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Brad Wong in Pelekunu Valley
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Nahaku Kalei paddle boarding.
"Both agree that it is the real-life, hands-on project work that makes the program so unique."
Conducting research underwater while being trained as a scientific diver…counting native stream fauna in remote Pelekunu Valley on Moloka‘i…presenting at an international marine conference in Chicago. These are just a few of the real-life experiences Bradley Wong and Nahaku Kalei enjoyed during their two years in The Nature Conservancy’s Marine Fellowship Program. In March, they completed their fellowship and are now prepared to tackle Hawaii’s toughest conservation challenges.
“It was amazing to watch Brad and Nahaku’s growth during these last two years,” says Sean Marrs, the man who coordinates the Fellowship for the Conservancy. “They came in with little professional experience, yet very quickly they were conducting themselves as professionals, sitting in on multi-agency meetings, taking on challenging project work and even presenting in front of a large audience of marine management professionals.”
A joint project between the Conservancy’s Hawai‘i program and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Pacific Services Center, the fellowship was created in 2008 to increase the state’s pool of qualified local marine resource managers. The program blends training in traditional and western science-based resource management with real-life community-based conservation.
Wong and Kalei were taught a core set of technical skills that included marine species identification, invasive species control, scientific SCUBA diving and GIS. Hands on project work took them to various locations all over O‘ahu, Maui, Moloka‘i, Hawai‘i Island, Kaho‘olawe and even to Chicago, where they were both presenters at NOAA’s Coastal Zone Management conference, the largest international gathering of ocean and coastal management professionals in the world.
To take advantage of every learning opportunity, Wong and Kalei worked countless hours on dozens of assignments, often giving up their evenings and weekends to participate in a project or community meeting. Both agree that it is the real-life, hands-on project work that makes the program so unique.
“The fellowship was more than full time for us, but it was so worth it,” said Kalei. “We had the opportunity to work with inspiring mentors who really pushed us. We were introduced to an incredible network of people—which was really special.”
“The most important thing I learned was how critical it is to work with communities,” Wong added. “In Hawai‘i, where people have a real attachment to their place, it’s important to respect that, to listen and to build strong connections. To do effective conservation management, you must get the blessing of the community.”
Both Fellows came to the program with strong scientific backgrounds. Wong is a Kamehameha School graduate who earned his B.S. in Marine Biology from California State University, Long Beach. He was also a community coordinator for Kāko‘o ‘Ōiwi, a non-profit working on a wetland restoration project at He‘eia in windward O‘ahu. The project uses traditional Hawaiian agricultural techniques, taro patches and fishponds, to minimize flooding, sedimentation and run off into Kāne‘ohe Bay while providing food for Hawai‘i’s people.
Kalei graduated from Waiākea High School in Hilo and earned a B.S. in Biological Engineering from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. In 2007, she sailed through the Caribbean aboard a state-of-the-art scientific vessel, conducting research on ocean sedimentation with the Sea Education Association.
What’s next for these two? Wong will return to Kāko‘o ‘Ōiwi, where he will continue to manage Māhuahua ‘Ai o Hoi. He is also developing a conservation volunteer program for his canoe club in Kailua. Kalei will be moving to Kona where she will join the Conservancy’s Hawai‘i Island Marine Program before returning to graduate school.
“Brad and Nahaku added tremendous value to our organization and we wish them the very best in their future endeavors,” said Manuel Mejia, the Conservancy’s community-based marine program manager. "They have a bright future ahead of them, and because of who they are, I am confident they will continue caring for Hawai’i nei.”