Hawaii Conservation Summary

Hawaii is world famous as a paradise of equable climate, white sand beaches, rainbows, stunning sunsets, active volcanoes, and lush tropical setting. However, Hawaii’s natural wonders go far beyond these idyllic symbols, and a closer look reveals an astonishing diversity of species and ecosystems. So distinctive is the ecological setting of the Hawaiian Islands that they comprise a distinct and isolated ecoregion, and have received biogeographic province status in several world classifications.

Rare Species and Characteristic Habitats

Hawaii’s insular geography, latitudinal span of tropical and subtropical zones, elevational span of coastal, lowland, montane, subalpine and alpine zones, and distinctive geology and climate contribute not only to huge ecological amplitude but also to an amazing array of species. Hawaii supports nearly 200 terrestrial, freshwater and subterranean natural communities ranging from lowland rainforests to alpine aeolian deserts, coastal cliff ecosystems to montane bogs, anchialine pools to alpine lakes, and lava tube cave communities dominated by blind spider, roothoppers and crickets to island stream systems characterized by a macrofauna derived from oceanic fishes and macroinvertebrates. Hawaii supports many aquatic and marine communities including estuaries, seagrass beds, continuous perennial streams, seabird nesting concentrations, and the most expansive coral reef system in the U.S.

The majority of Hawaiian species are found nowhere else on Earth, including over 800 plant species, 40 vertebrates, and nearly all its terrestrial native invertebrates. Terrestrial endemism hovers near 90 percent, making Hawaii one of the hottest spots for unique taxa in the world. These endemic species include the state bird, the Nēnē, or Hawaiian goose, the Hawaiian monk seal, and the No-eyed Big-eyed Hunting Cave Spider. The oldest islands of Oahu and Kauai are richest in endemic plants, including tree violets, mintless mints, tube-flowered lobelioids, and hundreds of other globally imperiled flowering plants and ferns.

Public and Private Conservation Efforts

Intact large-scale assemblages of species and natural communities can still be found in Hawaii thanks to numerous large protected areas which help make up the over 1 million acres of conservation lands managed by federal, state, local and private agencies. These include national parks, wildlife refuges, forest reserves, and private land holdings. Marine protection efforts include a series of marine life conservation districts, aquarium fish protection areas, commercial fishing restriction areas, and the largest marine protected area in the U.S.

Conservation efforts do not end with acquisition, however. One initiative in Hawaii, for example, is the Hawaii Invasive Species Committees, a program to help detect and eradicate incipient invasive species populations on all the main islands. The Hawaii Conservation Alliance (HCA), a cooperative venture of over a dozen of the largest land holders and managers of the archipelago, includes federal managers, the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, the University of Hawaii, native Hawaiian representation, and The Nature Conservancy of Hawaii. Together, the HCA members coordinate efforts, establish recommendations and positions of the combined conservation community, and work to enhance biodiversity conservation in the archipelago.

Threats

Although Hawaii’s conservation successes are inspiring, the state faces many challenges. The foremost of these is the insidious spread and influence of alien invasive species, from tiny gall wasps to coqui frogs, South American melastomes to feral pigs, Indian mongoose to Himalayan raspberry. When it comes to invasive species, Hawaii’s broad ecological spectrum of conditions is a liability, nearly ensuring that new invasives can find a habitat in which to thrive.

The health of Hawaii’s aquatic ecosystems is threatened by hydrologic disturbances such as channelization, water diversion, water quality degradation, and alien freshwater species. Marine habitats in the main islands have been greatly overexploited, leading to ecological disruptions in algae, coral, herbivore and predator guilds.

Over it all, the global threat of climate change poses particular challenges for Hawaii. Because Hawaiian ecological systems are of small scale and zonal, not only will sea-level rise disrupt coastal ecosystems, but changes in temperature and moisture regimes on island flanks may induce habitat changes that exceed ecological adaptation capacity of our tightly adapted species.

Hawaii’s Future

Despite these challenges, the people of Hawaii are dedicated to the conservation of the state’s rich natural heritage. Cooperation among conservation agencies is remarkably high, and public support for native species protection is high. Through the combined effort of committed individuals and organizations, the health of Hawaii’s natural environment can be conserved for future generations.

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