Fall 2022

Document Type

Master's Thesis (Open Access)

Degree Name

Master of Science (M.S.)


Moss Landing Marine Laboratories


Coral reefs worldwide are declining due to several anthropogenic stressors, but rising ocean temperature is the most serious threat to coral reef persistence. Developing models that document changes in coral communities following thermal stress events and forecast trends in reef recovery is crucial in identifying resilient reefs. Traditional approaches to generating the coral vital rates necessary for demographic modeling are time consuming and field intensive; however, by leveraging Structure-from-Motion photogrammetry, we can accurately track populations over time at a large spatial scale. In this study, I assessed the population dynamics of the dominant coral species across the Hawaiian archipelago and investigated the impact of thermal stress on coral populations. The annual growth, survival and recruitment of 3,852 coral colonies (5,636 unique colony-level transitions) for 3 genera was recorded at 16 sites spanning the Hawaiian archipelago across 14 intervals from 2013 to 2019, including 3 bleaching events. These data were used to estimate vital rates (growth, survival, and recruitment) and build integral projection models to determine the impact of thermal stress on population growth. To overcome the inherent challenges in estimating coral reproduction, I modeled recruitment in four different ways and present a comparison of datarich to data-poor estimation methods. Degree Heating Week output from the NOAA Coral Reef Watch daily global 5km satellite was used to estimate thermal conditions at each site by calculating temperature stress severity (the mean of all maximum thermal anomalies) and frequency (number of thermal stress events per 10 years). I found that all three coral genera, which have different morphologies and life-history strategies, had negative population growth rates. As expected, smaller colonies experienced faster growth, but large colonies had a high probability of shrinking, due to partial mortality. Large, multi-fragmented colonies had high survivorship and it may be advantageous for larger colonies to fragment into smaller pieces to avoid total mortality. Population dynamics were primarily driven by coral growth and survival and should be targeted in future restoration and adaptation projects. Additionally, across all taxa, population growth rates (λ) varied spatiotemporally, but most sites exhibited a declining population growth rate (λ < 1). While increased severity and frequency of thermal stress events negatively impacted the population growth rate of massive Porites corals, there was no signal of this effect on encrusting Montipora corals. I demonstrate that despite variations in the responses observed among taxa, there is an overall expected population decline across the Hawaiian archipelago. While most coral population growth rates are higher following bleaching events, signifying recovery, the projected increase in both the severity and frequency of thermal anomalies may overwhelm corals’ ability to recover and threaten coral population persistence.