NOAA Maps of Coral Reef Ecosystem Habitats Prove Critical to Conservation Efforts

cover of the Implementation of the National Coral Reef Action Strategy: Report on NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program Activities from 2007 to 2009.

NOAA scientists have completed the detailed mapping of 10 shallow-water coral reef ecosystems, giving scientists and resource managers a more complete underwater view of some of the nation’s most valuable, yet threatened marine resources.

The new report is a compilation of maps of 10 highly productive and diverse coral reef regions across the Pacific, Atlantic, and Caribbean describe nearly three million acres of U.S. shallow water coral reef habitats, up to 90 feet deep.

“Healthy coral reefs are among the most economically valuable and biologically diverse ecosystems on earth,” said John Christensen, program manager for NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program. “Seafloor habitat maps are vital to understanding the current state of coral reef ecosystems and successfully managing the threats to their survival.”

NOAA developed a comprehensive seafloor habitat mapping strategy in 2000 at the request of the United States Coral Reef Task Force, an organization of federal, state and local leaders focusing on coral reef conservation. The 12 years of mapping work is now summarized in a new report entitled National Summary of NOAA’s Shallow-water Benthic Habitat Mapping of U.S. Coral Reef Ecosystems.

Coral reef resource managers and scientists rely upon NOAA’s seafloor habitat maps to help evaluate the benefits of marine protected areas, assess and monitor coral reef ecosystems, and minimize effects from growing coastal communities that depend on the ecological services provided by coral reefs, such as food.

“Habitat mapping is one of the first steps to conserving coral reef ecosystems,” continued Christensen. “For example, these maps were key tools used by the local government and resource managers in American Samoa to identify marine areas that were included in the expansion of NOAA’s Fagatele Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The newly expanded sanctuary, the National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa, now protects biologically productive areas that were once unprotected.”

Reefs around the nation, and the world, are threatened by a combination of human stresses, such as pollution, fishing pressure and coastal development, as well as natural ones like storms. As a result, these fragile ecosystems are declining at an alarming rate. In November, after a comprehensive status review of 82 coral species, NOAA proposed Endangered Species Act listings for 66 reef-building coral species, including 59 in the Pacific and seven in the Caribbean.

The work outlined in the report is the result of a partnership between NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program, National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, and Coastal Services Center.