Keeping the Gates Open

The Many Caretakers of Kīholo Bay

"Over time I’ve learned that people actually enjoy sharing the labor. It’s like the Hawaiian word laulima–many hands make light work.”

Rebecca Most 
The Conservancy’s Hawaiʻi Island marine coordinator 

Earlier this year, I spent a field day with Rebecca Most. As The Nature Conservancy’s marine coordinator on Hawai‘i Island, she helps study, manage and protect the lands and waters of Kīholo.

I met Becca in the morning at Kīholo State Park. When I arrived, she was carrying out water jugs and work gloves. As I helped her carry rakes to the beach, staff members from the Conservancy and Hui Aloha Kīholo drove up. The two organizations closely collaborate on local restoration projects.

“Our goal is to break down the barriers between culture and conservation,” Becca said. “Many Hui Aloha Kīholo members are the lineal descendants and original caretakers of this place. With their guidance, we bring in diverse groups, educate them about local traditions, and give them the opportunity to give back to the fishpond estuary. It’s a way to keep the many gates here open. Ultimately, by connecting conservation and culture, we hope to strengthen our broader community.”

Soon, a Hawaiian language school group called Pūnana Leo O Ko‘olauloa arrived at the work site. After a welcoming protocol including formal chants, songs and mo‘olelo (stories of place), everyone went to work. Students and teachers reinforced low stone walls around the camp sites, while, closer to the shore, I helped some parents clear away fallen leaves and branches.

Many caretakers

Such collaborative efforts are vital to the upkeep of Kīholo. Since 2012, Becca has worked with over 2,500 volunteers, who have contributed some 12,000 volunteer hours around the bay. As we were finishing up, I asked Becca about the challenges associated with coordinating such a large project.

“My first volunteer workday had a pretty steep learning curve,” she reflected. “I thought that I needed to do everything: carry all of the gear, take the tough tasks, tell everyone where to go. Over time I’ve learned that people actually enjoy sharing the labor. It’s like the Hawaiian word laulima–many hands make light work.”

After lunch our group traveled a half mile down the coast to the Kīholo fishpond estuary. Gifted to the Conservancy in 2011, the ponds were originally built by Hawaiians to grow fish. When Becca led us through the unlocked gate to the main access driveway, the view was impressive. Around the oblong, crystalline pools, newly-repaired stone walls stabilized the shoreline. Neatly cut invasive kiawe and ironwood branches were stacked nearby. A small bridge spanned a flowing channel. We stopped there to talk science. “We’re constantly adapting our practices as we learn more about the ponds,” Becca told us. “For instance, you can see some mud beneath the water. Some of that is from invasive plants. As we remove those plants, we monitor sediment levels on the bottom and changes in fish populations. Those data will guide future research and rehabilitation.”

A Connection to Place

In the late afternoon, while the Pūnana Leo students practiced their Haka moa (standing chicken fight) and Kūkuni (foot race) on a sandy clearing between the fishponds, the adults told me more about their individual projects at Kīholo and about their broader connections to the place.

For Lehua Kamaka of Hui Aloha Kīholo, working with Becca on fish surveys has provided a new way to observe the environment and to pass on new knowledge. Every month she and Becca snorkel the ponds, noting fish recruitment, spawning and behavior. Based on these studies, they have begun to track the broader cyclical changes in fish populations and have identified native species returning as habitat quality improves.

Channa Kamanawa grew up at Kīholo and also works with Hui Aloha Kīholo. She described a time when the land was clean and free of invasive trees and her efforts to return that vision today.

More like family than partners, they share that folks call Becca “Aunty He’e” (octopus) “because she’s always involved in eight different projects at once.”

Throughout the discussion, the speakers emphasized the generations of stewardship in the area and gestured to the children playing—a reminder that, though many stories have been told about Kīholo, many more are being written just beyond the open gate.

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