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Journey to Pelekunu

Hawai‘i Marine Fellowship Program

By Marion Ano

Last summer, my colleague Russell Amimoto and I were taken to a place few people ever see – remote Pelekunu Valley on Molokai’s spectacular northern coast.

Pelekunu is a Nature Conservancy preserve flanked by 3,000-foot sea cliffs that make it difficult to access. Russell and I arrived by helicopter, flying in from the west over the Kalaupapa Peninsula down a coastline of deep, plunging valleys.

Russell remarked that being in Pelekunu was the first time he ever got a full sense of what a natural environment really is. He noted that it was a “connected environment from the mountains to the sea.”

Monitoring Native Stream Life
The Conservancy established the 5,759-acre Pelekunu Preserve in 1986 to protect one of the islands’ best remaining free-flowing streams. As the inaugural team in the Conservancy’s new Marine Fellowship Program, Russell and I had come to monitor the native fish and shellfish in that stream.

We were accompanied by a contingent of the Conservancy’s Moloka‘i staff. Together we spent a week in the valley, donning full wet suits each day as we worked our way up stream counting fish populations. The terrain was rugged – very up and down – yet I couldn’t wait to see what was around the next bend. The water was so clean and cold and supported an abundance of life.

Indeed, Pelekunu stream contains nearly all of Hawaii’s native aquatic fauna, including five fish species collectively referred to as ‘o‘opu. With fused pelvic fins that form a suction cup, they are among the most remarkable organisms in the world.

Russell noticed that when we scaled waterfalls, the ‘o‘opu would be scaling them along with us, jumping 25 to 30-foot rocks. We eventually had to turn back, but the ‘o‘opu kept on going. Nothing stops them.

While Pelekunu’s ‘o‘opu populations were quite healthy, the same could not be said of the hihiwai, a native freshwater snail that is a popular island delicacy. Visitors to the valley were over harvesting the hihiwai, and it was very noticeable.

Also noticeable were the Tahitian prawns, an invasive species that prey on the native species and compete with them for food. The prawns liked to hang out in the pools. They were curious and aggressive and swam right up to our masks

Learning to Give Back
This April, Russell and I will complete the first year of a two-year training program designed to produce a new generation of marine conservation leaders for Hawai‘i. 

Under the direction of Manuel Mejia, the Conservancy’s community-based marine program manager, we have already received training in everything from conservation planning to Geographic Information Systems and managing community volunteers. We have conducted a major survey of the marine resources in east Oahu’s Maunalua Bay, led alien algae clean-ups and will soon obtain our scuba and scientific diver certifications.

We are learning a lot. But we are also trying to give back. 

With Russell’s background as a captain on the Polynesian voyaging vessel Hōkūle‘a, and my years of experience teaching traditional fishpond management, we have been working hard to build relationships in the local communities where the Conservancy is working.  

For both me and Russell, the knowledge and experience gained in places like Pelekunu has been invaluable, and will serve us well in our future professional careers.      

In fact, with what we are learning now, Russell and I hope to be giving back to Hawai‘i for at least the next 20 to 30 years. 

 The Conservancy would like to thank the Atherton Family Foundation, the Pohaku Fund and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coral Reef Conservation Program for making this program possible.

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