June 16, 2016

Story: Researchers to present latest science on tipping points in Hawai‘i’s coral reefs at 13th International Coral Reef Symposium

Nearly 2,500 coral reef scientists, policy makers and managers from 70 different nations will converge in Honolulu, Hawai‘i for the 13th International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS) from June 19-24, 2016. Among them will be over a dozen key members of the Ocean Tipping Points project team presenting results of several scientific studies on the health and status of Hawai‘i’s coral reefs.

Scientists from University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, Bangor University, Cal Poly, NCEAS, NOAA, Stanford University’s Center for Ocean Solutions, and the Stockholm Resilience Centre have been collaborating over the last four years to identify coral reef tipping points and help inform strategies to prevent reefs from undergoing undesirable ecosystem shifts. 

Photo: NOAA.

Tipping points occur when mounting human pressure or environmental change brings about large, sometimes abrupt changes in a system – whether in a human society, a physical system, or an ecosystem. Examples of tipping points in ecosystems abound, including some of Hawai‘i’s coral reefs, where reefs once dominated by vibrant corals and teeming with fish are now algae-covered and vacant. Dramatic ecosystem changes like these are raising concern among scientists and policymakers.

“To avoid tipping points we need a better understanding of the human and natural factors causing them,” said project collaborator Magnus Nyström, associate professor at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University.

“We also need to identify strategies that maintain the resilience in coral reefs so they are able to cope with and adapt to future changes. This is a challenge that requires scientists to collaborate across disciplines, in conjunction with managers, people and policymakers.”

The people of Hawai‘i depend on healthy coastal ecosystems for food, clean water, commerce, and culture. When tipping points are crossed these benefits are often lost, which can negatively impact people’s way of life and their wallets through loss of revenue and jobs, diminished food security, and impacts on cultural practices.

Researchers have synthesized an unprecedented amount of data, developed innovative maps and models, and identified how natural and human pressures affect Hawai‘i’s coral reefs. Much of this new information will be shared at ICRS—in all, Ocean Tipping Points team members will present five talks and three posters. The team will also host an ICRS Town Hall session on June 19, focused on linking the best available science to sustainable ecosystem-based management of Hawaiian coral reefs.

Photos: Left-Finger coral, Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, Hawaii, Claire Fackler CINMS. Right- Brian Nielson. Graphic compiled by Winn McEnery.

“The comprehensive dataset we have developed makes available, for the first time, detailed, statewide maps of coral reef condition as well as the natural and human factors that influence reef resilience. These maps are a valuable resource that can help managers determine which reefs need the most protection,” said project co-leader Alan Friedlander of the University of Hawai‘i.

Ocean Tipping Points project researchers will present new analyses that describe reefs based on fish abundance and seafloor cover and distinguish five distinct reef regimes (ecosystem states) that are found across Hawai‘i, including a degraded state with low coral and low fish biomass, a reef type with naturally low coral but high fish biomass, and three distinct types of coral dominated reefs.

“Our research shows that, contrary to the idea that coral is good and algae is bad, reefs can naturally have low coral cover and high fish biomass. Our approach brought fish into the picture to consider more than just coral and algae when defining reef health,” said project collaborator Mary Donovan, a doctoral student at the University of Hawai‘i.

Resource managers need decision-support tools that can effectively use data and scientific insight to find optimal solutions to reef management. In West Maui, tipping points researchers demonstrated how one such tool, called tradeoff analysis, can uncover cost-effective options for repairing roads while optimizing reduction of sediment flow to adjacent coral reefs.

“We found that there were economic and environmental benefits when landowners cooperate across the entire watershed, and repair roads based on their "bang for the buck" -- or sediment reduced per dollar,” said project co-leader Kirsten Oleson, an assistant professor at the University of Hawai‘i.

“Managers are faced with limited time and resources,” explained Principal Investigator Kim Selkoe a research scientist affiliated with University of Hawai‘i and University of California, Santa Barbara. “The concepts and tools being tested by the Ocean Tipping Points project will advance scientifically grounded strategies for monitoring and managing thresholds of reef change, and support efforts to better protect both the biodiversity and human benefits derived from our coastal ecosystem.”

The Hawai‘i case study is part of the larger Ocean Tipping Points project, which seeks to understand and characterize tipping points in marine ecosystems and develop practical tools and approaches to help managers protect vulnerable ecosystems. The project is a multi-institutional collaboration of natural and social scientists, law and policy experts, and resource managers, primarily funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

For more information about all ICRS sessions click here.

For more on the Ocean Tipping Points Town Hall, entitled ‘A Conversation on Ecosystem-Based Management of Hawaiian Reefs’ click here.

Media Contacts:

Kim Selkoe

Hawai`i case study lead
Phone: 805-259-7476,
Email: selkoe@nceas.ucsb.edu

Carrie Kappel

Ocean Tipping Points lead
Phone: 831-869-1503
Email: kappel@nceas.ucsb.edu

Researcher contacts:

Magnus Nyström

Phone: +46 8 674 70 77
Email: Magnus.Nystrom@su.se

Alan Friedlander

Phone: 808-956-8350,
Email: alan.friedlander@hawaii.edu

Kirsten Oleson

Phone: 808-956-886
Email: koleson@hawaii.edu