In front of more than 100 people, the vast majority of them fishermen, Darrell Tanaka took the microphone and made something clear: This is just the start of a process that people need to show up for if they want their voices heard as the state makes big plans to manage certain Hawaiian waters.

Maui County locator map

He knows how things have changed in the waters surrounding Maui, because he’s been fishing there since he was young. Today, he also considers himself an activist and conservationist who has pushed for certain regulations to keep reefs healthy and always tried to make sure that fishermen had a seat at the table.

He was one of three storytellers invited to kick off the first meeting to gather community input in what some say is among the most important planning processes for Hawaii’s nearshore waters in recent history. It’s called Holomua Marine 30×30, a state-led initiative to effectively manage marine resources by establishing at least 30% of each island’s waters as a network of marine management areas by 2030.

Darrell Tanaka speaks to a crowd of more than 100 people at the J. Walter Cameron Center who gathered Friday evening to share their thoughts and learn about the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Holomua Marine 30X30 community planning process. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

In Tanaka’s opinion, the 30×30 initiative sounds like another idea that a politician thought up. He’d rather see 100% of Maui’s waters managed but never closed to fishing. But regardless of what people think, now is the time for them to speak up, he said, or they risk being left out.

“The fishermen can only give so much,” Tanaka told the crowd in an auditorium in Wailuku. “We the end user — not the snorkelers, not the tour boats, not the politicians.”

“This regulation is for us,” he continued. “Make it something that we can live with.”

At the meeting in Wailuku, residents were asked to put dots where they agreed with statements. They leaned toward saying “the entire reef is in crisis” and “most of the reef throughout Maui’s waters is in trouble.” Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Friday’s meeting marked the beginning of the state’s effort to ask communities where they want marine management areas, which are sections of ocean governed by rules on the way people can use marine life. That can include restrictions on size and catch limits, the type of gear people can use or what species they can take. About 6% of Hawaii’s nearshore waters are marine management areas.

The goal of the initiative is to pave the way for Hawaii’s marine ecosystems to “thrive again with abundance.” There’s broad consensus among Hawaii’s families, fishermen, conservationists and politicians that the islands’ marine ecosystems aren’t as healthy as they once were — a situation caused by myriad things like climate change, unsustainable harvest, development and the loss of traditional and customary practices. A recent analysis, for example, found that the population of some key reef fish had dropped as much as 75%.

Now, state employees in charge of the effort say they want the plan to come from the ground up within local communities — not dictated down from the state government on Oahu. The rollout is starting with Maui, but in the years to come, the state will go island by island to craft a plan for each place.

In some people’s view, the effort is long overdue. The launch of the first talk story sessions on Maui came more than six years after Gov. David Ige announced the 30×30 initiative at the IUCN World Conservation Congress.  Today, more than 100 countries around the world have committed to a global mission to protect at least 30% of land and oceans by 2030.

But with only seven years to go, some Hawaii residents have raised concerns about the timeline, especially with a new administration to assume control in the next month. In a statement, Democratic candidate for governor Josh Green said, if elected, he would continue to support the initiative. Republican candidate Duke Aiona said he wouldn’t at this time because “recent informational sessions yielded more questions than answers.”

Only about 2% of Maui’s nearshore waters are designated as marine management areas, including Kahului Harbor. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

During the talk story sessions on Maui, some people questioned why it took so long to begin the public outreach. There were also some who questioned whether the state will, in fact, incorporate fishers’ concerns and the knowledge held by longtime families into the plans. Then there are some who wonder if the state is right to put more regulations on fishing when there are so many other things that threaten Maui’s delicate marine ecosystems, ranging from the county’s injection wells to erosion caused by poor land management to diversions that block stream water from flowing into the sea.

But the state employee, a fisherman himself, who is helping to spearhead the program has a message for those with doubts.

“This is my home,” Luna Kekoa, a program manager for the Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Aquatic Resources, said in an interview. “I want my keiki to be able to fish and eat them, not just look at an aquarium.”

At Maalaea Harbor on Maui, reefs have been increasingly threatened in recent years by coastal erosion. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Kekoa said he understands why people might be afraid of the process; for a long time, fishers have been used to the government coming up with rules that people then had to fight to get changed. But with 30×30, Kekoa said, he’s determined to do things differently.

During three community meetings held over the weekend in Wailuku, Hana and Lahaina, attendees were asked to nominate people from their communities to serve on a 30×30 “navigation team” — a group of Maui residents that could include fishermen, scientists and other community leaders who will be tasked with listening to residents and recommending what should go into Maui’s management plan.

Once the navigation team puts together a proposal, Maui residents will have another chance to review it and make changes. After that’s worked out, state employees will take the group’s recommendations and craft them into official rules, which will then go through a formal vetting process. All told, it could take anywhere from one to two years — or possibly even longer — to put together the plan, Kekoa said.

“The point is to do it right,” Kekoa said. “Not just, ‘Oh, they’re going to draw it on a map and push it through.’”

Kahului Harbor is currently a marine management area after community members fought for protections. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Eventually, the state will go through this process with every island, Kekoa said, but it’s starting with Maui because there’s already an existing network of community members who’ve been actively working with the state Division of Aquatic Resources. Right now, about 2% of Maui’s nearshore waters are designated as marine management areas, just a slim fraction of the 30% goal.

Kekoa said he’s trying to be mindful of the state’s resources and start with one island at a time. He assumed his role about two years ago, a job held by at least two other people since Ige announced the initiative in 2016. Things were slow going because of the turnover, he said, then the pandemic.

The state is now planning to tap funding from the federal government and private organizations who want to see 30×30 happen. The Hawaii Community Foundation, for example, is planning to raise $3 million a year for the program over the next 10 years, according to its website.

“It’s expensive to do this, especially when you’re talking about a bunch of islands in the ocean where you need to get people to give consensus,” Alan Friedlander, chief scientist for National Geographic’s Pristine Seas Program, said in an interview.

On a per capita basis, Friedlander said, the Hawaii DLNR is one of the most poorly funded natural resource departments in the U.S. It’s also “grossly understaffed,” he said, which has made it difficult to roll out new protections and enforce the ones that already exist. In general, DLNR receives about 1% or less of the state’s operating budget.

Residents shared their concerns with DLNR at the talk story sessions. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Friedlander, who has been following the initiative since he was at the convention center where Ige announced it in 2016, said the 30×30 initiative is an important step in the right direction but more could be done. In his view, 100% of Hawaii’s nearshore waters should be “effectively managed,” not just 30%. Instead, 30% should be “highly protected,” he said, meaning they’re under stricter types of regulation where research has shown that marine ecosystems are more likely to thrive again. It may not be as popular, he said, because some people are going to have to give some things up for the common good.

“The status quo is not going to be sustainable,” Friedlander said. “And so everything we value about the ocean in Hawaii — for food or culture or recreation — those things aren’t going to be there in the future unless we do something.”

That was a concern at the talk story sessions — that things wouldn’t happen fast enough. Maile Shannon, who was invited to serve as a storyteller, said she fought with a group of community members for nine years to get rules changed in Kahului Harbor. But for the marine life that’s at risk in fragile ecosystems, that can be too late.

“Should we have waited for six years to be in this room? No,” Shannon told the crowd.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

Civil Beat’s coverage of climate change is supported by the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation, Marisla Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation. 

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