Hawai‘i Island

Once coveted by Hawaiian chiefs, Ka‘ūpūlehu’s abundance of marine life is at risk.

“Generations of Hawaiian families have served as caretakers of Ka‘ūpūlehu’s rich marine life...[and] continue that tradition today.”


Historic Ka‘ūpūlehu in the district of North Kona was once coveted by Hawaiian chiefs for its rich marine life—its productive nearshore reefs and offshore fisheries, its fishponds and anchialine pools.

Ka‘ūpūlehu was a place where crab, octopus and ‘opihi, a small cone-shaped limpet, were abundant, and where limu pahe‘e, a rare and highly-prized seaweed, could be gathered from the rocks following a season of high swell activity.

Offshore, fisherman harvested schools of ‘ōpelu (Mackerel skad) and aku (Skipjack tuna), while tasty reef fish such as ‘ama‘ama (mullet), kumu (goatfish) and moi (Pacific Threadfin, “the fish of kings”) were plentiful near shore. The steep coral reef in the North was home to niuhi – or large predatory shark.

Then, as now, life in this arid ahupua’a centered on the ocean.

Critical Threats

Today, Ka‘ūpūlehu’s once abundant marine life is at risk. Increased pressure due to additional coastal access and modern technology—driven by economic factors that encourage individual exploitation for short-term financial gain—fuel an over harvesting of the ocean life that has sustained human communities in this region since ancient times.

Boat fishers who use illegal nets to surround entire schools of fish, and commercial shore fishers who fill coolers with fish and ‘opihi for sale elsewhere, highlight the need to curb unsustainable harvesting practices before fish populations reach a point from which they can no longer recover.

A University of Hawai‘i study conducted at Kahuwai Bay between 1992 and 1998 revealed a 31 percent decline in coral cover, and corresponding declines in fish abundance and fish diversity of 41 percent and 26 percent, respectively.

More recently, a compilation of data from monitoring surveys conducted by The Nature Conservancy and other researchers at 33 sites throughout Hawai‘i found 20 other sites with greater fish abundance than Ka‘ūpūlehu.

What the Conservancy Is Doing

Generations of Hawaiian families have served as caretakers of Ka‘ūpūlehu’s rich marine life. Today, the lineal descendents of these families continue that tradition through the Ka‘ūpūlehu Marine Life Advisory Committee (KMLAC), which was formed in 1995 to involve community members in efforts to oversee and effectively manage the marine and anchialine pond resources within the Ka‘ūpūlehu ahupua‘a and Uluweuweu Bay.

In 1998, the KMLAC successfully petitioned the State for creation of the Ka‘ūpūlehu Fish Replenishment Area—one of nine such areas in West Hawai‘i designated for protection from commercial aquarium collection. Since then, Ka‘ūpūlehu has been successful in increasing populations of some aquarium species targeted by collectors, such as the lau ‘ipala, or Yellow tang, but not those targeted by shore fishers as well.

Over the past decade, species such as pāku‘iku‘i (Achilles tang) and mā‘i‘i‘i (Brown surgeonfish) have declined in West Hawai‘i by 81% and 53%, respectively, while overall fish abundance and diversity in Ka‘ūpūlehu remain well below historical levels.

Seeking to ensure the long-term protection and stewardship of all its marine resources, the Ka‘ūpūlehu community has enlisted the support of The Nature Conservancy to help them restore traditional marine stewardship practices and strengthen enforcement of marine protection laws.

Specifically, the Conservancy is partnering with the KMLAC to establish a community managed marine area that supports traditional fishing practices and kapu. The goal is to restore fish populations along 3.6 miles of coastline and ensure productive, sustainable fishing today and for the future.

Members of the Ka‘ūpūlehu Marine Life Advisory Committee include native Hawaiian lineal descendants of families from the ahupua‘a, Kamehameha Schools, Kona Hawaiian Civic Club, Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), fee owners and lessees of Ka‘ūpūlehu ahupua‘a, natural resource managers, educators, scientists, and state agency officials, including DOCARE.


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