From famed Molokini Crater to sprawling Olowalu Reef, the island of Maui boasts some of the most iconic coral reef ecosystems in Hawaii. Ranked as one of the top islands in the world, Maui annually receives an estimated 3 million visitors, many of whom enjoy snorkeling, diving, and surfing the island’s coral reefs.
Coral reefs are living, breathing organisms that comprise an essential part of Maui’s underwater landscape.
Reefs hold significant environmental, cultural, recreational, and economic value.
They protect Maui’s shorelines from large storms, are responsible for creating the island’s broad sandy beaches, and represent an important local food source. The majority of Maui’s developed reefs can be found along the island’s west and south coasts where extensive coral communities have flourished for thousands of years.
These coral reefs house a myriad of algae, fishes, and invertebrates, in addition to larger animals such as green sea turtles, humpback whales, the critically endangered Hawaiian Monk Seal, manta rays, and a variety of shark species. An estimated 25% of the species found on Maui reefs are considered endemic, meaning that they are found nowhere else on Earth.
The importance of Maui’s reefs has been identified across a number of agencies, and in 2011, the Ka‘anapali area of West Maui was designated as a national priority site area by the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force. In recent decades, expanding development, a growing tourism industry, pollution, sedimentation and changing ocean conditions have led to declines in coral cover throughout Maui.
In some places, Maui reefs have experienced a upwards of a 75% decline in coral cover. Many reef areas have been overtaken by invasive algaes that smother the corals, starving them of essential sunlight. To address these issues, Maui has spearheaded a number of conservation programs and efforts designed to minimize human impacts to the reefs.
The West Maui Ridge to Reef Initiative, for example, seeks to improve coral health by reducing land-based pollution, while the Hawaii Ecotourism Association works with tour operators to adopt sustainable practices.