Reviving ‘Lost’ Stream of Lānaʻi Could Be Good News for Coral Reefs

The warm sun greeted us on a clear March day on the Hawaiian island of Lānaʻi. At the edge of a parking lot, we gazed at the cool blue of Hulapoeō Bay and waited to be welcomed onto the beach by our host for the day, Uncle Sol Kaho‘ohalahala.

Uncle Sol singing traditional songs, Lanai, Hawaii

Uncle Sol sings traditional songs during CI’s 2014 seascapes workshop in Hawaiʻi. (© Conservation International/photo by Edgardo Ochoa)

Kēhau Springer, from CI’s Hawaiʻi Fish Trust, performed an ʻoli, a traditional Hawaiian chant, to announce our intentions. Uncle Sol responded in a deeper, stronger yet softer voice. Though the words were foreign to my ears, the gestures he made while chanting his ʻoli were clear: You are welcome here.

Uncle Sol was born on Lānaʻi. He is what Hawaiians call a kupuna, or elder. He and other kūpuna keep alive the traditional history, stories and practices of Native Hawaiians. Standing under the cover of a kiawe tree, Uncle Sol told us the story of how the son of a great chief of Maui, Kaululāʻau, banished all the evil spirits from the island and made it habitable for his people.

He then sang us the songs that accompany this tale. One of the songs was given to him from another kupuna. It was about the only stream that flowed year-round on Lānaʻi, in the watershed of Maunalei. The song called for the stream to flow strongly down the island slopes once more.

The Maunalei Stream has been dry for decades, except during periods of major rainfall, which happen only a few times each year. It disappeared as a result of deforestation and overuse of freshwater resources as the island’s pineapple plantations grew. Now these plantations are gone, but the streambed is still dry. Water is a vital resource for this island, as it is for others across the Pacific.

Puʻu Pehe, Lanai, Hawaii

The cliffs of Puʻu Pehe on the Hawaiian island of Lānaʻi. (© Conservation International/photo by Edgardo Ochoa)

Lānaʻi is unique in beauty, with its 100-foot cliffs like Puʻu Pehe standing tall over the sparkling ocean. Unfortunately, its situation is a common one in Hawai‘i. Traditional ways of life here — not just stories, but agricultural and fishing practices, too — struggle to survive in our modern world.

The average Hawaiʻi resident consumes three times as much seafood per year as other Americans, yet despite being on an island, 60% of their seafood is imported. Many of Hawaiʻi’s nearshore fisheries are in decline today, but this was not always the case.

The staff from CI’s Hawaiʻi Fish Trust program are working together with Lānaʻi community members to manage their natural resources and restore the Maunalei coastal ecosystem, using both traditional knowledge and modern methods.

With CI’s help, the Maunalei Community Managed Marine Area (CMMA) has installed gabions (check dams) to curb sedimentation during heavy rainfall in the area, which has a crippling effect on the coastal reefs off Maunalei. The community is also installing fencing to keep out the thousands of invasive axis deer and mouflon sheep that roam the Lānaʻi landscape.

Gabion (check dam) system at Maunalei, Lanai, Hawaii

Kiawe wood gabions built to hold back sediment during heavy rain events at Maunalei, Lānaʻi. (© Conservation International/photo by Jason Philibotte)

To assess the effectiveness of these activities, CI and the Maunalei CMMA project partnered with the University of Hawaiʻi’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology and the Pacific Islands Ocean Observing System to develop and implement a novel “ridge-to-reef” monitoring system.

The use of monitoring instruments in the water and on land to measure sediment capture and observe water quality has yielded some positive results: the capture of more than 40,000 pounds (nearly 20 tons) of sediment by the gabions throughout the 2014 winter season. This is about the equivalent of 2.5 large dump trucks filled with sediment to the brim. This small-scale demonstration project shows tremendous potential to expand these sediment remediation techniques to the entire watershed.

As for Maunalei Stream, what happens on the ridge always has an impact on the reef. Scaling up efforts like these offers the potential to return streamflows to Maunalei and restore a reef fishery that can feed Lanaians for generations to come.

Listening to the ancient stories from Uncle Sol and learning about the unique mix of traditional and modern methods for restoration of these habitats provides an inspiring example of how CI is working together with partners to effect real change on the ground.

He emphasized the importance of calling things by their traditional names. Using the traditional names for these places, which have been renamed time and again at the convenience of mainlanders, shows the proper respect to the land and those who came before us.

Kūpuna like Uncle Sol are the key to remembering our past and teaching new generations how to deal with what will be an uncertain future. It is a lesson which, our staff in Hawaiʻi were happy to inform me, has been passed down in a Hawaiian proverb or ʻōlelo noʻeau: “I ka wā ma mua, ka wā ma hope,” or “To understand the future, look to the past.”

Kevin Connor is a media manager for CI. 

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