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Places We Protect

Ka'ūpūlehu

Hawaiʻi

Big Island, Hawaii
North Kona Coast Fishermen Big Island, Hawaii © ©2010 John De Mello

TNC science supports community-led conservation.

The coastal fishing grounds of Ka'ūpūlehu were once renowned for their abundance of fish, lobster, octopus, and ‘opihi, a local delicacy. The exceptional ecological management systems devised by Native Hawaiians undoubtedly helped maintain this abundance, but as modern systems evolved and replaced them, marine life began to decline. In fact, two decades of research beginning in the early 1990s show coral cover declined by more than 50% and the abundance of highly prized food fish declined by up to 75%, reinforcing the observations of kūpuna (elders) and other longtime residents. Scientists confirmed additional coral loss of up to 44% in the area following statewide coral bleaching events in 2014 and 2015.

BLENDING TRADITIONAL PRACTICES with THE LATEST SCIENCE

The Ka'ūpūlehu Marine Life Advisory Committee (KMLAC), a group of local landowners, businesses, advocacy groups, and families with ancestral ties to the area, has been working for more than two decades to restore coral reefs and fish populations through improved collaborative management with the State.

At the group’s request, TNC scientists have been conducting coral reef and fish surveys since 2009 to help ensure the KMLAC’s management combined the best conventional science with traditional knowledge and customary practices. TNC scientists have also joined forces with federal and state partners to discover which reefs are better able to withstand, recover from, or adapt to coral bleaching events. Identifying these “resilient” reefs that have the best chance for long-term survival helps reef managers decide where to focus our efforts. Read a report summary to learn about coral bleaching and how it has impacted the area’s reefs.

Colorful fish swimming among a coral reef.
GIVING FISH A CHANCE Community-led conservation grounded in traditional knowledge and practices is giving fish a chance to recover at Ka'ūpūlehu Marine Reserve. © Kaikea Nakachi

Securing Hawai'i's First Community-Driven Fish Replenishment Area

In 2016 with widespread community support, the State established a 10-year rest period on harvest along a 3.6-mile stretch of the Ka'ūpūlehu coastline. This action will give fish time to grow and reproduce, so the fishery can recover and provide for sustainable fishing in the future.

Four years after the Ka'ūpūlehu Marine Reserve was established, TNC surveys revealed that the biomass (combined weight of all fish) of highly prized food fish increased by 256% inside the rest area and 91% outside. Similarly, the biomass of prime spawners (large sexually mature fish that produce the most offspring) increased by 612% inside the rest area and 172% outside. TNC scientists conducted a “spillover” survey in 2021 to determine if the increases in fish abundance outside the Reserve may be bolstered by the protected area. TNC introduced FishPath—a transparent, participatory, science-based process for developing customized, culturally appropriate fisheries management plans—to help the KMLAC develop a fisheries management plan to guide harvest develop a fisheries management plan to guide harvest when the rest period expires in 2026.

School of 'opelu, Hawai'i Island
Opelu School of 'opelu, Hawai'i Island © Chad Wiggins / TNC

CREATING A SUSTAINABLE FISHERIES MANAGEMENT PLAN

The goal of their sustainable harvest plan is to ensure most of the gains achieved over the 10-year rest period are maintained once the area is re-opened to fishing, so the community and future generations can continue to practice cultural traditions and the waters of Ka'ūpūlehu can feed the community for generations to come.

Connecting for Conservation

The KMLAC is a member of the Kai Kuleana and Hui Loko networks, which TNC helped establish and facilitates. These peer learning networks are comprised of community groups across Hawaiʻi Island that share knowledge and resources and take collective action to accelerate conservation. Find out how networks amplify impacts by building on success at sites. 

Learn more about our science and 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.