A man fishes on rocks off Kailua Beach near Honolulu. Lucy Pemoni / Reuters

On Kauai, the state has established a Community-Based Subsistence Fishing Area to protect a centuries-old way of life.

Presley Wann remembers life on the north shore of Kaua’i, Hawaii’s fourth-largest island, during his 1950s childhood, when there was a gravel road to the beach and cows, not cars, traversed its path.

One early morning, Wann tagged along when his uncle went fishing, watching as he dove into an underwater sea cave for lobster, pried limpets off rocks, and threw his handmade net to catch kala, a species of unicorn fish. Or maybe it was moi, a threadfin—decades have weathered the memory’s details a bit.

By 8:30 in the morning, before the winds picked up, Wann’s uncle had caught the day’s supply of food for a big family feast. What Wann hasn’t forgotten over the years is the admiration he held for his uncle, the fisherman.

“He was like Superman to me,” says Wann, who is the president of the nonprofit Hui Makaʻāinana o Makana, which roughly translates as “people of the Makana” (a local mountain, and also the word for “gift” in Hawaiian).

In those days, Wann’s family went to the ocean at Hā‘ena the way most of us raid the refrigerator.

Now multi-million-dollar second homes line the beach, rental cars cover every spot of level land, and hundreds of thousands of visitors a year don their snorkel masks and paddle into the surf, driving up real estate values beyond the reach of people who once lived here, the class of fishers and farmers known in Hawaiian as maka`ainana—people of the land.

Many local families have moved out, and the fishing practices that for generations had managed to maintain a healthy ecosystem in Hā‘ena have changed.

“I witnessed people from outside the community doing stuff like setting lobster nets before the opening of lobster season,” Wann says. “I witnessed people taking big bags of limu [seaweed] that you know [are] not for home consumption. I’d hear stories about my cousins getting into confrontations with guys on the reef who were taking too much.” Overfishing, often for commercial purposes, was a problem. Researchers believe that some kinds of fish in Hawaiian waters have declined dramatically over the past century, some by up to 90 percent.

In response to threats, plants and animals adapt—and communities do, too. This past August, Hawaii’s Governor David Ige signed into law the first-ever Community-Based Subsistence Fishing Area (CBSFA) rules in Hawaii for Hā‘ena.

Based on input from elders and surveys of fish populations, the new rules set bag limits for lobster, octopus, and urchins; prohibit the taking of marine snails for two years, because of their imperiled state; provide restrictions on the types of fishing gear and methods that may be used; and prohibit commercial fishing. The state is still responsible for enforcement, but the community assumes a kind of neighborhood-watch function, in addition to education.

The designation shows a community returning to how it used to guard its resources. At one time, the Hawaiian Islands were divided into land divisions, known as ahupua`a, that extended from mountain ridge to ocean reef. People sourced everything they needed to survive from within their ahupua`a. When the octopus population declined, say, a regulation would be placed on fishing for it until it rebounded.

Young men spear-fishing off the coast of Oahu (Lucy Pemoni / Reuters)

The new fishing rules are “probably the closest thing to a living ahupua`a that I can think of in the state of Hawaii, where we have a say in what happens from mauka [mountain] to makai [ocean],” Wann says.

On the gray morning I visited Hā‘ena, I met Kāwika Winter at Limahuli Garden and Preserve, where he is director. His jeans wet and rolled up to his knees, he’d just come in from an early morning of clearing an irrigation ditch that had gotten clogged during the overnight rains.

“This community has always been super-resilient,” he says of Hā‘ena. “One of the  definitions of resilience is the ability to bounce back from catastrophic and unexpected change, and catastrophic and unexpected change has happened to this community repeatedly since the 1780s.”

A taro patch at Limahuli Garden (Kim Steutermann Rogers)

He’s referring to natural disasters like hurricanes and tsunamis, as well as socioeconomic changes: the collapse of Native Hawaiian populations due to introduced diseases; the privatization of land; statehood (in 1959); the condemnation of land that included generations-old taro patches in the formation of Hā‘ena State Park (the root vegetable taro is central to Hawaiian culture); and the movement away from traditional fishing.

In response to all this, in the 1990s, the community formed the nonprofit that Wann now heads. “They got together with the founding premise that it doesn’t matter who owns the land,” Winter says. “What matters is we’re still able to feed our families a traditional diet of fish and poi [a food made from taro].”

The nonprofit formed a curatorship with the state to repair the taro patches that had been all but left to ruin. Then they focused their efforts on recovering the fish and other marine species that were disappearing from their reefs.  

Hawaii’s state legislature passed a statute in 1994 giving the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) the authority to create community-based subsistence fishing areas. But there were no procedures on how to do so.

After Hā‘ena formed its nonprofit, it held public meetings to draft rules, which, after a years-long process, locals submitted to the state. All told, it took five governors to see the idea come to fruition. And it wasn’t easy—there were concessions before they could agree on co-management.

“One of the big rumors of this whole thing is that Hā‘ena’s rules are going to keep people out,” Winter says, and it’s true that was once a traditional Hawaiian practice: You didn’t go fish in someone else’s community, just as you didn’t go harvest taro in someone else’s patch.

“But there’s nothing about this law and the rules that say you cannot come in here and fish,” he continues. “Everybody’s welcome to fish here. But if you come, you have to fish like us.”

That includes techniques such as throw net, spear, hook-and-line, and scoop net, but strictly prohibits the use of lay nets and spear guns, which allow a fisherman to take a lot in a relatively short amount of time, so can lead to overfishing.

A few weeks after the rules went into effect at Hā‘ena, Wann was en route to weed a taro patch when he passed some young men he didn’t recognize unloading spear guns from their truck. Uh-oh, he thought, I’d better go talk to these guys.

It turned out the men were from Moloka`i, another Hawaiian island, and related to a fisherman who is the elder behind another initiative to return to traditional practices in what could be the next community-based fishing area in Hawaii.

That’s just the kind of thing that will help enforce these new rules: Family ties. Hawaii’s fishing community is still small enough to rely on the threat of an auntie or uncle getting in your face if they catch you misbehaving. As was shown by the young men that day.

“They were super nice about it, and agreed to follow our rules,” Wann remembers.

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