A state advisory committee tasked with giving Native Hawaiians a voice in the management of environmental, fisheries and cultural resources is poised to get back to business after being stalled for years due to political infighting and lack of funding.

The Aha Moku Advisory Committee had been unable to take action because it had too many unfilled seats and lawmakers were reluctant to fund it. But Gov. David Ige nominated new members this year and the Senate confirmed those appointments earlier this month.

The advisory group is set to reconvene for the first time since 2016 in July on the Big Island, according to its executive director, Leimana DaMate.

But whether the committee will ever be an effective voice for Native Hawaiian views remains in question, largely due to continued opposition from some factions within the Native Hawaiian community.

Left, Senator Lynn DeCoite, Gil Riviere and right, Senator Lorraine Inouye pose with Ahu Moku delegates after the floor session held at the Capitol..
Newly appointed members of the Aha Moku Advisory Committee pose for photos with state senators. AMAC Executive Director Leimana DaMate is center front wearing a blue sweater. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

At the center of the committee’s years-long hiatus is a political power struggle between the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and the federal Western Pacific Fishery Management Council over management of fisheries and other resources along Hawaii’s coastline and in nearshore and onshore waters.

Wespac generally overseas management of commercial fishing and fish stocks far offshore in a vast area covering more than 1 million square miles of the Western Pacific Ocean. DLNR generally has control over the waters and fisheries within a few miles of shore.

But for decades, Wespac — under the leadership of longtime executive director Kitty Simonds, an influential Native Hawaiian — has positioned the council to have more power over state waters in an effort to help the commercial fishing industry based in Honolulu.

The Legislature created the aha moku, or district council, system in 2012 under DLNR jurisdiction as a way to integrate Indigenous knowledge and skills in resource management into the activities of state government.

But from the beginning the councils that arose on every island were stacked with Wespac-backed members as was the eight-member umbrella group, the Aha Moku Advisory Committee. Since 2006, Wespac has spent more than $1 million to control the state council system, paying for people to attend meetings statewide and supporting Wespac’s vision and candidates. The AMAC was often in direct conflict with state management policies.

Over the last decade, DLNR began to rely more on representatives from its own community-based subsistence fishing areas and critics complained that the aha moku process was too often shutting out parts of the local community. Wespac eventually quit financially supporting the district council system and it floundered.

Although the committee has technically been on hiatus without the necessary number of appointments to reconvene, AMAC members and DaMate have informally worked to fulfill their legislative mandate. DaMate, a former Wespac contractor, has in recent years become more aligned with DLNR and found ways to work effectively with the state.

The group helped Hawaii island communities weigh in on construction of the controversial Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea and sought input on fishing and environmental issues before the state Board of Land and Natural Resources.

More recently, committee members on Oahu helped to push the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs to write a letter to President Joe Biden regarding the Red Hill fuel contamination crisis.

Among other business, AMAC members already have begun tracking or gathering community input on stream diversion and watershed issues on Maui and plans to preserve the Keauhou aquifer on the Big Island.

Members are also working on cultural protocol policies for each of the 50 state parks in Hawaii.

Nominees Ran Into Opposition

It’s been a long journey to get to this point.

Rival groups whose priorities sometimes differ on Maui, Lanai, Molokai and Hawaii island have tried to block nominations to the AMAC since 2016.

This year, the groups asked the Senate to hold off on appointing the AMAC nominees, saying that Ige did not follow proper procedures in the selection process. They wanted Ige to choose from their list of nominees instead of those who work with DaMate.

While state law requires the governor to select a list of candidates from names sent by “island councils,” who those island councils are and how they are formed is not clearly spelled out.

Senator Lynn DeCoite.
Sen. Lynn DeCoite asked the state Attorney General’s Office to help clarify the AMAC nomination process. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

In a letter to the Senate, Deputy Attorney General Linda Chow noted that the people of each island select the representatives.

“The moku representatives select, from among themselves, the names to send to the governor as nominations,” she added.

The AG’s letter also included a list of representatives that come from councils recognized by DLNR.

The letter also acknowledged conflict on Molokai and Maui over which councils are the true councils for those islands where the rival groups are led by two main activists — Walter Ritte on Molokai and Ke’eaumoku Kapu on Maui.

But DaMate works instead with the council chosen by the communities and residents of each moku, not the rival councils whose members were appointed by Ritte and Kapu, not the local residents, Chow told lawmakers. 

Ritte and Kapu say the communities on Molokai and Maui selected the representatives for their councils. 

Kapu insists that the council and nonprofit he leads, Aha Moku O Maui, is the only official aha moku council for the Valley Isle. He said his council has been working for years now to seek community input on federal highway projects and water issues on Maui, among other topics.

Ritte, a longtime activist who is part of the Molokai council, said the group worked with DLNR in the past to resolve community issues with a yacht company that wanted to run tours out of Kaunakakai Harbor.

“We’ve got history here, of the aha working,” Ritte said. “That’s why everybody is so upset. How the hell did they just bypass us and come up with names?”

But Sen. Lynn Decoite, who sought the AG’s help clarifying the council issue, said she had not seen notices of meetings from those opposition councils or instructions on how to participate. She’s tried to figure out how many in the community participated in those meetings and hopes the groups could be more transparent.

“Growing up as a Native Hawaiian myself, we’re always opening and welcoming. We agree. We disagree. But let’s hear everyone out, and let’s see what everybody wants,” she said. “But I don’t see that, I haven’t seen the community being open and welcomed.”

DaMate said she’s reached out to the island councils led by Kapu and Ritte in the past but has not heard from them.

“The door is still open,” she said.

DaMate thinks that the divide began growing when opposition to the TMT on Mauna Kea started picking up in 2014. The AMAC helped to organize the Hamakua community to testify against TMT. But then the AMAC stepped back once the community began weighing in.

She said that may have upset some pro-sovereignty groups that had hoped the AMAC would take things further.

“Our mandate is to bring the voices forward to the correct agencies. You’ll never see us publicly make stands or statements, it’s not our mission, not our kuleana,” DaMate said.

Funding Issues

Rocky Kaluhiwa, right, the Aha Moku Advisory Committee’s Oahu representative, and Kawaikapuokalani Hewett, a founding member, hope the AMAC can avoid political battles in the future. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2021

The committee has struggled with funding in the past, especially since AMAC cut ties with Wespac.

But the fallout from its relationship with the federal fisheries panel seems to have stuck.

Ritte believes suspicion over how Wespac was spending federal funds may have soured the relationship between each of the councils and DLNR.

Money shouldn’t be a problem going into the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

The Senate’s draft of the state budget bill includes $200,000 for the Aha Moku Advisory Committee.

Kawaikapuokalani Hewett, one of the founders of the modern aha moku system, said another difficulty has been trying to intermingle Western political processes and Hawaiian cultural systems.

Going forward, he wants the committee to refocus on its mission on elevating community voices in discussions over Hawaii’s natural resources and avoid political battles.

DaMate agreed.

The solution, she said, is to get to a point “where there’s no money involved, no power involved.”

Maile Shimabukuro, chair of the Senate Hawaiian Affairs Committee, said lawmakers may try to clarify the process of how names are put forward for the governor’s consideration.

Shimabukuro, who represents the Waianae Coast on Oahu, said there needs to be hooponopono, or reconciliation, among all the different aha moku factions.

The groups need to “come together and figure out how the AMAC can equally represent the different factions involved,” she said.

Read Civil Beat’s special reports on Wespac including its efforts to get more deeply involved in state resource management: “On The Hook” (2021) and “Reeling It In” (2019)

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