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Hawaii Coral Reef Initiative Research Program


Coral damage from swimmers
Coral damage from swimmers

Coral reefs, one of the most valuable and spectacular environments on earth, are also one of the most productive and diverse marine ecosystems. Coral reefs are valuable assets that contribute to a healthy economy by providing food, jobs, and protection from storms. They create habitat for many fish and invertebrate species with commercial value, support tourism and recreational industries, and shelter coastlines from storm disturbance. Coral reef related activities provide a significant economic benefit for many regions of the United States and the rest of the world.

Scientific evidence indicates that coral reefs are deteriorating rapidly worldwide. Symptoms of this decline include the loss of hard corals, an increased abundance of algae, and conspicuous bleaching episodes and disease outbreaks. Scientists and managers still lack critical information about many of the causes of coral decline, but evidence points to stresses caused by a variety of human factors (see inset above). Human impacts act separately and in combination with natural factors such as hurricanes, high water temperature, and disease to stress corals and degrade reef systems.

The Hawaiian Archipelago, from South Point on the island of Hawaii to the western-most point on Kure Atoll, extends approximately 2,579 kilometers and hosts extensive reef ecosystems (80 % of those found under U.S. jurisdiction). The state's coral reef ecosystems have over 5,000 known species of marine plants and animals, of which about 25% 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, resulting in adverse impacts to the reefs, including sedimentation, eutrophication, and pollution. The effects of overfishing and algal growth further compound these adverse impacts. As a result, there is a need to strengthen resource management capacity to ensure the sustainability of Hawaii 's coral reef ecosystems.


The Hawai'i Coral Reef Initiative Research Program (HCRI — RP) was established in 1998 as a partnership between the University of Hawaii (UH) and Hawaii 's Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR). The program focuses on the linkages between human activities and damage to the coral reef ecosystem with the objective of providing resource managers with much-needed information to effectively prevent, and possibly reverse, coral reef degradation. Additional collaborators include the Pacific Science Association, Bishop Museum , and the Hawaii Nature Conservancy.

The core strength of this program is that its research and monitoring activities are run as a competitive selection process. Within this framework and to achieve its objectives, yearly priorities for the annual proposal competition are set through a consultative process between the two main partners and other related agencies and organizations with interest in Hawaii 's coral reef resources. This process provides resource managers with timely, highest quality scientific information. The five overarching goals of the HCRI — RP are to:

  • Assess the major threats to coastal reef ecosystems,
  • build resource management capacity,
  • develop database and information systems,
  • conduct public awareness programs, and
  • train scientists and managers.

The Center for Sponsored Coastal Ocean Research continues to support HCRI — RP as a major research and monitoring program that involves extensive collaboration between scientists from universities, non-profit organizations, and resource management agencies to develop strategies to protect healthy reefs and, where possible, to reverse its degradation. Through its sponsored projects, HCRI — RP complements the mission of NOAA and priorities of the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force, and the research goals and objectives in the Coral Reef and Marine Conservation Act of 2000. Results will greatly improve the management and health of Hawaii 's reefs and provide knowledge that can be extrapolated to other regions across the Pacific.

Coral damage from swimmers
Algal growth over coral

In FY2005, Congress appropriated $1.5M to continue the work of HCRI — RP for year-8. CSCOR requested from UH a proposal to implement these funds, and has vetted it through its rigorous peer-review process, and the HCRI — RP team has addressed reviewer comments. The proposal has been recommended for funding and will be sent to NOAA's Grants Office for processing. In the FY2005 proposal, HCRI — RP has identified six priority areas that will focus on the coastal reefs of the main Hawaiian Islands :

  • Continuation of the non-economic valuation.
  • Increase the understanding of stressors, more specifically invasive species, fishing pressure, pollution, coral diseases, coastal development, and nearshore recreation.
  • Status of the costal reefs.
  • Population and oceanographic dynamics.
  • Review of policies and regulations.
  • Increase access to the science by the local community, particularly children.

Management and Policy Implications

HCRI — RP's partnership between UH and DAR will ensure that state of the science information is made available in a timely manner to the agency responsible for the protection of coral reefs in Hawaii. The collaboration in HCRI — RP between scientists and managers will result in scientifically sound management strategies and policies. Finally, HCRI — RP will also provide a mechanism through which management practices can be evaluated and modified as necessary in order to maximize their effectiveness.


Through its first 7 yrs, HCRI — RP successfully achieved its goals and saw its budget increase from $475K in FY1998 to almost $1.25M in FY2004. During this period HCRI-RP funded 59 projects and provided valuable information on:

  • The economic and non-economic value of Hawaii's coral reefs,
  • the status of fish populations around the main Hawaiian Islands, the threat of invasive algal species and their relationship to poor water quality and disturbed coral communities,
  • the impact of land-based sources of pollution on coastal ecosystems,
  • the value of protected areas to maintain the health of exploited fish stocks, and
  • the population dynamics of keystone coral reef species.

The HCRI — RP has been instrumental in helping the DAR develop effective monitoring programs to assess the health of the state's coral reef ecosystems. The HCRI — RP has also excelled in making the results and information of its projects available to not only the resource managers but also to the general public through public service announcements, brochures, newsletters, and an innovative and creative computer game.

Current Projects

  • Non-Economic Surveys
  • How many fish does it take to keep the alien algae out?
  • Assessment of Invasiveness of the Orange Keyhole Sponge Mycale armata in Kane'ohe Bay, O'ahu, Hawai'i
  • Connectivity of Pocillopora meandrina populations: genetic and oceanographic approaches
  • Origins and relationships of the Hawaiian reef coral: Porites taxonomy, life history, endemicity, and population genetics
  • ReefRanger: A 3D Coral Reef Game for Education, Training and Public Awareness
  • Post-settlement Life History of Key Coral Reef Fishes in a Hawaiian Marine Protected Area Network; Phase II
  • Investigation of disease in coral and reef fish on Maui
  • Impacts of alien algae on native seagrasses in Hawaiian benthic reef communities
  • Reproduction and developmental characteristics of an alien soft coral (Carijoa riisei) in Hawai'i
  • Integrated Monitoring of Coral Reefs of West Hawaii: Developing a Whole Reef and Ecosystem Approach for the Main Hawaiian Islands
  • Monitoring of Hawaiian Invertebrates (Crustacea) for White Spot Syndrome Virus (WSSV)

Related Links

Hawaii Coral Reef Initiative Research Program

For More Information

Felix Martinez
NOAA / NOAA Ocean Service / NCCOS / CSCOR
301-713-3338 x.153

Note: HCRI-RP is a CSCOR coral reef core program contributing to the mission of NOAA's Coral Reef Conservation Program.