Water Quality
Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale

Water Quality Instruments
Water Quality Instruments help sanctuary staff track the condition of sanctuary waters. Credit: Jon Martinez, NOAA, HIHWNMS

Why is it a concern?

Water quality is adversely impacted by the presence of contaminants (for example pesticides, hydrocarbons (e.g., oil), and heavy metals), excessive sedimentation, and elevated nutrient loads. While offshore water around Hawai‛i is remarkably clean, nearshore-localized concentrations of pollutants occur near populated areas due to point and non-point source water discharges and permitted sanitary outfalls. A report on water quality monitoring and assessment is prepared annually by the Hawai‘i Department of Health and the 2012 report identified turbidity as the most common pollutant that triggers a marine water body listing for impairment, possibly due to polluted runoff.

Sessile organisms, or organisms that are fixed in one place such as corals, can be especially vulnerable to poor water quality as they cannot move to avoid it. Land-based sources of pollutants, such as sediment and nutrients threaten the quality of coral reef ecosystems. These pollutants are often transported as surface-water runoff and by groundwater seepage into coastal waters. While the complex interrelationship between land-based sources of pollution, water quality, and the health and integrity of coral reef ecosystems is not well understood, enough is known to require management policies that minimize polluted surface-water runoff. Significant pollutants include pesticides, petroleum hydrocarbons, pharmaceuticals, heavy metals, pathogens, and excess nutrients. Beyond chemical and biological pollutants, sediment can significantly impact nearshore water quality, potentially damaging coral reefs and causing stress to nearshore organisms that reduce their resiliency to other threats, such as climate change.

The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary’s, Water Quality Protection Action Plan proposes activities to achieve water quality standards and levels of compliance that support healthy ecosystems, habitats and marine resources. By increasing collaborative partnerships to address land-based and marine-based pollution, the sanctuary strives to protect and enhance water quality that contributes to sustaining a healthy and fully functioning coral reef ecosystem in the sanctuary. The development of water quality research and monitoring partnerships to identify priority areas for improved water quality management by the sanctuary could address research and management information needs and gaps which could eventually have a positive impact on water quality resources in the sanctuary.

Overview of Research

Project Name PI and contacts Links

Sanctuary Water Quality Monitoring 

Ka‘au Abraham


Beach Water Quality Monitoring

State of Hawaii Department of Health Clean Water Branch



Science Needs and Questions

  • Oceanographic circulation climatology and dynamics of water exchange between surface and bottom of Au‘Au Channel.
  • How do waste materials discharged at the surface transport and mix with water at mesophotic coral reef ecosystem depths?
  • What are the potential sources and risks of emerging pollutants to surface waters and near shore environments?
  • How long does it take vessel discharge to flush from sanctuary waters?
  • What is the rate of sediment accumulation on key coral reef locations in the sanctuary?
  • Develop and test best management practices for the restoration and operation of Hawaiian fishponds.

Education and Outreach Material

More information on water quality in HIHWNMS

 Beach with high level of sedimentation
Sedimentation from erosion on land can negatively impact nearshore coral reef ecosystems and can alter coral reef community structure Credit: NOAA, HIHWNMS


Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. 2010. Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary Condition Report 2010. U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, Silver Spring, MD. 63 pp.

Anthony, S.S., C.D. Hunt, A.M.D. Brasher, L.D. Miller, M.S. Tomlinson. 2004. Water quality on the island of O‘ahu, Hawai‘i, 1999-2001. U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Circular 1239. USGS, Reston, Va. 37pp. Electronic document available from: http://pubs.usgs.gov/circ/2004/1239/

Dorfman, M. and N. Stoner. 2007. Testing the waters: a guide to water quality at vacation beaches. 17th edition. Natural Resources Defense Council. 377pp. Electronic document available from: http://www.nrdc.org/water/oceans/ttw/titinx.asp

Elfes, C.E., G.R. VanBlaricom, D. Boyd, J. Calambokidis, P.J. Clapham, R.W. Pearce, J. Robbins, J.C. Salinas, J.M. Straley, P.R. Wade, M.M. Krahn. 2010. Geographic variation of persistent organic pollutants levels in humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) feeding areas of the North Pacific and North Atlantic. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry 29(4):824-834.

Friedlander, A.M., G. Aeby, E. Brown, A. Clark, S. Coles, S. Dollar, C. Hunter, P. Jokiel, J. Smith, B. Walsh, I. Williams, W. Wiltse. 2005. The State of Coral Reef Ecosystems of the main Hawaiian Islands. pp. 222-269. In: The State of Coral Reef Ecosystems of the United States and Pacific Freely Associated States: 2005. Waddell, J. (Ed.). NOAA Technical Memorandum, NOS NCCOS 11. NOAA/NCCOS Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment’s Biogeography Team. Silver Spring, MD. 522pp.

Hawai‘i Department of Health. 2012. 2012 State of Hawai‘i water quality monitoring and assessment report. 98 pp.