A friendship that heals the planet

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Rebecca Most, left, and Lehua Kamaka bring two very different backgrounds to the Kiholo Royal Fishponds, where they have worked together to improve the pond’s biodiversity. (Credit: Lucy Sheriff)

Rebecca Most and Lehua Kamaka greet each other in the Hawaiian tradition: hands tenderly clasped around each other’s faces, foreheads touching, eyes closed, sharing their breath. This is hello the way it was always meant to be used.

Most and Kamaka are unusual friends. Most is an American biologist from The Nature Conservancy, who grew up in California. Kamaka is a native Hawaiian, a direct descendant of those who once tended the royal fish ponds of Kiholo whose skills come from ancient ancestral knowledge.

But once a month, they meet at the Fishponds, which sits on the shores of the North Kona Coast of the Big Island of Hawaii. Over their years of working together to painstakingly count and categorize the fish in these ponds, they have developed a friendship so deep that they no longer need words to communicate. When they swim in a figure eight, zigzag in the cold waters, they know what the other is thinking.

Their work has had a tangible impact on the biodiversity of the pond: since 2012, they have seen a tenfold increase in the number of fish they raise to feed the community, as well as an increase in the number of fish species. , going from 19 to 36 This also had a cultural impact. The pair record data using modern scientific techniques mixed with ancient Hawaiian knowledge – and used the data they obtained to seek protection for the ponds, which are of vital importance to the native Hawaiian community.

This idea of ​​collaboration between scientific organizations and communities has been talked about a lot, says Most, but it was mostly ambitious until recently. “It’s a paradigm shift from traditional Western and colonial conservation management to real-time integration of a living culture and people into land use and resource management,” she says. .

Kamaka agrees. “We now speak the language [of the white Western world],” she explains. “Before, we couldn’t do it with our voice. Now that we have the paperwork, the numbers, the science, we’re a bigger force. And there are other places in Hawaii that are learning of our model.

A pond steeped in history

Kīholo's fish ponds once provided fresh drinking water for Aliʻi's high chief, King Kamehameha I. (Lucy Sheriff)
Kīholo’s fish ponds once provided fresh drinking water for Aliʻi’s high chief, King Kamehameha I. (Lucy Sheriff)

The Kiholo Royal Fishponds are a cultural touchstone for native Hawaiians, providing a valuable connecting cord to their ancestors.

Before the United States staged its coup in 1893, the archipelago was ruled by a monarchy. Fish ponds, dotted along the coasts, were a central part of the Hawaiian way of life and a complex aquaculture system that provided food for communities. Kīholo’s fish ponds were particularly special, providing pools that had distinct functions – everything from fresh drinking water to growing food for the high chef Ali`I King Kamehameha I.

Filled with precious fresh water that springs from the ground and seawater from the sea, between three and five million gallons pass through the fish ponds each day, exiting into the sea, providing a valuable cooling system for the reefs. nearby corals. For generations, Kīholo stewards have carefully observed the ecological cycles of the pond, and these observations guide sustainable harvesting to feed the community. During the 1980s the fish ponds fell into disrepair, suffering from neglect, careless tourists driving SUVs through the sacred places and poaching.

In 2011, this historic treasure, which belonged to legendary hairdresser Paul Mitchell, was donated to nonprofit The Nature Conservancy, and work began to painstakingly restore the 3.2-acre ponds.

The organization has partnered with Hui Aloha Kīholo, a local group that works tirelessly to protect the Kīholo Bay area. Its employees, like Kamaka, are stewards or kahu-of the earth. When the co-management of the fish pond started with TNC and Hui Aloha Kīholo, it was in a terrible state. For decades, descendants of Hawaiians who once tended the pond were barred from entering areas their ancestors once freely roamed. Now they have full access to collaborative care for their ancestral homeland.

Most and Kamaka met and began working together to come up with a plan to bring the fish ponds back to life. “A big part of the job here is to restore this fish pond and bring it back to a place of abundance,” Most says. “Our overriding goal is for this to be a place that can once again nurture the community.”

It was, however, a difficult process for Kamaka. The area had already been studied by scientists, who were taking without giving back.

“It was difficult at first,” Kamaka says as he walks on the warm black sand that separates the cool gray ocean from the aquamarine ponds. “Scientists would demand access to the area, come in, do their job and then leave. And they left trash behind for us to clean up.

When The Nature Conservancy asked Hui Aloha Kīholo what they wanted for the future of the fish pond, Kamaka realized that these scientists were different. Work on the fish ponds began in 2012. Rock walls were repaired by hand, weeds removed, sediment sucked up by a mechanized pump, and invasive species captured and removed. Over the years, thousands of volunteers have come to help maintain the ponds and rebuild large sections of the pond walls. “Rebecca and the TNC showed us a completely different perspective on [Western] science,” adds Kamaka. “They opened my mind to science.”

Unexpected benefits

After almost a decade of hard work, the couple realized their meticulous efforts were paying off. Now there are enough fish in the ponds to harvest small crops for ceremonies and special events, although there is still a long way to go before the locals can fish the ponds regularly, just like their ancestors did. were doing all those years ago.

But there was another unexpected perk at work. Over their years of working together to count and meticulously observe the fish in these ponds, Most and Kamaka have developed a deep and meaningful relationship that transcends any perceived difference.

At one point during the site visit, Kamaka’s niece, Hāweo, climbs into Most’s lap. They are as close as if they were related by blood. Their friendship has not only helped restore the fish pond and several species of fish, but reflects the time spent caring for Kīholo with mutual respect for each other’s perspectives.

“Our stewardship is only possible through the knowledge of lineal descendants,” adds Most, “and it guides every step of our collective work to care for this place. Everything we do here is done by, for, and with the The ultimate goal is to have ponds that are culturally appropriate and can be used sustainably, while benefiting nature.

Both Most and Kamaka hope that this community co-management approach can be modeled elsewhere, both on other Hawaiian islands, such as Maui, and perhaps farther afield where indigenous people are struggling to protect their resources – everywhere, from South America to Indonesia. The diverse perspectives and skills that each brings to pond management, where traditional knowledge systems are integrated with contemporary fisheries management, can provide the protection the planet so urgently needs. ◼

The Story Exchange is currently seeking nominations for its annual Women In Science Incentive Award, awarding a total of $25,000 to 5 female scientists working to improve air quality and protect health. Submission deadline: July 31.