Pacific Southwest, Region 9
Serving: Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada, Pacific Islands, Tribal Nations
Oceans, Coasts, and Estuaries
- Coral Reefs
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On this page
- What are coral reefs?
- Threats to coral reefs
- What Region 9 is doing to protect coral reefs
- Aquatic Invasive Species
Coral reef ecosystems sustain abundant and diverse tropical marine life. Region 9's marine waters (Hawai'i, American Samoa, Guam, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas) include over 58% of shallow water coral reefs in the United States. EPA plays a crucial role in restoring and maintaining water quality and aquatic ecosystems, including coral reefs (excluding coral reef systems in Southern Florida, where vast expanses of deep sea reefs have been surveyed (NOAA, 2005)).
What are Coral Reefs?
Coral reefs depend on clean, clear water and sunlight to survive. Like atoms, coral polyps-tiny individual organisms-serve as the building blocks for the coral reefs. Colonies of these polyps and their calcium carbonate skeletons comprise the physical structure of coral reefs.
Coral reefs provide shelter and nourishment for many marine creatures and contribute to the development and health of other marine ecosystems such as sandy beaches, mangrove swamps, and sea grass beds. Reefs supply food to sustain human populations and serve as a buffer protecting shorelines from the erosive power of the sea. While only comprising 1% of ocean surface area, coral reefs support over 25 percent of the world's fish species. Coral reefs also provide millions of individuals an important means of aquatic recreation.
Further, reefs are of great economic importance. In Hawai'i where more than 7 million people visit each year, reefs annually produce an estimated $360 million in economic benefits. In CNMI the total estimated value of coral reefs from tourism, recreation, fisheries, coastal protection, amenities and research is $61 million per year.
- How Much are Saipan's Coral Reefs Worth? (PDF) (6 pp, 530K)
Threats to Coral Reefs
Human-Related Threats to Pacific Coral Reefs Include
Various human and natural activities have weakened the vitality of coral reefs around the world. Pacific coral reefs are considered to be in fairly good health, in contrast to reefs in Florida and the Caribbean. However, coral reefs in the Pacific still face many severe threats. For example, Hawai'i's Dept. of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) reports that nearly one quarter of all living coral was lost between 1994 and 2006 at coral monitoring sites on Maui. Human impacts related to invasive algae, overfishing, and elevated nutrients are thought to play important roles in this decline.
- More information on the Status of Maui's coral reefs (PDF)
Reefs are resilient and have the ability to recover if pollution controls, fishing/collecting restrictions, and other management practices are put in place. "The Living Reef" , a beautiful 2007 publication of the Nature Conservancy and Hawai'i's DLNR, describes a six-part effort to improve the condition of Hawai'i's coral reefs.
What Region 9 is Doing to Protect Coral Reefs
Grants for Coral Protection
- BEACH Act Grants
- Environmental Education
- Env. Justice Collaborative Problem-Solving Grants
- EPA STAR Grants
- Food Quality Protection Act
- OSWER Innovation Initiative
- Pesticide Environmental Stewardship Program
- Pollution Prevention Grants for States
- Nonpoint Source Water Pollution Control
- Resource Conservation Funds
- Targeted Watershed Initiative
- Wetlands Protection Grants
Coral reefs are valued for their diversity and beauty, but are increasingly threatened worldwide by natural and human-caused stressors. To address threats such as land-based pollution and coastal development, EPA Region 9 is applying a range of regulatory and non-regulatory environmental programs to monitor and protect coral reefs.
- Grants for protection of coral reefs
- Biological Assessments and Biocriteria
- Reducing land based pollution
- Aquatic Invasive Species
Grants for Protection of Coral Reefs
EPA's competitive grants support projects that help protect coral reefs. These grants fund a range of activities including education, non-point source pollution control, research, monitoring, watershed management, and development of biological criteria for coral reefs.
Biological Assessments and Biocriteria
Biocriteria are narrative or numeric descriptions of the reference biological integrity (structure and function) of coral reef aquatic communities. These are a component of state/territory water quality standards and guide local water quality management decisions. Bioassessments are an evaluation of the biological condition of a waterbody using biosurvey data and other direct measurements of resident biota. If bioassessments reveal that certain biological criteria within the water quality standards are not met, jurisdictions have a range of authorities within the Clean Water Act for implementing corrective action.
EPA's "Stony Coral Rapid Bioassessment Protocol" (RBP) is a coral reef survey system allowing for rapid advanced monitoring of "stony" reef-building corals at low costs. RBP generates comprehensive information on the physical quantity, health and community composition of coral reefs. This stony coral RBP protocol document is planned for publication in 2007. Bioassessment indicators produced by RBP can be incorporated into a biocriteria program to conserve coral resources.
Within Region 9, the Commonwealth of Northern Marianas Islands (CNMI) and American Samoa have bioassessment programs for coral reefs and plan to propose numeric biological criteria in the next revision of their water quality standards. These programs are likely to be the first in the nation to adopt coral reef biocriteria.
Two EPA Region 9 Wetland Program Development Grants are funding development of biological criteria for coral reefs. These grants were awarded to CNMI's Division of Environmental Quality ($36,500) and University of Hawai'i's Institute of Marine Biology ($83,000).
Reducing Land-Based Pollution
Runoff of pollutants from coastal watersheds contributes to the degradation of coral reef systems. Region 9 works with state, territories, and other federal agencies on implementing Local Action Strategies (LAS) to reduce land-based pollution threats to coral reefs.
Hawai'i's LAS is working with landowners in three watersheds (Honolua, Maui; Kawela to Kapualei, Molokai; and Hanalei, Kauai) to reduce pollution in surface and groundwater through improved land and water management practices. This work is coordinated with marine monitoring to better understand the links between land-based pollution and coral reef health.
An EPA Targeted Watershed Grant funded projects to improve water quality in Hanalei Watershed and Bay on the island of Kaua'i. Additionally, in 2006, local community group Hanalei Hui was awarded $17,000 in EPA grants to support environmental education about sedimentation and erosion control.
Region 9's Enforcement program has led strong Clean Water Act enforcement actions in Hawai'i which have tangibly helped protect coral reefs and deter those who would violate the Act. Violations that resulted in sediment damage to a coral reef on Kauai, were resolved in a settlement agreement of over $7.5 million involving EPA, DOJ, Hawai'i, Kauai County, and Earth Justice. More information on Pflueger SWA settlement.
Another Clean Water Act settlement with Hawai'i Department of Transportation will result in over $50 million in improved stormwater management for highways and airports, improving water quality for Hawai'i's reefs. More information on Hawai'i DOT CWA settlement.
Aquatic Invasive Species
Invasive species are organisms that spread rapidly to dominate ecosystems and are likely to cause economic or environmental harm. Many invasives are introduced species that may increase the likelihood of new diseases and decrease the food and space for native species. A variety of aquatic invasive species, such as alien seaweed, fish, and even corals threaten the vitality of coral reefs. As invasive species are primarily introduced by human activity, there are a series of preventive measures that can be implemented to protect native ecosystems.
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