Identifying Suitable Locations for Mesophotic Hard Corals Offshore of Maui, Hawai‘i
Mesophotic hard corals (MHC) are increasingly threatened by a growing number of anthropogenic stressors, including impacts from fishing, land-based sources of pollution, and ocean acidification. However, little is known about their geographic distributions (particularly around the Pacific islands) because it is logistically challenging and expensive to gather data in the 30 to 150 meter depth range where these organisms typically live. The goal of this study was to begin to fill this knowledge gap by modelling and predicting the spatial distribution of three genera of mesophotic hard corals offshore of Maui in the Main Hawaiian Islands. Maximum Entropy modeling software was used to create separate maps of predicted probability of occurrence and uncertainty for: (1) Leptoseris, (2) Montipora, and (3) Porites. Genera prevalence was derived from the in situ presence/absence data, and used to convert relative habitat suitability to probability of occurrence values. Approximately 1,300 georeferenced records of the occurrence of MHC, and 34 environmental predictors were used to train the model ensembles. Receiver Operating Characteristic (ROC) Area Under the Curve (AUC) values were between 0.89 and 0.97, indicating excellent overall model performance. Mean uncertainty and mean absolute error for the spatial predictions ranged from 0.006% to 0.05% and 3.73% to 17.6%, respectively. Depth, distance from shore, euphotic depth (mean and standard deviation) and sea surface temperature (mean and standard deviation) were identified as the six most influential predictor variables for partitioning habitats among the three genera. MHC were concentrated between Hanaka‘ō‘ō and Papawai Points offshore of western Maui most likely because this area hosts warmer, clearer and calmer water conditions almost year round. While these predictions helped to fill some knowledge gaps offshore of Maui, many information gaps remain in the Hawaiian Archipelago and Pacific Islands. This approach may be used to identify other potentially suitable areas for MHCs, helping scientists and resource managers prioritize sites, and focus their limited resources on areas that may be of higher scientific or conservation value.