“People just trust Chad...his ability to foster trust with local fisherman, homeowners and visiting researchers is what sets him apart.”
Drew Harvel, Cornell University marine biologist
By Nathan Greene
Chad Wiggins’ humility at once hides, and ensures, his success as the marine program director for The Nature Conservancy on Hawai‘i Island.
Today he captains our dive boat behind a scraggly beard and sunglasses. The rubber hull slaps across blue water as we skim out towards Puakō Reef. Wry conversation bounces around the deck.
“Just remember the most important rule of snorkeling,” Chad says. He pauses a moment. “Looking good!” We smile.
“Ok, bad joke,” he admits. Now we’re laughing. “Let’s just focus on the science.”
Today the science involves gathering water samples from 12 sites along the Puakō coastline. Chad hopes the data will help the Conservancy protect this delicate reef ecosystem from human degradation. At the first site, two snorkelers hop into the clear water.
Working with Local Fishermen
While we wait, Chad tells me about one of his other projects—removing roi. Roi is an invasive species of grouper. The Conservancy employs local fisherman and scientists to remove the fish from select reefs and to study whether that removal helps marine ecosystems recover.
“Working with local fisherman has been cool— rewarding and challenging,” Chad explains. “The first time I met Kawika, he told me: ‘I know what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to shut us down.’ I offered to carry his bucket the next time he went fishing. Over time, he taught me all about fish behavior.”
When the Conservancy needed divers for the Roi Removal Project, Chad hired Kawika. His knowledge of spawning and schooling patterns provided the team with invaluable information about local fish communities. Kawika and other local fisherman earned valuable dive certifications and gained new perspective on marine conservation from the project.
“After one long day,” Chad says, “Kawika told me, ‘I’ll willingly walk further along the coast to help protect fish now.’ That felt really good.”
Building Relationships for Conservation
After we pick up the snorkelers from the first site, Chad describes another project that examines breeding and migration patterns in adult and juvenile manini. The Conservancy works with local fishing communities, using a traditional fishing method to capture the fish. The method involves herding manini towards the shore with long lines of woven ti leaves. The community suggested the method to help revitalize an ancient communal practice.
As we skip from site to site, Chad stresses the value of protecting Hawai‘i’s cultural heritage and ecosystems simultaneously. He talks proudly about the people involved in the different projects, describing local leaders, elders and scientists that work together. I realize how much of Chad’s job involves developing relationships so that he can facilitate the work of others.
“People just trust Chad,” says Cornell University marine biologist Drew Harvell. “Yes, he is very polite, smart, and attentive; but his ability to foster trust with local fisherman, homeowners and visiting researchers is what sets him apart.”
After gathering samples at the last site we tie down our gear. Chad asks me to take down the dive flag, and then we cruise towards home. Chad tells me more of his personal story. He now lives in Waimea with his wife, Makal, and his son, Atticus, age 7. But his childhood was spent fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, and the bays and lakes of Alabama. He talks about a transfer from Tulane University’s A.B. Freeman School of Business to the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, to study coral reef restoration. He remembers his introduction to the Conservancy’s marine work at the 2008 Coral Reef Task Force. He lingers on that meeting.
“I was amazed to see how many posters and presentations about coral reef research and management featured our logo,” he says. “I loved the idea of an organization working quietly with all sorts of partners to understand and protect coral.”
Holding a Place
The sun sits low in the sky as Chad guides our boat back into Puakō Harbor. The day was a success; we gathered samples from every site, yet Chad maintains an even focus.
“Most conservation investments take at least 10 years to mature,” Chad tells me. He stresses that many of his projects have only just begun, that it’s hard to know how effective they will be in the long run. He talks about other people that deserve the credit more than him. Local leaders, like Kekaulike Tomich, who are helping protect the land and ocean they grew up in. Local divers, like Kawika, who help build the trust between fisherman and scientists necessary for conservation efforts to succeed.
“Our future leaders are on and in the water right now,” Chad says. “The real changes will come from their practices, their knowledge, their stewardship of the marine species and habitats of Hawai‘i. In the end, I’m just holding this place for someone else.”
Beyond hard work, care, and trust, Chad’s vision for conservation on Hawai‘i Island is tempered by a humility that elevates the people, the community and the place far above himself. And in the end, that’s what conservation is all about.