The Nature Conservancy, NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program, and seven U.S. coral reef jurisdictions continued a $16.5 million, 12-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 ecological, cultural and economic benefits to local communities, and are valued at more than $2 billion a year for fishing, tourism activities, and flood protection. The islands of Maui Nui–Maui, 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, overuse, invasive species and climate change, 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 statewide 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 the need to reduce local stressors to reefs and Hawai‘i’s goal of effectively managing 30 percent of nearshore waters by 2030.

Our Approach

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.

Photo: Coastline of Garapan, Saipan (Robbie Green).

Our Accomplishments

Our work has directly benefited more than 200 square miles of coral reef habitat at more than 20 sites. Partnership efforts have provided training and technical assistance for more than 800 individuals, developed 10 new management plans to improve coral health and supported 14 organizations directly and through regional networks.

  • Established the Maui Nui Makai Network (Network), which is helping to increase capacity for effective co-management with the State. The Network is now leading a coalition of community groups to create a collaborative, regional plan for marine resource management across east Maui.
  • Co-authored the Malama I Ke Kai: Community Action Guide to help groups successfully undertake community-based management of coastal and marine resources. The Guide integrates Native Hawaiian practices and values with contemporary conservation processes, resulting in a robust and culturally appropriate 4- step process for creating and implementing community-based management plans.
  • Developed 10 site-based conservation action plans (CAPs) in partnership with the State Department of Land and Natural Resources for existing marine life conservation districts 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.
  • Completed reef and reef fish baseline monitoring at eight Maui sites and established the most comprehensive baseline in the state at Ka‘ūpulehu on Hawai‘i island. The data are actively informing management efforts at these high priority sites.
  • Developed a sustainable finance plan in collaboration with the State of Hawai‘i’s Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR) for the Molokini Shoal Marine Life Conservation District (MLCD). The plan serves as a model that DAR is using to increase funding for management of this and other State marine protected areas.
  • Launched the South Kohala Coastal Partnership, which has galvanized more than 50 public, private and community groups who are implementing projects to abate threats to the region’s coral reefs and mitigate the impacts of climate change across an area the size of Moloka‘i.
  • Published the Atlas of the Reefs of West Maui, a first of its kind report compiling 20 years of data. Our analysis shows where reefs are doing well and where they are in decline to inform reef management and restoration efforts.
  • Assessed the effectiveness of voluntary rest areas for ‘opihi (Cellana exarata), a prized intertidal fishery species. The study found ‘opihi size and abundance increased in both the voluntary no-take areas and in many areas downcurrent.
Kipahulu opihi (Jill Wirt)

The Atlas provides a clear picture of the changes in West Maui’s reefs and fish populations. Understanding these changes is helping us and our community partners develop effective management plans to restore these resources and achieve our shared goal of effectively protecting 30% of nearshore areas by 2030.

- Russell Sparks, DAR Biologist

Florida Keys (NOAA/Matt McIntosh

SUCCESS STORY: Atlas of the Reefs of West Maui—Helping natural resource managers and planners work smarter, faster, better

Over the past 20 years, researchers have documented significant declines in the health of West Maui’s coral reefs and reef fisheries—resources vital to the area’s people, culture, and economy. Local communities have also noticed the declines and are collaborating with State agencies to improve management of these resources.

The Atlas provides the groups and agencies with a shared understanding of when and how reefs and fisheries have changed, so they can develop targeted and effective strategies to reduce local pressures and increase the resilience of these vital resources.

A Snapshot of 20 Years of Change

The Atlas of the Reefs of West Maui (Atlas) is a valuable new resource that summarizes scientific data documenting changes in coral reefs and marine life to inform management strategies in West Maui. 

The first of its kind, the Atlas delivers a wealth of data through efficient collections and summaries. It reflects data collected by five public and private organizations over 20 years (1999-2019) from 2,600 sites spanning 23.6 miles (38 km) of coral reefs and other hardbottom areas.

Extending from the Pali Tunnel on Honoapiʻilani Highway to Līpoa Point north of Honolua Bay, the Atlas documents changes in abundance, biomass, and diversity of marine life. This information is helping marine managers develop effective strategies to address threats to reef health from  a growing population (e.g., land-based sources of pollution, unsustainable harvest of ocean resources) and warming climate (e.g., rising sea levels, temperatures, ocean acidification).

Informing Planning and Modeling

Developed at the request of Hawai‘i’s Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR), the Atlas is already being used by State and community partners who are developing much-needed Conservation Action Plans with targeted strategies to reduce local pressures and increase resilience at two popular tourist destinations—the Honolua Bay Marine Life Conservation District and an eight-mile area surrounding Lāhaina.

“The Atlas provides a clear picture of the changes in West Maui’s reefs and fish populations,” explains DAR Biologist Russell Sparks. “Understanding these changes is helping us and our community partners develop effective management plans to restore these resources and achieve our shared goal of effectively protecting 30% of nearshore areas by 2030.”

The Atlas is also contributing to USGS 3D ocean modeling and US Coral Reef Task Force efforts.

Florida Keys (NOAA/Matt McIntosh