The Living Reef

Restoring the health of our coral reefs is essential if we are to create a sustainable future for our islands.

Ancient Ties to the Reef

‘Apapa (coral reefs) and the inshore ocean world were of enormous importance to ancient Hawaiians.

The major source of protein in the Hawaiian diet was seafood, so careful management of ocean resources was essential. The Hawaiians affectionately referred to inshore areas as the “meat bowl” and fished or foraged in the shallows or on the reefs daily (Hawaiians today often refer to the reef as the “ice box”). Women did the bulk of the gathering, accompanied by children who soon learned the skills to tease lobster and octopus from their holes, pry shellfish from the rocks, identify the tastiest limu (seaweed), and trap fish with basket and net. Yet even with a pre-contact population estimated as high as 1 million people–comparable in size to our population today–the Hawaiians harvested from the sea in a manner that sustained healthy and resilient fish populations and reef life. Their approach to caring for resources was both spiritual and highly practical, and based on a simple conservation ethic:

Ina malama ‘oe i ke kai,
malama no ke kai ia ‘oe
If you care for the ocean,
the ocean will care for you.

Loko i‘a

The development of loko i‘a (fishponds) allowed Hawaiians to extend and control the bounty of the reefs. Hawaiians developed a sophisticated system of aquaculture by walling in areas of inshore water, usually around estuaries where fresh water entered the sea. Gates allowed water to circulate and pua (young fish) to enter while keeping undesirable fish (such as larger predators) out. As the pua matured and became too large to escape from the pond, they were harvested for food. The fish that were not big enough to harvest were released back on to the reef where they would spawn and replenish the food supply. The fishpond was thus part of the larger ahupua‘a system in which resources were sustainably managed from the mountains to the sea.


Konohiki

Under the traditional system, the ali‘i (chiefs), held all land “in trust” as gifts from the gods, and apportioned use rights within each ahupua‘a to their representatives, or konohiki, who were responsible for proper protocol in how resources were to be managed. The konohiki enforced seasonal kapu linked to religious observances, but they would also put in place or remove kapu based on close observation of local conditions. The konohiki were guided by centuries of passed-down knowledge, often in proverbs such as Pala ka hala, momona kaha–‘uke‘uke: when the pandanus fruit ripens, the sea urchin is fat [with eggs]. The wisdom and authority of konohiki were considered absolute.


Lawai‘a nui

Knowledge of the ocean fisheries and reefs, and their resources was embodied in the lawai‘a nui, a select group of fishing experts whose ranks included both chiefs and commoners. For these men, fishing was a science that carried with it a vast legacy of knowledge. The lawai‘a nui knew all the different types of fish, their habitats and food preferences, spawning seasons and migration patterns, as well as the various techniques for catching them. Together the konohiki and lawai‘a nui, as well as a wide range of other practitioners in environmental matters, worked to implement the long-term management and use of their ahupua‘a.


Kapu!

The kapu system was an important way that Hawaiians conserved resources. Placing a resource under kapu (proclaiming the taking of it as taboo) at certain times of the year acknowledged that the things that sustained humans were gifts from the gods. Kapu were placed or lifted according to an understanding of natural cycles (seasonal and lunar cycles, and the corresponding reproductive cycles of marine life), and close observation of local conditions. Reefs were much affected by changing wave conditions from summer to winter, and the effects of the moon on currents and tides. By observing the peak spawning cycles of fish or when sea urchins produced eggs or seaweed produced spores, Hawaiians would avoid harvesting at times that disturbed these natural cycles.


An Intimate Knowledge of Place

The Hawaiian ahupua‘a system of land management allowed for local control over resources. Each island was divided into ahupua‘a, typically wedges of land running from an apex at a high point on the island to the coast and out to the far edge of the reef. Each ahupua‘a sustained a community of extended families – ‘ohana – linked by inter-marriage and the span of generations living in that place. Thus each community intimately knew the land and adjacent marine world that sustained them.


Wise Management

The ways in which limu (seaweed) were used illustrates just how thoroughly Hawaiians knew and utilized the resources of the reef. Hawaiian names for over 60 kinds of edible limu have been recorded, including limu kala which was needed to begin the Ho‘oponopono ceremony (to make things right or just) in times when conflicts or problems were addressed in a family or community. Seaweed was also used as medicine, for ritual purification, and as a lei worn by hula dancers. But seaweed, sometimes affectionately called ka i ‘a lauoho o ke kai (the long-haired fish of the sea), was primarily an essential part of the diet, along with fish and poi. It was a particularly important source of protein and vitamins for women, for whom several foods, including certain types of fish, were kapu.


Kinship with the Ocean

Hawaiians revered the ocean and its myriad life forms with a sense of being bound in a reciprocal relationship, through the major gods and through ‘auma–kua (ancestral family guardians), which took marine forms such as shark or stingray, sea urchin or sea turtle. This spiritual kinship was constantly affirmed through taking care of fishing shrines, making ritual offerings, and gathering from the ocean only what was needed.


A Track Record Of Success

Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia

When government officials in Pohnpei established seven marine reserves in 1997, the idea did not have community support. But after one community began seeing increased fisheries as a result of setting aside their fishing area, others soon followed suit. Studies of these community-based reserves showed that in less than two years the abundance of rabbitfish and parrotfish increased by 17%and 80%, respectively, while outside of the reserves there was a 45% decrease in rabbitfish and a 95% decrease in parrotfish. Today, Pohnpei has 11 marine reserves, including all seven of the originally designated areas.


Guam

 When government officials in Pohnpei established seven marine reserves in 1997, the idea did not have community support. But after one community began seeing increased fisheries as a result of setting aside their fishing area, others soon followed suit. Studies of these community-based reserves showed that in less than two years the abundance of rabbitfish and parrotfish increased by 17%and 80%, respectively, while outside of the reserves there was a 45% decrease in rabbitfish and a 95% decrease in parrotfish. Today, Pohnpei has 11 marine reserves, including all seven of the originally designated areas.


Kona Coast, Island of Hawaiʻi

In 1999, the State of Hawai‘i set aside 35% of the Kona coastline as Fishery Replenishment Areas– a move designed to stabilize reef fish populations threatened by the aquari um trade. After just five years, populations of yellow tangs, a prized aquarium fish, were up 111% and populations of chevron tangs were up 107%. Also up were the number of aquarium fish collectors, who are now collecting more fish and making more money in west Hawai‘i than ever before.


Short-term Closure Do Not Work

Science and experience have shown that short-term closures are not successful at replenishing fish populations over the long term. For example, at the Waikkı/Diamond Head Fisheries Management Area, stocks do increase in the year that the area is closed to fishing. However, those increases are immediately offset when the area is re-opened the following year. More disturbing is the data that indicates that the fish biomass (both size and abundance of fish) within the Fisheries Management Area is actually getting smaller over the long term.