As our oceans become warmer and more acidic, scientists need to act to make sure their research spurs policies and action that can reverse environmental decline, Aulani Wilhelm told hundreds of scientists, policy makers, cultural practitioners and others Tuesday at the International Coral Reef Symposium.

Wilhelm, who has devoted the past 20 years of her life to natural resource management and expanding protected areas in the waters around Hawaii, said she has been encouraged to see scientific research having more of an impact in recent years on the public-policy debates over how to tackle such issues as climate change.

Coral Symposium, day 2, Speaker Aulani Wilhelm at the Hawaii Convention Center. 21 june 2016.
Aulani Wilhelm, former superintendent of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, talked about the role of culture and science, Tuesday, during the International Coral Reef Symposium at the Hawaii Convention Center. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Wilhelm, of Native Hawaiian and Portuguese heritage, said science thrives when it incorporates not just western methods but also traditional knowledge passed down by generations of people whose lives have been connected to the ocean.

“They bring different things to the table,” she said, referencing a Hawaiian proverb that loosely translates to “Not all knowledge is learned in one house,” or “Aohe pau ka ike i ka halau hookahi.”

“So what if we have the science if we can’t figure out a way to translate that science and make it actionable.” — Aulani Wilhelm

But Wilhelm underscored how — especially given the challenges posed by climate change, ocean acidification and sea-level rise — all of that knowledge and science needs to become the impetus for changes in practices and policies that can help slow, stop or even turn around the growing damage to the environment.

More people need to address the problems facing the natural world since people are indeed part of that same natural world, she said, “even if we forget that.”

“In the past 15 years, at least from my point of view, I’ve noticed a real shift towards actionable science — making science that we do actually matter to the real world,” said Wilhelm, who recently joined Conservation International as its Center for Oceans senior vice president.

For many decades there was great scientific research, she said, but questioned if that science mattered without something more.

“So what if we have the science, if we can’t figure out a way to translate that science and make it actionable?” she asked.

A snorkeler counts fish at Kure Atoll ,in Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Courtesy: Claire Fackler/NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries

Wilhelm was instrumental in the protection of nearly 140,000 square miles around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands that President Bush designated in 2006 as Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. She also served as the monument’s superintendent.

She underscored that this is not just one of the biggest protected marine areas in the world but also a World Heritage site — the first of its kind.

“It’s science plus all of these other things that can help us drive management, help us drive action and return us to the sea from whence we came.” — Aulani Wilhelm

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz officially proposed expanding the monument roughly fourfold last week, an effort that community members have been pushing for months. The decision to do so rests with President Obama, who is expected to weigh whether he should use his executive power under the Antiquities Act to make it happen.

There’s been considerable pushback by commercial fishermen who are concerned about the expansion’s impact on their livelihoods. But supporters, ranging from environmental groups to prominent Native Hawaiians such as Nainoa Thompson, have maintained that this pristine area must be preserved in perpetuity.

Wilhelm noted the expansion effort in her talk as an example to demonstrate how years of research can translate into action. There’s a session set for Friday afternoon at the symposium that will delve further into the expansion proposal.

She said the work done in and around the monument over the past decade has provided the “scientific underpinning” for the proposed expansion to protect seamounts, more deep ocean areas and maritime heritage sites from World War II.

“It’s science plus all of these other things that can help us drive management, help us drive action and return us to the sea from whence we came,” she said.

About the Author