Isaiah Longboy lives in Mililani but spends his free time on Mokauea Island, a 13-acre island known as Oahu’s last Hawaiian fishing village.
On a recent morning, Longboy helps Kehaulani Kupihea of the Mokauea Fishman’s Association take canoes full of students from Sand Island to Mokauea on an educational tour. Once on Mokauea, Kupihea tells the students about the island’s tumultuous history.
In the distance, Longboy takes a pickax and digs a channel to drain ocean water flooding the island from high tides.
“I like seeing the progress,” said Longboy, 17, who first visited the island on a field trip with Mililani Middle School. “That’s also why I come out here, seeing the constant progress being made to the island.”
A handful of residents and volunteers, including Longboy, dedicate their time to the island’s cultural and environmental preservation.
It’s not an easy task. Sandwiched between between Honolulu Harbor and Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, the island faces continuous environmental damage from the nearby industrial activity and global warming. The island often floods during big tides and residents are constantly collecting trash that’s drifted in from Oahu less than a mile away.
Still, for Longboy and others, the island represents a relic of Hawaii’s past that holds lessons for future generations. Printed on the fishermen’s association’s shirt is their motto: The future is in the past.
That future is also uncertain. The hard-fought 65-year lease granted to the island’s residents will end in 26 years, and the state has no firm plans for the island after that.
“I’m really afraid of when the lease does end, are they just going to take it from us and put Matson containers on there?” Kupihea said.
An anthropologist and expert on the island, Kupihea takes students, church groups and businesses on excursions to the island.
“It’s not just cleaning a beach, you actually get a history lesson,” she said. “Once you’re connected, you will therefore take care of the place.”
An area rich in both ancient legends and contemporary land rights struggles, Kupihea considers Mokauea and the surrounding area a wahi pana, a legendary place.
Kupihea traces her own lineage to the Mokauea area.
So does Joni Bagood, a resident of the island and one two families who lease land on Mokauea from the state. Bagood’s father was one of a number of families threatened with eviction by the state in the 1970’s.
Today Bagood considers herself the island’s caretaker.
“It’s not what we can get out of her, its what we can do for her,” she said of Mokauea.
Mokauea residents felt the full effect of record breaking “king tides” that washed away Oahu shorelines in June.
“The whole island seemed like it was under water,” Bagood said.
Rising sea levels aren’t the only threat to Mokauea. Pollution, some of which comes from feral cats on nearby Sand Island, has dirtied the water and killed the once abundant marine life. Some trash drifts ashore from the growing numbers of homeless camps along nearby Nimitz Highway.
Bagood remembers the area in the 1970s, when her husband worked as a fisherman. The fish and lobster were abundant.
Bagood and her husband still cast fishing lines off their porch, but rarely catch anything edible. Instead, they pull up the occasional pufferfish or hammerhead shark which must be unhooked and returned to the ocean.
The Keehi Lagoon that visitors see today is a stark contrast to the network of over 41 fishponds stretching about 850 acres that existed in the late 1800’s.
“Mokauea wasn’t an island, it was a big reef system,” Kupihea said.
In Hawaiian, Keehi means to tread upon. In addition to raising fish in man-made ponds, people used to walk the area collecting edible seaweed and other marine life to eat. The result, Kupihea said, was a food system that produced 560,000 pounds of fish annually as of 1900.
Extensive dredging occurred in the 1900’s to accommodate Honolulu Harbor, the airport and military ships.
Today, streets in Kalihi are named after the fishponds that asphalt now replaces. The area has no remaining fishponds except for a defunct 2-acre pond the U.S Army Corps of Engineers and the University of Hawaii built on Mokauea in the 1980’s.
Myron Honda, an environmental health specialist from the Department of Health, said the department has routinely found high levels of enterococci bacteria at Keehi Lagoon. The presence of enterococci bacteria indicates the amount of sewage in the ocean.
Through her educational outreach work, Kupihea hopes participants will learn about environmental damage that has already occurred and be inspired to care for the earth.
On her excursions, she teaches students about how Native Hawaiians and immigrants who adopted Hawaiian fishing techniques once interacted with nature in the area. The students learn myths, and walk on the reef to observe the coral, both living and dead.
“We can really use Mokauea as a model for the rest of the island,” she said.
Despite the hardships she faces, Bagood considers herself lucky to live on the island where her father and grandmother had to fight threats of eviction in 1972.
Bagood, her husband and the other family living on the island access water through a pipe installed by the Board of Water Supply. They have a compostable toilet, and generators provide electricity in their houses, which sit perched on stilts.
Local photographer Ed Greevy documented a number of struggles against evictions that occurred in Hawaii in the 1970’s, including the struggle on Mokauea.
Growing foreign investment following statehood and the invention of the Boeing 747, which quickened travel to and from Hawaii, led to a time of rapid urbanization and development on Oahu in the 1970’s, Greevy said. Oahu residents joked at the time that the yellow crane was the official state bird.
Landlords, including the state, attempted to evict tenants to capitalize on their property, Greevy said. At the same time, the Hawaiian cultural renaissance fueled efforts to resist the evictions.
In some areas, including Kalama Valley and Sand Island, landlords succeeded in evicting tenants despite public outcry. On Mokauea, the tenants gained a temporary victory in 1978 when the state granted 14 families on the island a a 65 year lease.
“Mokauea still stands out as a victory for poor people against very powerful interests,” Greevy said.
The relationship between the state officials and island residents has improved but the threat of eviction still lingers with the lease scheduled to terminate in May 2043.
“A lot of things could happen before then,” said Deborah Ward, a spokeswoman from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, which manages Mokauea.
No DLNR officials were available for an interview.
In an email, Ward wrote that “the Board of Land and Natural Resources could decide to return the lands to its natural condition upon the expiration of the lease.”
Ideally, Kupihea said, the state would relinquish control of the land or make the lease indefinite. To start, she and Bagood just want local government to donate trash bags and help with trash collection.
Every year, Mokauea residents and volunteers fill a Matson container with the trash that washes up on their shores. Both Bagood and Kupihea feel the city isn’t providing adequate services, despite the fact that island residents pay property taxes.
It’s not just broken beer bottles. Bagood finds neatly secured bags of trash along with the occasional couch, mattress, stove or other household appliance which float to Mokuea from Oahu, which she calls “the mainland.”
Mokauea residents still actively resist development in their area.
About five years ago, state lawmakers proposed building a marina on Sand Island to relieve a boat slip shortage on Oahu.
State Rep. Romy Cachola, who represents Kalihi and Sand Island, said paddlers from a canoe club based at Sand Island and activists opposed the development, arguing the influx of boats in the area would be disruptive. The proposal was abandoned, but may resurface, he said.
“We have to really look at both sides of the issue,” Cachola said. “We want to respect the cultural aspect of the island. … On the other hand we are short of boat slips, so one way of generating revenue is to expand or add more.”
Kupihea also wants the Hawaii Department of Education to embrace the island as an outdoor classroom.
“I’m really trying to get other teachers to use Mokauea as an extension of the classroom and to enhance what is happening in the classrooms outdoors,” she said.
After his middle-school field trip strengthened Longboy’s connection to Hawaii and to care for the environment, he agrees people would benefit from knowing about the island and its history. He wants more groups to visit the island, so long as they visit under the supervision of Kupihea, himself or Bagood.
“It’s not just coming onto the island, but it’s really learning the culture because there’s so much that goes into the history of this island that people don’t know about,” he said.