Investigating the Relationship Between Land-Based Sources of Pollution and Coral Reef Ecosystem Function

EPA Grant Number: F13F11102
Title: Investigating the Relationship Between Land-Based Sources of Pollution and Coral Reef Ecosystem Function
Investigators: Robert Burns, John Henrik
Institution: University of Hawaii at Manoa
EPA Project Officer: Packard, Benjamin H
Project Period: August 25, 2014 through August 25, 2016
Project Amount: $84,000
RFA: STAR Graduate Fellowships (2013) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Fellowship - Zoology , Academic Fellowships


The health and architectural complexity of coral reefs profoundly influ- ences the biodiversity and functionality of these complex ecosystems. Quantifying structural parameters can identify the effects of biological and environmental influences on the survival, growth and reproduction of scleractinian corals. This research project will evaluate the effects of land-based pollutants and sedimentation on coral health and disease, as well as on coral community structure.


The Hamakua Coast on the northern slopes of Mauna Kea, Hawaii Island, is a highly productive agricultural region characterized by high annual rainfall, steep topography and soils derived from volcanic ash. The combination of high sediment and land-based pollutants, transported to coastal waters by runoff, is likely to physiologically compromise the coral communities inhabiting the Hamakua coastline. This area, therefore, represents an ideal site to investigate the effect of land-based pollutants and sedimentation on coral health dynamics. Epizootiological surveys will be conducted at several study sites along a gradient from delivery points of freshwater runoff. The epizootiological surveys will provide information pertaining to the presence and spread of all signs of reduced health and disease. Surveying along this gradient will elucidate the relationship between land-based pollution and coral disease severity. Structure-from-motion (SfM) photogrammetry techniques will be used to develop 3-D models of the coral reef habitat at each surveyed location. The SfM-derived models enable quantification of physical features, such as structural complexity, that provide habitat space and support ecosys- tem productivity. Creating 3-D models of each study site will facilitate analyses of the relationship between coral health and reef structure. Collating the findings from this dynamic research approach will ultimately provide the means to assess the effects of land-based pollutants and sedimentation on overall reef health and functionality.

Expected Results:

The results of this research project will greatly improve understanding
of the coastal ecosystems of Hawai'i Island. This proposed research will complement other collaborative projects investigating coral ecosystems around the island and will help to determine environmental factors that drive coral health and ecosystem function. The findings will not only improve and characterize these sites, but also promote locally based management strategies aimed at preserving coral reef health and resilience. This work will produce the following specific scientific contributions by the end of the funding cycle: (1) epizootiological characterization of coral health and disease at each study site; (2) 3-D characterization of the physical characteristics of coral community structure at each study site; (3) identification of 3-D physical characteristics of coral community structure that exacerbate the effects and spread of coral disease; and (4) quantification of the effects of land-based pollution and sedimentation on coral reef health and structure. The proposed research will not only enhance the understanding of coral reef ecosystem function and produce meaningful results, but also serve as a platform for future studies to investigate the effects of land-based pollutants and sedimentation on coral health throughout the Hawaiian archipelago.

Potential to Further Environmental/Human Health Protection

The health and livelihood of humans depend heavily on goods and services derived from the world’s oceans. Hawaiian communities surrounding coral reef ecosystems are especially reliant on seafood, tourism and recreation, coastal protection and cultural benefits. The results from this study will provide insight into the dynamics of coral reef health and function at a variety of sites that are affected by land-based sources of pollution. Ultimately, the proposed research will promote conservation action plans aimed at controlling land-based activities and pollutants that negatively affect coral health and ecosystem resilience.

Supplemental Keywords:

coral reef, ecosystem function, land-based pollution

Progress and Final Reports:

  • 2015
  • Final