The most pristine coral reefs in Hawaii are the ones harmed the most by tourism, according to a new study from Princeton and Arizona State University researchers released yesterday in Nature Sustainability.
In a novel approach, the researchers analyzed hundreds of thousands of Instagram posts at coastal sites in Hawaii and matched them with high-resolution flyover maps to measure how many people were interacting with different coral reefs and where these reefs were located.
“Here is evidence that live coral is really important in attracting divers and other visitors, but that these crowds are also systematically diminishing the quantities of live coral at these critical sites,” said Bing Lin, the first author on the paper and a graduate student in Princeton ecologist David Wilcove’s lab.
Spikes in localized tourism can suppress coral growth in many ways – whether it’s from toxins in sunscreen or from people bumping into the reefs, for example. This work has implications for conservation practices.
Lin, Wilcove and coauthor Greg Asner of Arizona State say one possible way to protect and restore live coral is to restrict the number of people or amount of time spent at the most crowded reefs, in conjunction with reef restoration efforts, such as coral restoration and transplantation.