Ocean Blog

Legislators Introduce Measures to Spur Coral Reef Research

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Coral bleaching in West Hawai‘i. Photo credit: The Nature Conservancy of Hawai‘i

Sen. Mazie K. Hirono (D-Hawaii) and Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii) today introduced the Coral Reef Sustainability Through Innovation Act of 2017.

In response to increasing threats to coral reef ecosystems such as climate change, pollution, and direct damage from humans, this legislation directs federal agencies to establish a competitive prize to catalyze creative solutions to mitigate the decline or degradation of coral reefs.

“As an island state, Hawai‘i relies on healthy coral reef ecosystems to protect our communities from extreme weather events,” said Sen. Hirono. “These reefs are also home to marine life that feed our communities and support our local economy. By supporting innovative solutions to real-world issues, this bill creates an opportunity for individuals, government, and the private sector to partner together to protect our aquatic resources and coastal communities now and into the future. Collaborative, science-based partnerships are the kinds of efforts we need to address our common challenges, like climate change. Strong public support for this type of approach was on display last weekend, when people in Hawai‘i and across the country turned out to celebrate Earth Day by participating in the March for Science.”


“As guardians of our planet, we cannot afford to look back and wonder why we did not take steps to prevent the total loss of our coral reef ecosystem when we had notice of its impending demise,” said Rep. Hanabusa. “The time for action is now. As a Congress, we must take the steps necessary to inspire big thinkers to come up with real solutions that will protect our planet’s coral reefs.”

Threats to coral reef ecosystems due to climate change continue to increase, the legislators’ press release stated. Just last week, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels at Mauna Loa Observatory reached record levels of 410 parts per million. At the same time, scientists are also continuing to understand the downstream implications of degraded coral ecosystems.

Researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey last week published a study showing that the sea floor around degrading coral reefs is eroding, exposing coastal communities to harsher waves and deepening coastal waters.


Out of the three locations studied, which included Maui, the Florida Keys, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the seafloor near Maui had suffered the most extreme erosion.

Coral reefs in Hawai‘i alone are worth $385 million per year to the local economy and provide a total net present value of $10 billion.

Aimed at fostering coral reef conservation and innovation research, this bill authorizes the 12 federal agencies on the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force to use existing cross-agency funding to carry out a competitive prize competition.


Additionally, the legislation allows federal agencies to work with private entities to both fund and administer the prize competition.

The Coral Reef Sustainability Through Innovation Act of 2017 is co-sponsored by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), and Tom Carper (D-Del.); and Representatives Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Lois Frankel (D-Fla.), Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam), Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawai‘i).

The University of Hawai‘i and the Ocean Conservancy support this legislation.

“The University of Hawai‘i is thankful for Sen. Hirono and Rep. Hanabusa proposing innovative legislation to advance coral reef conservation and protection,” said Chris E. Ostrander, assistant dean of Strategic Initiatives & External Relations of the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa’s School of Ocean & Earth Science & Technology. “The people of Hawai‘i, and the world-class faculty and students of UH are recognized globally for their efforts to understand, conserve and protect living reef resources throughout the Pacific. As ocean temperatures rise and the oceans become more acidic, the science and conservation communities are rapidly working to assess the impacts of a changing climate on future coral reef health. Utilizing the mechanisms proposed by Sen. Hirono and Rep. Hanabusa, we look forward to advancing new partnerships with government agencies, private industry, and the research community to advance the science and practice of coral reef conservation.”

“Sen. Hirono and Rep. Hanabusa have taken an important step to safeguard coral reefs today, in recognition of how much coral reefs do to sustain coastal communities all around the United States,” said Sarah Cooley, Ph.D., and director of Ocean Conservancy’s Ocean Acidification Program. “Rich coral ecosystems in both warm and cold water support thousands of fishing jobs every day and lure millions of visitors from around the world every year. Ocean acidification and warming profoundly threaten coral reefs and the coastal communities that depend on them. We are optimistic that the Coral Reef Sustainability Through Innovation Act will help bring together new creative partnerships dedicated to finding solutions for the threats coral reefs face.”

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