Historically, Heʻeia was one of the most productive places on the island of Oʻahu. The area—where eight streams converged into a once healthy estuary that provided habitat for seabirds, larval and juvenile reef fish, invertebrates, and stream species, such as oʻopu (goby) and hihiwai (snails) – was cultivated with hundreds of acres of loʻi kalo (taro fields) until the 1940s. But land use changes in the 1950s led to a proliferation of invasive species, including non-native mangrove trees, that displaced the native plants and animals and disrupted the natural flow of water.
REVIVING WETLANDS AND TRADITIONS
At Heʻeia, native Hawaiian management practices are shaping conservation efforts. With TNC’s support, our partners at Kākoʻo ‘Ōiwi are transforming 405 acres of overgrown wetlands by removing invasive vegetation, restoring stream flow and ‘auwai (stream channels), and replanting the wetlands and surrounding areas with kalo and other traditional crops, such as ulu (breadfruit) and mai‘a (banana). Together, we are working to restore a traditional wetland system to help minimize flood damage in the area, reduce sediments and nutrients flowing out onto the reefs of Kāneʻohe Bay, and provide healthy food and clean water for the local community.
Kākoʻo ‘Ōiwi employs more than a dozen farmers and supplies local residents and restaurants with poi and fresh produce. The farm also serves as a living classroom, providing hands-on learning programs for youth and families to participate in Hawaiian cultural practices and the farming traditions that sustained kanaka maoli (Hawaiian people) for generations. Lucky visitors often spot aeʻo (Hawaiian stilt) and ʻalae ʻula (Hawaiian moorhen)—endangered native birds that are once again nesting in the wetland habitat. Native fish and other freshwater species that once dominated the wetland streams are returning, and native plants are thriving along restored streambanks.
Pursuing a Shared Vision
This project is part of an ambitious effort initiated more than a decade ago by the Ko‘olaupoko Hawaiian Civic Club to restore the entire He‘eia ahupua‘a, a traditional land division extending from mauka to makai (mountains to sea). Grassroots non-profits are also leading restoration of He‘eia’s upland forests and coastal fishpond. Papahana Kuaola is working with Hui Kū Maoli Ola, a native plant nursery, to restore the uplands and Paepae O He‘eia is restoring the ancient 88-acre Heʻeia fishpond. The benefits of this restoration also flow to coastal waters, where the State of Hawai‘i Division of Aquatic Resources and University of Hawaiʻi are restoring coral reefs in Kāne‘ohe Bay.
The strength and effectiveness of this partnership attracted national attention and in 2017, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration named He‘eia a National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR), a designation that brings coordinated leadership and federal funding for research and education. TNC scientists are collaborating with the NERR and other research partners to document changes in the wetland and in coastal water quality to improve understanding of the benefits of lowland agriculture and to assess the impacts on coral reefs and nearshore fisheries. Our shared vision is that fresh water will once again flow unimpeded from upland forests through the wetlands to the reefs, nourishing native plants, animals, and people along the way.
Thousands of volunteers have contributed to the restoration, helping to weed and maintain loʻi kalo, build ʻauwai, and clear invasive vegetation, while learning about Hawaiian culture and farming traditions. You can help, too. Kāko‘o ʻŌiwi hosts community workdays open to the public on a regular basis. Visit the Kāko‘o ʻŌiwi website to register and get details.
Learn more about our science, restoration, and how we help strengthen conservation management and leadership so Hawaiʻi's reefs can support healthy fisheries and prosperous communities long into the future.
Find More Places We Protect
The Nature Conservancy owns nearly 1,500 preserves covering more than 2.5 million acres across all 50 states. These lands protect wildlife and natural systems, serve as living laboratories for innovative science and connect people to the natural world.