Marine Spatial Planning for Coral Reefs

Applying Key Concepts of Marine Spatial Planning to Promote Coral Reef Recovery Following a Severe Bleaching Event

Anne Rosinski, Hawaii Coral Reef Initiative, University of Hawaii

Anne completed the Duke Marine Planning Advancement Training in December 2016, where she provided the following update on marine spatial planning in Hawaii:


It is estimated that over 20% of the world’s coral reefs, which provide ecosystem services to over 500 million people, have died due to bleaching in the last 20 years[1],[2]. Coral bleaching is a stress response that causes the coral animal to expel its zooxanthellae, which provide critical compounds that drive photosynthesis.  Exposed to continual stress, such as high ocean temperatures, corals become vulnerable and eventually die. It is predicted that mass bleaching will become an annual phenomenon in Hawaii by 2050[3]. In 2014 and 2015, Hawaii experienced the most severe coral bleaching event to date, spurred by high ocean temperatures. Coral mortality caused by this event was on average of 50% in west Hawaii and 20-30% around Maui[4],[5].


Photo Credit: Hawaii DAR (Division of Aquatic Resources)

Faced with large areas of dead coral reefs throughout the state, developing coral bleaching planning solutions has become a management priority through the development of the Department of Land and Natural Resources – Division of Aquatic Resources’ (DLNR-DAR) Coral Bleaching Recovery Plan, which aims to maximize the health and resiliency of the state’s coral reefs for future climatic events.  As there are very limited examples of managers implementing post-bleaching management action, the Coral Bleaching Recovery Plan team must rely on core concepts of marine spatial planning as well as decision-support technology to ensure a clear and efficient process.


The planning team is at the beginning stages of creating the Coral Bleaching Recovery Plan.  A goal has been identified, to “help reefs recover from the 2014-2015 bleaching event and make them more resilient.”  The next step and core concept of marine spatial planning is to define the planning area.  Since there was no specific legislation supporting any spatial designations, the planning team looked at a number of factors to identify four priority areas in the Main Hawaiian Islands.  Based on which areas received the highest levels of ocean warming and where existing partnerships and DLNR-DAR capacity could ensure a high chance of success, West Hawaii, Maui, Kaneohe Bay, and North Kauai were selected.  A workshop that took place in August 2016 incorporated a wider stakeholder group of Hawaii-based scientists, managers, and partners to further delve into these priority areas to identify: 1) a ranked list of recommended place-based management actions, 2) management obstacles and opportunities to implementing these actions, and 3) site-based research needs.


Photo Credit: Hawaii DAR (Division of Aquatic Resources)

The next step in this planning process will be to hone in on very specific resource management rules and policies that will support coral reef recovery and build resilience in the priority areas.  To help inform this, the Hawaii Coral Reef Initiative (HCRI) has been developing a project that will identify hotspots where the effective management of coral reef herbivores (which consume algae and create space for corals to recover) could have the greatest chance of success within the priority areas of West Hawaii and Maui.  We will use Marxan, a computer software that has guided several large-scale MPA network design projects including the re-zoning of the Great Barrier Reef[6] and California’s central coast[7].  Marxan runs millions of reserve design alternatives and selects the “best” conservation solution based on the user-defined parameters. We will create a heatmap of the best solution visualizing priority areas within west Hawaii and Maui where herbivore management will have the greatest benefit to enhancing coral recovery and resilience at the least social cost.  We will then use SeaSketch, an interactive mapping and analysis platform to revise the Marxan maps based on site-based knowledge with a small group of stakeholders and partners in both priority areas.  Our project will support the planning process that grew out of the recent bleaching event as well as provide a process that could be expanded and adapted to broader, statewide planning activities.  In the future, use of these novel technologies might combine with core marine spatial planning concepts to develop effective and transparent resource management actions in Hawaii.


Anne Rosinski leads research-focused projects supporting the restoration and management of coral reefs for the Hawaii Coral Reef Initiative.  She is collaborating with the Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR) to develop the Coral Bleaching Recovery Plan.  She is also currently a PhD student at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in the Marine Biology Graduate Program.

For further resources and training on coastal and marine planning, visit the Duke Coastal and Marine Planning Resources page, or contact execed@nicholas.duke.edu for our next training dates.


[1] Moberg, Fredrik, and Carl Folke. 1999. Ecological Goods and Services of Coral Reef Ecosystems. Ecological Economics. 29.2: 215–233.

[2] Hoegh-Guldberg and Bruno 2010 Schofield, O., H. W. Ducklow, D. G. Martinson, M. P. Meredith, M. A. Moline, and W. R. Fraser. 2010. The Impact of Climate Change on the World’s Ecosystems. Science 328.5985: 1520–23. doi:10.1126/science.1185779.

[3] Hooidonk, R. et al. 2013. Opposite Latitudinal Gradients in Projects Ocean Acidification and Bleaching Impacts on Coral Reefs. Global Change Biology. doi: 10.1111/gcb.12394.

[4] Walsh, William. 2016. West Hawai‘i  Aquarium Project (WHAP). Unpublished data. Department of Land and Natural Resources, Division of Aquatic Resources.

[5] Sparks, Russell. 2016. Department of Land and Natural Resources, Division of Aquatic Resources. Unpublished data.

[6] Fernandes, Leanne, Jon Day, Adam Lewis, Suzanne Slegers, Brigid Kerrigan, Dan Breen, Darren Cameron, et al. 2005. Establishing Representative No-Take Areas in the Great Barrier Reef: Large-Scale Implementation of Theory on Marine Protected Areas. Conservation Biology 19.6: 1733–44. doi:10.1111/j.1523-1739.2005.00302.x.

[7] Watts, Matthew E., Ian R. Ball, Romola S. Stewart, Carissa J. Klein, Kerrie Wilson, Charles Steinback, Reinaldo Lourival, Lindsay Kircher, and Hugh P. Possingham. 2009. Marxan with Zones: Software for Optimal Conservation Based Land- and Sea-Use Zoning. Environmental Modelling & Software 24.12: 1513–21. doi:10.1016/j.envsoft.2009.06.005.