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Editorial | Island Voices

Column: World Oceans Day: Take care of nature, which cares for us

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  • Ulalia Woodside is the executive director of The Nature Conservancy in Hawai‘i.

    Ulalia Woodside is the executive director of The Nature Conservancy in Hawai‘i.

As we enter June, which marks World Oceans Day, it is time to reflect on our relationship with the sea and determine what we want the future to look like. Around the globe, communities are reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, economic crisis and racial injustice. These events have shaken our sense of security to the very core and prompt us to seek a better path.

Here in Hawaii, with a third of our workforce unemployed, informal fishing camps have increased along our coastlines. While in the short term this raises concerns, since some of our favorite reef fishes are showing population declines of up to 90%, it also demonstrates that throughout Hawaii, we are connected with, and need, flourishing natural resources.

On the other hand, scientists are measuring potentially positive outcomes of the drastic reduction of visitors to popular Hanauma Bay on Oahu and Molokini Crater off Maui. Anecdotal observations at Hanauma include clearer water and more fish, such as colorful paku‘iku‘i (Achilles tang) and kikakapu (ornate butterflyfish). While researchers have reported seeing more predators like ulua (jacks) and reef sharks at Molokini (which is a sign of a healthy ecosystem), they are concerned that these changes will be short-lived once visitors return.

As we work to rebuild our lives and our economy, we have the opportunity to make different choices — better choices. We must seek a balance with our natural world and recognize that it is as vital to us today as it was to our ancestors.

The Sustainable Hawaii Initiative commitment to preserve 30% of our nearshore waters by 2030 helps move us in this direction. Dozens of community groups are pursuing collaborative community-­based management of marine areas across the state to increase local food security and coastal resilience. These groups, led by kanaka maoli and local communities, understand the reciprocal relationship with the natural world, and are perpetuating traditions to return marine areas to a place of ‘aina momona — abundance — and to revive the sustainable harvesting practices that provided for past generations.

We have seen that minimizing human impacts increases the health and abundance of natural areas. The Ka‘upulehu Marine Reserve on the northwest coast of Hawaii island was established with the community in 2016 to restore abundance to depleted fisheries; after just two years, underwater surveys conducted by The Nature Conservancy showed a 30% increase in uhu (parrotfish) and a 60% increase in wrasses (two favored food fishes) inside the reserve compared to just 3% outside. ‘Opihi populations are growing in voluntary rest areas in East Maui and West Hawaii island. On Kauai, data shows increasing marine life at the Ha‘ena Community- based Subsistence Fishing Area. And healthy reefs at Palmyra Atoll bounce back after coral bleaching, due in part to their remote location far from land-based sediment, overfishing and other human impacts.

These examples, among many others, show that we already know some of the actions we can take to improve the health of nature and people. During this forced pause, we have the opportunity to identify how we can make Hawaii prosper. It’s a matter of restoring a reciprocal relationship. Ho‘ola ‘aina, ho‘oulu lahui: When we care for nature, nature will care for us.

Today, after only a two-month respite from beachgoers, we see cleaner waters and a resurgence of marine life along our shores. This must prompt us to reflect on the choices we’ve made that brought us to where we are today — and to take this opportunity to kulia: to set intentions and aspirations to pursue a different path. We need to establish new norms and expectations that lead to a just and prosperous world where people and nature thrive.

World Oceans Day was June 8; World Oceans Week is June 8-12.

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