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Coral reefs in an urban embayment in Hawaii: a complex case history controlled by natural and anthropogenic stress

Author(s): Grigg RW


The effects of natural and anthropogenic stress need to be separated before coral reef ecosystems can be effectively managed. In this paper, a 25 year case history of coral reefs in an urban embayment (Mamala Bay) off Honolulu, Hawaii is described and differences between natural and man-induced stress are distinguished. Mamala Bay is a 30 km long shallow coastal bay bordering the southern (leeward) shore of Oahu and the city of Honolulu in the Hawaiian Islands. During the last 25 years, this area has been hit by two magnitude 5 hurricane events (winds > 240 km/h) generating waves in excess of 7.5 m. Also during this period, two large sewer outfalls have discharged up to 90 million gallons per day (mgd) or (360 × 106 L/day) of point source pollution into the bay. Initially the discharge was raw sewage, but since 1977 it has received advanced primary treatment. Non-point source run-off from the Honolulu watershed also enters the bay on a daily basis. The results of the study show that discharge of raw sewage had a serious but highly localized impact on shallow (∼10 m) reef corals in the bay prior to 1977. After 1977, when treatment was upgraded to the advanced primary level and outfalls were extended to deep water (> 65 m), impacts to reef corals were no longer significant. No measurable effects of either point or non-point source pollution on coral calcification, growth, species composition, diversity or community structure related to pollution can now be detected. Conversely the effects of hurricane waves in 1982 and 1992 together caused major physical destruction to the reefs. In 1982, average coral cover of well-developed offshore reefs dropped from 60–75% to 5–15%. Only massive species in high relief areas survived. Today, recovery is occurring, and notwithstanding major future disturbance events, long-term biological processes should eventually return the coral ecosystems to a more mature successional stage. This case history illustrates the complex nature of the cumulative effects of natural and anthropogenic stress on coral reefs and the need for a long-term data base before the status of a coral reef can be properly interpreted.

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