A two-year UCSB study has created a methodology to effectively manage the world’s threatened coral reef ecosystems.

Lead researchers Kim Selkoe and Ben Halpern’s study – which focuses on the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands – has found that the 1,200 mile-long reef is being threatened by over a dozen direct and indirect human factors. Conducted by UCSB’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, researchers have analyzed the specific factors affecting the reefs to offer cost-effective and managerial solutions.

Protected under U.S. law, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are among the most untouched and isolated in the world, and make up the majority of the U.S. coral reef area. Despite their isolation, Halpern said they are not free from human contamination.

The threats – all generated by humans – include alien species, bottom fishing, lobster trap fishing, ship-based pollution, ship strike risks, marine debris, research diving, research equipment installation and wildlife sacrifice for research. Human-induced climate change threats were also studied, including increased ultraviolet radiation, seawater acidification, the number of warm ocean temperature anomalies relevant to disease outbreaks and coral bleaching and sea level rise.

The risk of increased rates of coral disease due to warming ocean temperature was found to have the highest impact, along with other climate-related threats.

In light of their findings, Selkoe and Halpern have drafted “cumulative human impact maps” of the area, which allow for the condition of the ocean to be observed and monitored. Selkoe, who is also affiliated with the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology at the University of Hawaii, said the maps are an important step toward understanding human influence on coral reef health.

“Our maps of cumulative human impact are a powerful tool for synthesizing and visualizing the state of the oceans,” Selkoe said in a press release. “The maps can aid in strategically zoning uses of oceans in an informed way that maximizes commercial and societal benefits while minimizing further cumulative impact.”

By observing which areas are the most pristine, reef managers can deduce which areas require the most protection. Halpern said the human impact maps have helped managers make decisions that will address the most pressing threats to the coral reef ecosystem.

“The maps show places that are being the most drastically influenced by human stressors,” Helpern said.

While the coral reefs may not seem close to home for many, Halpern urged the community to keep in mind that the area is a national monument, and that all Americans should want to keep it alive as a part of our country.

“We all have a responsibility to change our behavior,” Halpern said.