Empowering Communities to Preserve Hawaiian Coasts

EarthzineCoastal Environments 2016, Original, Themed Articles

Repairing a turtle fence. Image Credit: Hawai'i Wildlife Fund

Repairing a turtle fence. Image Credit: Hawai’i Wildlife Fund

Community engagement enriches stewardship of Hawaiian natural resources.

Serving as a link between human activities ashore and human activities in the ocean, coastal areas face the risk of environmental degradation from two fronts. Impacts to these ecosystems are amplified because they are often multi-use areas, attracting people of all stripes, including everyone from tourists to fishers to researchers or entrepreneurs. Protecting these environments can be a complex job. In Hawaii, however, some organizations view this diversity of coastal stakeholders as an opportunity.

Two such organizations are the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) and the Hawai’i Wildlife Fund (HWF), an education-, research- and advocacy-based nonprofit dedicated to cleaning up and preserving near-shore environments across the Hawaiian archipelago.

‰ÛÏWe are community- and volunteer-driven and powered,‰Û said Hannah Bernard, executive director of the HWF.

Bernard and fellow marine biologist Bill Gilmartin co-founded the conservation nonprofit 20 years ago. Bernard said he believes one of the key reasons for the organization’s achievements is its ability to incorporate local culture and connect with the community on a variety of levels.

The ability of community engagement to have conservation results has been a powerful lessons-learned experience for HWF. The organization was originally funded to study and protect Hawaii’s endangered monk seals, Neomonachus schauinslandii. Bernard and Gilmartin realized, however, that protecting this species involved focusing on its threatened habitat as well as the animals themselves, and they quickly broadened the HWF’s purpose to include protection of sensitive marine habitats and two additional endangered species: the green hawksbill sea turtle, Chelonia mydas, and the humpback whale, Megaptera novaengliae. At first the focus was primarily science-oriented, but the need for greater public involvement soon became apparent.

‰ÛÏWhen you work on an island, very quickly you see how everything is connected,‰Û Bernard explained.

In the Hawaiian Islands, connection refers to the interplay between different ecosystems on the islands and the interdependency of human societies and the natural environment.

‰ÛÏThe Polynesians managed from mountain to ocean because of that connectedness,‰Û said Bernard. ‰ÛÏThe connection between land and sea is crucial. And so our model ‰Û_ is to (incorporate) the traditional Hawaiian values and practices that were beneficial to the integrity of clean water and perpetuation of resources.‰Û

Consequently, when the HWF shifted its focus from individual species to ecosystems it also made a decision to move beyond educational outreach to include local input in other steps of the conservation process ‰ÛÒ including citizen science and providing opportunities for community discussion of environmental concerns through participation in community activities from tourism to local meetings and events. For example, from HWF’s start, Bernard has worked closely with responsible members of the local tourism industry, providing naturalist training and educational messaging.

‰ÛÏGetting to be a part of an industry that teaches people how to value whales for their intrinsic value as wildlife, rather than as something that we hunt and take out of the environment, has been very satisfying,‰Û Bernard said, using the whale watching industry as an example.

Helping to conserve whales through tourism is one of Bernard’s favorite examples of partnership because it ties into a success story. In the 1990s, there were only an estimated 2,000 humpback whales remaining in the North Pacific. Today, there are more than 25,000 whales in the North Pacific, and the species is considered for a downlisting from their endangered status in Hawaiian waters.

Bernard with a humpback whale figurine. Image Credit: Hawai'i Wildlife Fund

Bernard with a humpback whale figurine. Image Credit: Hawai’i Wildlife Fund

‰ÛÏThey’re recovering. I like to point that out, because I think it’s important for us to point out that conservation works,‰Û said Bernard.

The DNLR has also increased its community engagement efforts in relation to species of concern. In 2007 the DLNR of Hawaii received a federal grant under the Endangered Species Act to address fishery impacts on monk seals and green sea turtles. Outreach to the fishing community has formed a critical part of this program, with more recent outreach also extended to grade school children as well. Efforts have focused heavily on the promoting a switch from barbed to barbless hooks in fishing.

