"People know when they're in the room with someone who loves the ocean as much as they do. That commonality builds bonds."
Hawai'i Director of Marine Conservation
By Naomi Sodetani
A rashguard and a bathing suit are Emily Fielding’s second skin. An avid surfer and canoe paddler since she was nine, the Conservancy’s Maui marine coordinator loves “getting on a surfboard early on a glassy morning, and paddling out and seeing other people who love the ocean.”
When Fielding steps back on land, she dives into a blur of meetings, calls, emails and workshops that also revolve around the ocean—a resource that is as integral to her life as the air she breathes. “It’s something that I really can’t live without,” she says. “To be in the ocean is for me to be renewed, cleansed, energized, feeling the waves crashing over me.”
That deep, lifelong love of the ocean is obvious to everyone she works with, says Kim Hum, director of the Hawai‘i Marine Conservation Program. “People know when they’re in the room with someone who cares about the ocean as much as they do. That commonality builds bonds.”
Building bonds is perhaps what Fielding does best. The chestnut-haired waterwoman with a warm, ready smile has led the Conservancy’s Maui marine program since 2007. Working with partners and with assistant marine coordinator Roxie Sylva, she is building local capacity for community-managed marine areas, supported community-based stewardship efforts in Hāna, completed a management plan for the ‘Ahihi-Kīna‘u Natural Area Reserve, and spearheaded an ‘opihi monitoring project, geared toward species replenishment, that has been expanded beyond the initial pilot study in Hāna and replicated at a half dozen other sites across Hawai‘i.
Says Hum, “Without Emily’s inclusive leadership, we simply would not have the strong, community-based marine program that we now have on Maui.”
Fielding’s mom is the noted marine biologist, author and educator Ann Fielding. “Nature was her passion,” Emily says. “And because she loved it so much, it rubbed off on other people”—including her daughter.
Her father, an architect, also inspired her with his love of diving and surfing. Growing up, Fielding recalls “lots of conversations in the car about environmental issues…so I got to think about those things early on.”
Fielding studied natural resource management and earned a master’s degree in geography from the University of Hawai‘i-Mānoa. As a collaborator with Maui biologist Art Medeiros, she helped establish the Leeward Haleakalā Watershed Restoration Partnership; later, she worked with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration crafting plans to protect the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. But after the region was declared a marine national monument, a question persisted: “Well, what about the main Hawaiian Islands? For me, the issues are even more complex and challenging because of the resident population,” she says.
For Fielding, the Conservancy’s collaborative, community-based approach is a no-brainer. “There’s just no other way to go,” she says. Hawai‘i is part of a burgeoning movement to co-manage natural resources, one “based on the realization that the mandate to take care of our places is so broad, and the needs so great, that local people need to be involved and engaged. Government can’t do it alone.”
She supports the Maui Nui Marine Resources Council now working to empower local communities to manage marine resources in their areas. Comprised of tourism industry officials, fishermen, conservationists, Hawaiian cultural practitioners, educators and community members, the group united around two main goals: clean water and abundant fish.
Fielding is inspired by the people she works with. Their passion fuels her own: “Each individual wants to make a sea change that has lasting results. I’m motivated by their passion for their places, their culture, and for turning the tide.” Every day, that synergy washes over her, like a wave.