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NCCOS Research Project

A Marine Biogeographic Assessment of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

This project began in July 2005 and was completed in May 2009

We conducted a biogeographic assessment of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, the second largest marine protected area in the world. The effort was the most comprehensive view of the area’s oceanography, seafloor habitats, and the presence, distribution, and connectivity of the area’s marine resources. It was used to support protection measures and the addition of the monument to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization World Heritage List.

Why We Care
In 2006, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI), home to remote and pristine ecosystems, were designated a marine protected area (MPA), and in 2007 they were named the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. The geographic isolation of the monument has left it largely untouched by many of the threats affecting coral reef ecosystems around the world. As a result, the monument contains endemic coral and fish species and top predators, such as jacks and sharks. Papahanaumokuakea is also an important nesting ground for nearly two dozen seabird species. Until recently, little was known about the marine habitats and associated marine life in the NWHI. At a May 2003 workshop designed to outline scientific and management information needs for Papahanaumokuakea, defining the biogeographic patterns of living marine resources found throughout the NWHI was identified as a priority activity.

What We Did
This assessment was the first effort of its kind to provide a comprehensive description and analysis of the distribution of the living marine resources over space and time both inside and outside monument boundaries. Under the direction of the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, NCCOS, and monument personnel designed and implemented the biogeographic assessment to directly support the monument’s research and management needs, such as minimizing impacts of permitted research activities on NWHI marine resources.

The assessment represented the contributions of over 50 scientists to characterize the physical and biological environments of the monument and how they influence the distribution of living marine resources located both inside and adjacent to the monument’s boundaries over time. We:

  1. Identified and synthesized relevant biological, physical, and socioeconomic data sets for the study area
  2. Organized the data in a common spatial GIS framework
  3. Conducted a marine biogeographic analysis of available data to identify important ecological linkages and biologically significant regions and time periods, based on species distributions, abundance, associated habitats, and ecological function.

The biogeographic assessment process provided a framework to integrate species distributions and life history data with information on habitats to characterize and assess the marine resources within study area.

What We Found
We found that:

  1. There are approximately 80 types of coral in the monument, nearly half of which are found only in Hawaii.
  2. Fifteen whale species were observed within the monument’s boundaries, a diversity of species more complex than cetologists had known.
  3.  Half the fish biomass in the NWHI includes large predators (e.g., sharks, jacks, and grouper), which are important in creating a healthy, stable reef.
  4. Some seabird species feed within a few miles of the islands, while others, such as the Laysan albatross, venture as far as Alaska and California.

The resulting products (i.e., distribution maps, data tables, and connectivity diagrams) supported ecosystem-based management and long-term conservation of the monument. Results of the assessment also supported the adaptive management process and identifying information gaps and research priorities.

Follow Up
Since its publication, the assessment has been used by the monument in a variety of ways. Most notably, results were submitted to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee as part of a package of unbiased scientific documents supporting the monument’s cultural and ecological importance. The assessment provided information vital in the decision-making process. The monument was added to the World Heritage List in July 2010.

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