A concerned community implements a 10-year notake zone at Ka‘u-pu – lehu to stem a devastating decline in fish population
BY AJA HANNAH
After 17 years of diligent study and outreach by the Ka‘üpülehu Marine Life Advisory Committee (KMLAC) and its partners, a community-based proposal was signed into law by Hawai‘i Governor David Ige last July that designates Ka‘üpülehu a marine reserve for the next decade.
The new ruling aims to reverse the rapid decline of marine life in Ka‘üpülehu as a result of unsustainable fishing practices.
Before 1975, Ka‘üpülehu was an area of abundance, with nearshore reefs teeming with marine life, offshore fisheries, fishponds and anchialine pools located within Kekaha. Local families utilized the area for subsistence fishing and recreation. Without paved roads and surrounded by craggy old lava flows, the isolated 3.6 miles of coastline in North Kona were out of the reach of tourists and remained pristine for generations.
The completion of Queen Ka‘ahumanu Highway gave people better access to the shoreline. In 1995, the Hawai‘i Supreme Court established a public beach access, opening the once-secluded shoreline in Ka‘üpülehu to anyone driving down the highway. “In the old days, the ali‘i had konohiki who monitored the land,” says Vern Yamanaka, whose family has been involved in the management of Ka‘üpülehu for more than 50 years. “We don’t have those types of management systems, and it becomes take all you can.”
In 1998, a six-year study by the University of Hawai‘i revealed a 41 percent decline in fish abundance and a 26 percent decline in fish diversity. The Nature Conservancy of Hawai‘i—a technical advisor for KMLAC—followed up the study with a biomass ranking in 2009.
Ka‘üpülehu ranked 21st in biomass in the state, which is comparable to management areas in Waikïkï and well below average for West Hawai‘i’s open and protected areas.
Comprised of lineal families and community leaders, the Ka‘üpülehu Marine Life Advisory Committee originally formed in 1997 to monitor the dredging being carried out along the shoreline at the time by the U.S.
Army Corps of Engineers. But The Nature Conservancy and University of Hawai‘i studies brought to light that declining fish populations on the west side of the Big Island were a direct result of irresponsible fishing practices.
Before 1975, Ka‘u-pu – lehu was an area of abundance with nearshore reefs teeming with marine life. After decades of overfishing, fishing and netting has been banned for the next 10 years to allow the ecosystem to recover.
According to The Nature Conservancy, fish species caught for food, such as uhu and maiko, have declined in population by nearly 75 percent in only the last 20 years.
Species of fish not targeted for food and medicine declined by only 25 percent. “A habitat level of effect would influence the fish equally versus something that targets individual species of fish,” says Chad Wiggins, marine program manager for The Nature Conservancy of Hawai‘i. “The main thing that would do that is fishing.” Populations of marine species in Ka‘üpülehu have continued to fall for decades. KMLAC member Kekaulike
Tomich grew up listening to his mother, Hannah Springer, tell stories about life in the 1970s in Kukio, a neighborhood within the Ka‘üpülehu boundary. Springer, one of the first members of KMLAC, described conch shells littering the seafloor, lobsters in the tide pools and abundant schools of fish. Tomich, 27, doesn’t remember seeing any conch shells or lobsters in the pools as a kid. They were already gone by that time. However, he said it was easier to catch fish back then because the fish would swim up to him.
Today there are noticeably fewer fish, and they flee at the first sign of a human in the water. Tomich hopes that in 10 years, his daughter will be able to eat from the same source he once did.
At first, KMLAC tried to implement a voluntary code of conduct, but the effort failed. KMLAC members felt that something more drastic had to be established to protect the area. Group leaders reached out to scientists, fishermen, community members, ‘ohana, naturalresource managers and government officials in search of a solution. Several organizations—Kamehameha Schools, Hawaiian Fisheries Council, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Kona Hawaiian Civic Club, the Department of Land Natural Resources (DLNR), the State Division of Aquatic Resources, the State Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement—joined the cause or offered their resources.
The group held over 350 outreach meetings in the surrounding communities to educate the public on the depleted marine life and unsustainable fishing practices occurring in Ka‘üpülehu.
Together, the community evaluated solutions. Yamanaka, who has been with KMLAC since the beginning, said their efforts were met with opposition at first. But the group persevered with its educational campaign and made sincere efforts to consider the pressing concerns of community members. “We knew that we had to have outreach,” Yamanaka says. “We felt it was important for the families, the landowners, the tenants and employees to have an understanding of what was taking place.” The proposed solutions included everything from permanent closure to voluntary bag limits. A one- to two-year closure was ruled out upon evaluating the Waikiki-Diamond Head Shoreline Fisheries Management Area, a fishery of similar biomass, because some fish, like the yellow tang, can take five to eight years to reach reproductive age.
“Our second year surveying the reef flat, we came across a dead white-tipped reef shark,” Wiggins says. “We had been told there were some guys that had hauled it in the night before, let it suffocate on the land and then threw the carcass back in.
To see the impacts of people not respecting this place or its resources indicated that taking this break to refocus everyone was necessary.” It was this moment that Wiggins truly considered the necessity of a complete closure to fishing.
Although permanent closure or a partial closure of 20 years would be scientifically ideal, it wasn’t the right solution for the community. “The science was arguing to close it for as long as possible and so were some kupuna,” Wiggins says. “That was off the table for Ka‘üpülehu. They always wanted to make sure that fishing continued there, that there was an ample stock of fish to harvest.”
After more than 2,500 hours speaking with local fishermen, the group decided on establishing a 10-year marine reserve with mandatory restrictions on fishing and crabbing. This allows a generation of fish to replenish without human interference, but still allows the community to stay connected to the area. Decision made, KMLAC embarked on the administrative process of turning the proposal into law.
Volunteers and supporters adopted the motto “Try Wait” in an appeal to the community to give Ka‘üpülehu’s marine life the time it needs to recover. Yamanaka concedes that the Try Wait program is difficult, but he knows it’s worthwhile.
“We lose a generation,” Yamanaka says. “My grandchild will be 21 when he can come back and fish in this area. But that’s a sacrifice we know we have to make.” Under the new law, a rest period will be enforced along the Ka‘üpülehu coast stretching from the Kalaemanö Visitor Center to Kikaua Point Park. From the shore to 120 feet deep, fishing and netting is banned for 10 years with very limited exceptions. However, everyone is still allowed to enter the water and swim.
KMLAC is currently growing its volunteer base in efforts to monitor and report violations of the new law, an effort known as Makai Watch. Volunteers are trained to identify violations and report them to the proper authorities.
KMLAC also hopes to establish a comprehensive fisheries management plan to be implemented by DLNR. The plan would combine traditional Hawaiian customs with scientific fishing practices to maintain the resources being restored over the next 10 years. Ideas include incorporating the kapu system to restrict fishing for certain species when they are spawning or low in count.
While there is still much to do to secure a sustainable future for Ka‘üpülehu, a dedicated community has stepped forward to meet those challenges head on.