Coral reef habitat mapping: A combination of object-based image analysis and ecological modelling
Despite being one of the most important and well-studied coral reefs in the world, the full extent of coral habitat of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is not well mapped and there is no current and comprehensive map of the GBR's geomorphic zonation or benthic composition. This paper demonstrates an approach that integrates ecological coral habitat mapping with empirical modelling to map the geomorphic zonation and benthic composition of the "shallow offshore reefs" of the GBR, using the Capricorn Bunker Group (CBG) as a case study. The approach combined environmental data sets and geo-ecological rule sets to identify geomorphic zones. The benthic composition of individual geomorphic zones was mapped for: shallow reef flat zones, using object-based image analysis with context driven rules based on coral reef ecology; and reef slope zones, using levels of wave exposure to predict the distribution of coral types. The environmental data sets used were field-based benthic composition data, Landsat 8 OLI satellite image-derived bottom reflectance, water depth and slope (15 m x 15 m pixel size) data, reef impact data, and modelled wave exposure. The study showed that the combination of geomorphic-ecological rules and models with remote sensing imagery provided robust mapping results over a large (~2500 km 2 ) reef system, of which 245 km 2 was mapped as shallow coral reefs and 88 km 2 of that was mapped as areas containing coral. Most importantly, the method produced defined the geomorphic zones and benthic composition of a study area that is significantly larger than the majority of coral reef remote sensing mapping projects previously published. With some modifications, the methods presented have the potential to be applied to the full extent of the shallow offshore reefs of the GBR, or any large reef globally. Monitoring and management of coral reefs for conservation and other purposes, at regional to global scales will benefit from the ability to produce and use this type of essential information on a regular basis.