The head of an embattled state committee that advises the land department on how to manage the islands’ natural resources in accordance with traditional Hawaiian cultural practices says the group has severed its foundational ties with the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council.

Leimana DaMate, executive director of the state Aha Moku Advisory Committee, said last month that she stopped talking to Wespac Executive Director Kitty Simonds several years ago. She said the committee has been independently working to fulfill its legislative mandate despite confusion created over the past decade by a separate group of unsanctioned aha moku councils backed by Wespac, which often have different priorities driven more by commercial fishing interests.

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DaMate said she and members of the Aha Moku Advisory Committee, which the Legislature created in 2012, have long chosen to do their work out of the spotlight. But she and Rocky Kaluhiwa, the committee’s state chair, and Kawaikapuokalani Hewett, a founding member and spiritual guide, decided to speak publicly after Civil Beat published a story last month about how Wespac spent more than $1 million in public money in part trying to manipulate state resource management practices through the aha moku system.

The story was part of an investigative series on the council, its leadership and how it has used federal funding to influence fisheries policy in the Pacific.

“We work with the people, bring their voices forward, and then step back,” DaMate said. “That’s why you never see us in any kind of media. We never do that.”

Wespac, a federal body that advises the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, contracted DaMate early in its effort to set up an aha moku system of resource management in Hawaii. She organized community members to participate in a series of meetings and conferences, called puwalu, that eventually led to the Legislature establishing the Aha Moku Advisory Committee in 2012. DaMate has led the committee for the past eight years.

Rocky Kaluhiwa, right, the Aha Moku Advisory Committee’s state chair from Oahu, and Kawaikapuokalani Hewett, a founding member and spiritual guide, say the committee has operated without Wespac’s influence. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2021

Despite budget restraints, the committee spent a lot of time in its formative years getting organized and trying to create a unified set of standards for the traditional system of moku, or districts. But it also weighed in when and where it could.

Over the past nine years, the committee has advised the Board of Land and Natural Resources on a variety of land and water management issues in Hawaii.

The group, which is composed of one appointed member from each of the main Hawaiian islands, has made recommendations on everything from the Thirty Meter Telescope project on Hawaii island to the Manele Small Boat Harbor on Lanai and traditional fishponds throughout the state.

DaMate and her allies on the Aha Moku Advisory Committee have also supported some of the state’s subsistence fishing area plans, including one for Haena on Kauai, which was opposed by members of a separate island aha moku council backed by Wespac.

More recently, the Aha Moku Advisory Committee advised the land board in October to support the state Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation’s request to accept enforcement action for violations of commercial use permit requirements in Kaneohe Bay. The group supported a $180,000 fine for illegal use of a launching ramp at Heeia small boat harbor.

In April, the committee opposed the Ala Kahaki Trail Association’s acquisition of nearly 2,000 acres of land in Kau on Hawaii island for $1.5 million, saying the Hawaiian community was not consulted about the traditional subsistence gathering area.

Wespac has spent thousands of dollars orchestrating aha moku meetings, including paying for travel for select participants. In 2008, the U.S. Government Accountability Office investigated the council’s spending on the local advisory groups and cracked down on the lack of transparency and accounting, including cash payments in white envelopes distributed at the meetings.

Leimana DaMate has been the executive director of the Aha Moku Advisory Committee for the past several years. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2021

Federal regulations governing Wespac prohibit its federal budget from being used for lobbying or political influence. DLNR directors have complained for years that Wespac was wrongly inserting itself in state matters, which generally include the management of waters out to three miles from shore. 

But Wespac has maintained that the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the federal fishery law that governs the nation’s eight fishery management councils, allows it to take an ecosystem-based approach to management that includes sharing management authority over stocks found in both state and federal water. 

A 1996 amendment to the MSA championed by Wespac requires the regional fishery councils to consider the importance of fishery resources to fishing communities and “develop means by which local and traditional knowledge can enhance science-based management of fishery resources of the region.”

The GAO said it found no evidence that council staff had drafted legislation to set up the aha moku system or that its contractors had lobbied lawmakers.

Still, confusion exists between the official statewide Aha Moku Advisory Committee and several unofficial islandwide aha moku councils that Wespac propped up.

This has created a point of contention not just among those supporting the aha moku system but also among lawmakers trying to sort out public disputes over how best to manage various resources or issues. 

This friction led the Legislature to hear a bill earlier this year that would have eliminated the Aha Moku Advisory Committee entirely. DaMate and others testified in support of keeping it alive and tried to make it clear that their work was valuable and worth continuing. The bill died in committee.

Senator Jarrett Keohokalole speaks during crossover floor session.
Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole says the aha moku system established by the Legislature in 2012 was intended to take government out of the position it’s found itself in lately determining what’s Hawaiian and what’s not. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole, vice chair of the Senate Hawaiian Affairs Committee, said the Legislature’s initial establishment of the aha moku system was meant to take the government out of the position of determining what’s appropriate as it relates to Hawaiian practices. But with rival aha moku groups, he said the Legislature had been put in a position of picking winners and losers, with which he had a real problem.

Hewett, the founding Aha Moku Advisory Committee member, said the official statewide group operates from a different foundation than the other councils that popped up later, and that the committee has strived to distinguish itself from the groups that Wespac has supported.

“Our involvement in any which way with Wespac is zero percent,” Hewett said in an interview. “I’m not interested in having ownership of what we do. We build relationships with people who see our vision.”

Wespac didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Mike McCartney, director of the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism and former chief of staff for Gov. David Ige, has worked with the Aha Moku Advisory Committee for years and supports its efforts.

“Aha moku is a facilitative catalyst to bring land and the people together so that everyone can move forward, so people can talk with each other and not at each other,” he said.

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