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From the Mountain to the Sea: Saving the Heeia Ahupuaa


(page 3 of 5)

Community workdays and constant labor from Paepae’s staff have clawed the mangroves out of the silt and built up the wall again, stone by stone. Today, the pond is an open expanse of water, nearly half the encircling 1.3-mile-long wall has been restored and the organization is waiting for approval to close up the breach made in 1965. A native succulent, akulikuli, has seeded itself along the pond’s borders and flourishes today, bright green against the white coral and black lava. Within the pond you’ll find all the fishes of the reef. It’s not yet producing the 175 to 275 pounds of fish per acre per year that fishponds did at the turn of the century, but Kawelo is in it for the long haul.

As we walk along the repaired wall at low tide, she talks about why the restoration of the pond, and the ahupuaa at large, is important: “You can go to Bishop Museum and get stuff that’s about as old as the fishpond, 800 years. You can see it, but it’s in a glass case. You can’t touch it. Here, it’s 800 years old, and you can see it, you can walk on it, you can change it. It can evolve. You can learn. That’s what it means to be Hawaiian and to be practicing. Cultures and tradition and practice are a response to your environment, and of course your environment is ever-changing. The composition of people and the composition of community is always changing. What doesn’t change is that this is my home. And no matter what condition it’s in, it’s still my kuleana to make a difference.”


The battle for Heeia’s restoration didn’t start with this generation. The ahupuaa could have had a very different fate: It was once slated to become the heart of Oahu’s second city. Rev. Bob Nakata, former state representative and current pastor at Kahaluu United Methodist Church, recalls that, after World War II, “development on Oahu went crazy in all directions.” Nakata came home from seminary training on the Mainland in 1972 to find evictions in progress and plans afoot to dredge the wetlands and then-overgrown fishpond and replace them and the current pier with a massive boat harbor. Resorts, major oil refineries, a huge sewage plant and thousands of residential units were all in the cards for the surrounding area.

Nakata helped organize groups such as the Kahaluu Coalition and Hui Malama Aina o Koolau into a grassroots resistance effort that extended all the way up the coast to Waiahole/Waikane. Eventually, development went to the competing “second-city” site on the Ewa plain, which has been the focus of Oahu’s urban growth ever since. By contrast, the area north of Kaneohe became known as a place you shouldn’t do business without community consent, a reputation that has protected it.

Nakata loves to hear about what’s happening in Heeia now. “I feel really good about the restorations that are going on,” he says. “It’s amazing. Because 30, 40 years ago, when we started, these are the things we talked about! Restoring the fishpond. We activists talked about it, and now the present-day activists are making it happen.”

The Bay: Traditional Knowledge and Contemporary Science

The waters of Heeia empty, finally, into Kaneohe Bay, one of the largest bays in the Hawaiian Islands. Jo-Ann Leong, director of the University of Hawaii Institute for Marine Biology (HIMB)—headquartered on Coconut Island, within Heeia ahupuaa—tells me that Kaneohe Bay wasn’t always muddy. Over the past 80 years, onshore development, sediment runoff and the changed current flows resulting from dredging have transformed the bay’s ecosystem. The bay floor, once largely white sand and healthy coral, has become mired in sediment and choked with invasive plants and algae. “Can we get it back to what it once was? I don’t know. But should we try?” Her eyes twinkle. “Hell, yes!”

Along with HIMB, the Nature Conservancy is just one of a number of organizations that are working together to restore the bay. Part of the cleanup includes removing several species of aggressive alien algae that form thick mats and smother the coral reefs on which native marine life depends. The Conservancy operates one of two “Super Suckers,” modified gold dredgers that can suck 40 pounds of algae off the reef every minute.

To keep the aggressive plants from growing back, the state is raising a native species of collector sea urchin that loves to eat the invasive algae. Initial tests with the urchins have been extremely successful; after six months, a test patch of cleared reef seeded with urchins remained clear, while the control patch (cleared but with no urchin intervention) was more than 35 percent re-smothered. Much of the “supersucked” algae gets trucked across the street to Kakoo Oiwi, where Shultz and others are experimenting with turning the invasive weeds into mulch to nourish the fields.

Leong adds that “traditional ecological knowledge”—the kind possessed by kupuna who knew the ecology of the bay before changes took hold—is proving crucial to a scientific understanding of the area’s natural baseline. HIMB and one such kupuna, Jerry Kaluhiwa, are partnering on a historical ecological benthic (or sea floor) map of limu (seaweed) in the bay as it once was: “Uncle Jerry knows about it. We [at HIMB] are only learning about it now.”

A Sentinel Site: All Eyes on Heeia

Heeia’s intricate web of community relationships and partnerships, which reaches across organizations, philosophies and types of knowledge, has attracted national attention. Last year, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association named Heeia a NOAA Sentinel Site, one of eight locations around the nation where climate change and possible climate-change mitigation will be intensively studied. Heeia’s status as a Sentinel Site will help attract grants and resources, and NOAA can help coordinate the many different organizations and actors in the ahupuaa.

When Kristina Kekuewa, acting director of NOAA Pacific Coastal Services, gets official visitors from Washington, D.C., she likes to take them out to Heeia to see it for themselves: “Bullet points are great when you’re trying to explain what the program is, but when you take them to the site and they see it, people are just amazed. They understand why we work so hard at it.”

So far, Heeia ahupuaa is the only Sentinel Site where “past management and past practices” are being explored as part of the solution for contemporary site management, says Kekuewa. But the question precontact Hawaiians asked of their islands—How can we live in a fragile, finite place in a sustainable and renewable way?—is the question the world is now asking itself. Long before we conceived of ourselves as a lonely planet, traditional cultures knew: “He waa, he moku; he moku, he waa.” The canoe is an island; the island is a canoe.

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Honolulu Magazine July 2019
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