs of Wahikuli and Honokōwai radiated exuberant colors through Maui’s shallow waters, earning the nickname “rainbow reef.” The reef teemed with fish species loved for their delicious flavors—like weke and kumu (goatfish), awa (milkfish), uhu (parrotfish) and nenue (chubs). So, when this beloved reef began to disappear, the community became concerned.
Thirty years later, to understand why Rainbow Reef was dying and to identify actions to protect this reef and others along Hawai‘i’s coastline, the Partnership provided Hawai‘i’s DLNR and local communities across Maui Nui with technical support to create 10 site-based conservation action plans (CAPs).
At Wahikuli and Honokōwai, the CAP identified degraded water quality as one of the greatest threats to coral reef health. Prior to and since this linkage between coral health and pollutants was identified, multiple agencies and organizations in West Maui rallied to reduce land-based pollution. But a lack of baseline water quality data made it difficult to measure progress.
To address this issue, the Partnership supported development of a standardized coastal water quality monitoring plan. With approval for the plan secured from the State Department of Health, the Conservancy and partners raised funds to collect water quality data at Wahikuli-Honokōwai and other reefs across Maui.
This water quality monitoring program, called Hui O Ka Wai Ola (Association of the Living Waters) was launched with local partners in 2016 and now has more than 40 community volunteers who collect water samples at nearly 40 sites. The information is being used to inform local reef management and
the program is currently being shared with the international reef management community as a model to improve local water quality and protect reefs. Today, with baseline water quality data established, partners at Wahikuli-Honokōwai are well positioned to make measurable progress towards improving the health of Hawai‘i’s coral reefs.
“The Maui Nui Makai Network has played the role of kako‘o, they are our ‘helping hands’ and essential partners, empowering and enabling us to accomplish so much more than we could alone.” –Claudia Kalaola, Nā Mamo O Mū‘olea