On the morning of Sept. 16, a group of community leaders and caring people gathered adjacent to the sparkling waters of Maunalua Bay to launch a community-based initiative to steward the bay. This initiative is called Imua Maunalua.

It was appropriate that the event was convened at Kawaikui Beach Park, named for a freshwater spring at the east end of the park. Kawaikui means “the united water.” According to the historian John Clark, it actually has two meanings. The first references the mixing of the fresh water with that of the sea. The second olelo tells us that travelers, area residents and fishermen came together here around this source of drinking water, uniting people in this place.

And so too did this group gather, united around the future of Maunalua Bay, and united in recognition that its health and the health of our community are inextricably intertwined.

A diverse group of community members embarked on a two-year planning process for the future of Maunalua Bay, see here along with the Hawaii Kai Marina.
A diverse group of community members embarked on a two-year planning process for the future of Maunalua Bay, seen here along with the Hawaii Kai Marina. Kim Ubert/Flickr

Maunalua Bay is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. As a community, we are blessed to live here, to raise our families here. I joined this effort with many hats – first, as a resident of the Maunalua community and second as the lucky po’o of Conservation International’s Hawaii program, a marine conservation organization working hand-in-hand with a multitude of organizations and leaders to steward the bay.

I also joined this initiative as a father. When I look out on Maunalua Bay I see its history – of use, and unfortunately in some cases, of abuse. This history is relevant here both in terms of the challenges that we face as well as what we stand to gain.

My family and I live in Niu Valley and we are lucky to know the Thompson family. Aunty Laura Thompson has incredible stories of growing up on this bay and the abundance of its resources. She tells a story of riding her horse here as a teenager, and how the horse knew the locations of fresh water springs that would bubble up in the bay. They would walk out on to the reef flat and drink directly from these springs. Can you imagine that? The bounty of the bay fed her family.

Later, her son Nainoa would train with the legendary navigator Mau Piailug right here in Maunalua. As many know, together they would lead the renaissance in the ancient wayfinding practices that now guide Hokulea on her global journey.

But the bay has changed and so have we. I’ve worked on this bay for close to a decade. A relative blip in its history, but even in that time I have seen changes.

Several years ago we undertook an ambitious study to survey the long-time fishermen of the bay. The results were telling.

We found that of the six most commonly harvested fisheries resources in the bay, catches of all had declined precipitously – some more than 60 percent. These were fishers that had been fishing in this area for an average of 24 years – the minimum experience for people we surveyed was 15 years. Some had memories of fishing here before World War II.

They all told us various versions of the same story: a history of land-based pollution, resource overuse, invasive species and now, climate change threatening the ability of this bay to provide benefits to the community like it once did. We have not been kind to the bay, though she continues to be kind to us.

Now some may say that reversing this trajectory of decline is impossible. “It’s too complicated, it’s too expensive, it’s a nice idea but really what can you do.”

But this community has taken on the “impossible” before and made incredible things happen. I’m referring to the “Great Huki” project – a community-led effort to remove the invasive leather mudweed algae from the Paiko area of Maunalua Bay.

In 2011, The Nature Conservancy, Malama Maunalua, Pono Pacific and a host of partners came together to remove 3 million pounds of invasive algae from more than 23 acres. This was and still is the largest effort of its kind anywhere in the world.

And it has worked. The invasive algae has largely remained out of the area, due to the collective and continued efforts of Malama Maunalua and the vast array of community members who volunteer in this effort.

It is worth noting that at the time, this effort was largely perceived as being impossible. It’s relatively easy to remove invasive plants from a landscape, but a seascape was believed to be far too dynamic of an environment. Many experts just expected the algae to grow back.

It has not. Instead, this section of Maunalua Bay now serves as a global model for what can happen when people come together with a shared vision and put their hands and backs behind it.

Paiko has changed. It is cleaner. Native limu is coming back, and with it, fish communities. And part of our community has been restored along with this habitat.

People became aware of the issue of invasive algae, they became aware of the condition of the bay. Thousands of people put their hands into Maunalua. They began using the traditional place names that carry vital information about Maunalua, and began to restore the reverence and heritage for this place. As a community, we began to give back and I think we realized – or perhaps we rediscovered – that if Maunalua thrives, so too do we.

A core group of organizations and leaders has been meeting – quietly – for over a year, discussing ways that we can build off this success and work to restore more of Maunalua’s abundance. The collective vision that has emerged from those discussions is Imua Maunalua, a community-based initiative bringing people together to develop and implement a comprehensive marine management plan to restore Maunalua Bay.

This will not be easy. Maunalua is a fishery. Maunalua is a means of livelihood. Maunalua is a place of relaxation and recreation. Maunalua is a cultural treasure and a source of spiritual renewal.

It is all these things because that is who we are as a community: a diverse set of constituencies that have a diverse set of interests, visions, and passions for the bay. This is exactly why we need Imua Maunalua, a shared experience to discover together the best ways forward, forging this path together from the ground up. Like Hokulea we must set our sights on a common destination.

I’m at the table because, like so many others in our community, I care deeply about Maunalua. And when I think back about her history – both ancient and more recent — I can’t help but think of my two young sons. What are the stories they will tell when they are my age? When they have grandchildren? Will they tell a story of decline, or will they tell one of hope and revival? It is before us to determine that fate, to shape that future.

Imua Maunalua.

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