The Living Reef

Restoring the health of our coral reefs is essential if we are to create a sustainable future for our islands.

Protector & Provider 

A coral reef is a living organism, and a living reef gives our islands life. 

It is both a protector and provider – a reservoir of food as well as a buffer against the destructive power of the sea. Hawaii’s coral reefs and near shore waters are home to more than 7,000 marine life forms – a quarter of them found nowhere else in the world. This spectacular diversity can still be seen in the protected waters of the main Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, but in the main Hawaiian Islands, pollution, sedimentation, alien species, overfishing, and other threats are degrading our reefs. Scientists estimate that our near shore fisheries have declined by 75% over the last century. Fishermen tell us there are “way less fish."

Tied to the Sea

Hawaii’s culture traditions and our island way of life are intimately tied to the sea. 

When we allow our reefs to degrade, we lose the important ecological and economic services they provide, as well as a big part of the collective natural and cultural heritage of our islands. The quality of our environment and the quality of our own lives are diminished. So, too, is the quality of life that we pass on to our children.

It is time we take care of our ocean, and not just take from it. Healthy, living reefs are in everyone’s best interest. We all have a stake in their future, for in many ways, they determine ours.

Gifts From the Reef

In more ways than we might realize, our island lifestyle depends upon our coral reefs.

Existing just below the surface of the ocean, out of ordinary sight, coral reefs provide us with countless benefits– from the fresh fish we eat to the surf we ride and the beaches we enjoy.

Corals are one of the oldest life forms on Earth and coral reefs have existed for tens of millions of years. They are home to such a rich diversity of life that they rival rainforests as biological storehouses. Coral reef communities fringe the entire Hawaiian archipelago, sheltering us from the destructive power of the sea. More than 300,000 acres of reefs surround the main islands alone– an area comparable in size to the island of Kaua‘i. In more ways than we might realize, our island lifestyle depends upon our coral reefs.

The Ocean's Supermarket

Coral reefs occupy less than 1 percent of the ocean’s surface, yet they are home to one quarter of the world’s fish species. Filled with crevices, holes, niches, and ledges, coral reefs provide shelter, breeding areas, and lifelong habitats for fish. They are nurseries for the newborn, secure hideaways for juveniles and adults, and abundant sources of food for fish, shellfish, and invertebrates. Around the world, hundreds of millions of people rely on coral reefs for food. Here in Hawai‘i, fresh seafood is an island tradition. Visit any local fish market, seafood emporium, or restaurant and you can enjoy the bounty of the reefs. Lobster, squid, octopus, ‘opihi, limu, and tasty reef fish like kole and kumu are among the many delicacies our reefs provide to Hawaii’s people.

Nature's Breakwaters

For the people of Hawai‘i and millions of others who live on tropical islands, coral reefs are nature’s breakwaters. They buffer the land and coastal inhabitants from the ocean, stabilize the shoreline, provide natural harbors, shelter nearshore homes from storms and big waves, and protect seashores from sand erosion. Without the protection of the reef, our beaches would be severely eroded and our coastlines would be in jeopardy.

Underwater Parks

 As islanders, we snorkel in the coral at Kealakekua Bay and Shark’s Cove, swim in reef-protected waters, scuba dive and fish reefs throughout the islands, and ride waves at dozens of reef-generated surf breaks. More than 7 million visitors come to Hawai‘i every year, and almost all of them engage in these same ocean-related activities. It is estimated that Hawaii’s offshore reefs contribute more than $350 million a year to the state’s economy, or about $1 million a day.


 We can thank our living reefs for Hawaii’s white, sandy beaches. Beach sand is created from coral fragments ground down by wave action. Coral is also ground up into sand by parrotfish, which feed on soft, thin coral tissue and excrete pulverized limestone in their waste. The native marine algae Halimeda is yet another source. It deposits calcium carbonate/limestone in its leaves, which break down and become sand.

Subsistence & Recreation

Fishing is a way of life in Hawaiʻi – part of our cultural heritage and our local culture. The reef provides food for subsistence fishing families in Hawaiʻi, and is an important recreational activity for many others. Sharing our catch with family and friends is an island tradition as old as fishing itself.

No Reef, No Surf

In Hawai‘i, the quality of the surfer’s wave is dependent on the shape of the reef. Because there is no continental shelf (a gradual decline from the shoreline to the deeper ocean) around the Hawaiian Islands, ocean swells approach the shore unhampered. Most of the waves that surfers ride are formed when the swells hit reefs – rising, breaking, and curling.

Life Like Nowhere Else

Over evolutionary time, Hawaiʻi's isolated Pacific location gave rise to one of the world's unique coral reef communities. 

The first corals and marine creatures floated here on ocean currents and then hunkered down to begin life anew, 2,500 miles from the nearest continental land mass. Strong currents and cooler temperatures at the northern edge of the tropics presented challenges for the new species, which depend on warm, shallow water. Out of hundreds of genera of coral, just five came to dominate in Hawai‘i. Within these hardy groups, remarkable species evolved that were adapted to the new habitat. 

Yellow tang and convict tangs eat the algae off the back of a green sea turtle. 

Yellow tang and convict tangs eat the algae off the back of a green sea turtle. 

This Moray eel isnʻt eating his dinner -- heʻs getting his teeth cleaned by a scarlet cleaner shrimp. 

This Moray eel isnʻt eating his dinner -- heʻs getting his teeth cleaned by a scarlet cleaner shrimp.