The Hawaiian Islands
The Hawaiian Islands are an extensive ecosystem with a broad range of habitats from coastal beaches, atolls, and low-elevation areas to native forests on volcanic mountainsides to alpine summit peaks. The ecosystem spans the northwestern boundary of the Papahānaumokuākea National Marine Monument to the southernmost Big Island of Hawai‘i. Thousands of rare and endemic species are found on the islands. The ecosystem provides habitat for millions of nesting seabirds. Hawaiian birds are particularly vulnerable to the cascading impacts of climate change, but if the ecosystem is conserved, this paradise can be an important refuge for unique species.
A Home for Threatened & Endangered Species
Hawai‘i has the greatest number of threatened and endangered species in the United States. Of the more than 100 birds unique to the Hawaiian Islands, it is likely that more than 70 have become extinct since the arrival of humans. Today, the islands provide habitat for a few dozen remaining species of endemic landbirds, primarily honeycreepers, but due to continuing habitat changes, at least six of these species are probably extinct. Millions of nesting seabirds are found in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, including the black-footed and laysan albatrosses. These islands have the largest breeding population of laysan albatrosses in the world. Hawai‘i has 319 threatened and endangered plant species. Imperiled species in coastal areas include the threatened green sea turtle and endangered hawksbill sea turtle. The critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal and imperiled coral reefs are also found in the coastal waters.
Climate Change Threats
Warming temperatures from global climate change assault the ecosystem on multiple fronts. First, as the sea levels rise with the increased melting of the arctic, low-elevation atolls will be inundated. Second, as oceans become more acidic, corals will bleach and die off more quickly, which will reduce sand production for coastal beach ecosystems and healthy reef ecosystems essential for fish and seabirds. Third, as temperatures rise, introduced mosquitoes carrying avian malaria and avian pox will breed at higher elevations, putting bird populations at increased risk of extinction. Because mosquitoes survive at specific temperature ranges, the cooler temperatures of the higher elevations have thus far protected some bird populations from the mosquitoes.
Needed Conservation Measures
The Hawaiian Island ecosystem is a popular visitor destination. The uniqueness of its species makes Hawai‘i a desired destination for birders and ecotourists. If species decline or become extinct, the influx of capital to the region will decline with it. Habitat protection, species recovery, and programs to help species adapt to climate change are essential to continued environmental, cultural, and economic prosperity of the Hawaiian Islands.
The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are part of National Wildlife Refuge System, the Papahānaumokuākea National Marine Monument (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), and the Hawaiian Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. These are among the most protected marine areas in the nation. Yet, increased conservation activities are greatly needed. These include habitat management for native species, captive breeding and release of birds, intensive monk seal management–especially of pups–careful management of appropriate public access areas, fishing, and gathering, the elimination of toxic pollution, and eradication of invasive species.
The main Hawaii islands also face invasive species problems that must be managed such as mosquitoes and glory bush. These islands have important habitat that has been ceded land primarily within the State’s Conservation District. While uses of the land are managed in varying degrees, stronger policies and increased funding are needed to better protect native forests, watersheds, coastal lands, and nearshore waters for wildlife in a time of climate change.