Since efforts to decrease barbless hooking were increased roughly 10 years ago, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has reported an increase in Hawaiian monk seal populations in the main Hawaiian Islands (by contrast with decreasing populations in other parts of the area). While community engagement programs cannot be directly credited for this increase, it supports informal observations that seal populations are recovering since the first implementation of the program. Anecdotally, outreach has been beneficial in other ways as well, helping to build greater trust between the fishing community and the local government.

Monk seal. Image Credit: NOAA

Monk seal. Image Credit: NOAA

Another example of community engagement are efforts to establish self-sustaining projects whose primary function is increasing local participation in conservation and decision-making, such as the Makai Watch of Ahihi-Kinau Natural Area Reserve in South Maui.

The Makai Watch programs engage local community volunteers who work in partnership with the DLNR to encourage protection and responsible use of near-shore environments.

‰ÛÏWe work very closely with our Hawaiian elders, the Kupuna, to get information about what is appropriate to a fish and what is not, so the Makai Watch is supporting both state regulations for fishery management as well as traditional ecological knowledge. It’s a beautiful blend,‰Û Bernard explained.

Since 2013, the HWF has stepped down from involvement in the Makai Watch, but Makai Watch continues to participate in communication and partnership between local communities and the DLNR. For example, an event held in Oahu in June offered opportunities to evaluate public perception of the DLNR’s Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement (DOCARE) and provide answers to common questions.

‰ÛÏThe Makai Watch program provides capacity for the Division of Conservation and Resources enforcement as the ‰Û÷eyes and ears’ in the community,‰Û said Edward Luna Kekoa, Makai Watch program coordinator of the DLNR Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement. ‰ÛÏThey also provide outreach for beachgoers and visitors regarding regulations of the Division of Aquatic Resources and Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation.‰Û

No program is without challenges, however, and community engagement requires ongoing work to create clear expectations and appropriately manage accountability and liability.

The DLNR has received anecdotal reports of communities taking responsibility into their own hands ‰ÛÒ ‰ÛÏvigilantism‰Û of a sort ‰ÛÒ in ways that have led to conflict. But staff at DLNR hope that through improved training and clarification of expectations and roles for communities, volunteers, and the DLNR, future clashes can be avoided.

‰ÛÏAs a partner with DLNR, communities are reminded they are a ‰Û÷role model’ and are held to the same standards and regulations as other communities,‰Û said Kekoa.

While it requires effort to maintain positive relations among diverse local groups, when partnerships are successful the outcomes allow for conservation achievements that far exceed the scope of what individual organizations can accomplish alone. Removal of beach debris provides a powerful example.

Bernard and University of Hawai'i students remove debris from a beach. Image Credit: David Boyle

Bernard and University of Hawai’i students remove debris from a beach. Image Credit: David Boyle

The HWF has helped removed trash from several Hawaiian beaches since 1998. Bernard estimates that since the first clean up, the HWF and partner organizations, including the DLNR, have assisted in removing more than 200 tons of marine debris. To Bernard, this debris removal represents what a community working together can achieve.

‰ÛÏWe’ve read and heard so much about these big gyres of debris floating in our oceans, ‰ÛÏsaid Bernard. ‰ÛÏIf we ‰Û_ did nothing, we would be walking on piles of net and garbage instead of sandy beaches. But because we just pick a beach that we assessed of being of sensitive habitat ‰Û_ we now have these sensitive sites ‰Û_ and they’re healthier than they were 30 years ago.‰Û

According to Bernard, since its foundation the HWF has been able to leverage community engagement and play a role in raising local and visitor awareness about rare species and special ecosystems; it has participated in government/community collaboration through the Makai Watch; and it has helped to oversee and inform the creation of two marine and near shore sanctuaries: the Papah€namoku€kea Marine National Monument, established by the Clinton administration, and the Wai’hinu coastal portion of the Ka’Ç Forest Reserve.

As a biologist, Bernard recognizes the scope of the environmental threats facing the planet today, but as a conservationist, she has a great deal of optimism about society’s ability to address them.

‰ÛÏYou get down and you do the work, and that’s what I hope for the future: That we’ll see everybody outside and engaged, using modern technology (in research) to assist us in recovering the health of our planet.‰Û

Elise Mulder Osenga is IEEE Earthzine’s senior science writer. Follow her on Twitter @mountain_lark