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From Mauka (the Mountain) to Makai (the Sea): Using Traditional Practices to Rebuild the Ahupua’a (watershed) and Restore Maui's Coral Reefs

Increasing the resilience of Maui's coral reefs through traditional Hawaiian land management practices – a triple benefit approach.

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Sediment pollution from degraded landscapes is one of the most significant impacts to coastal ecosystems in Hawai‘i. Without appropriate water treatment, streams transport sediment, including pathogens and nutrients, from these degraded landscapes to the ocean. These pollutants cause widespread turbidity which deteriorates coral reefs and threatens essential fish habitat and the recovery of listed and managed species.

Wahikuli and Honokowai Streams in West Maui were recently confirmed by researchers as major sources of the sediment pollution that is reaching the ocean and impacting the priority reefs in the Kaʻanapali region. This project will reduce pollution from stream sediment in order to increase resilience of West Maui’s coral reefs while also benefiting local communities.

The reef tracts in the Kaʻanapali region are the most intact and most important source of larvae to priority coral reefs in West Maui and beyond. They also have the largest degree of partial mortality in the region, and the consensus among coral scientists is that these reefs are nearing a major tipping point as they are in danger of a phase shift to an algae-dominated ecosystem. In sum, Kaʻanapali’s reefs are poised on the edge of a precipice, and the time to act to reduce land based pollution threats is now. Therefore, reducing stream sediment pollution to coral reefs is an immediate priority.

The Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL) is determined to help combat the stream sediment pollution problem in West Maui to protect the area's coral reefs. We believe that Hawai‘i’s streams and gulches can be restored using a combination of modern best management practices and traditional Hawaiian land management techniques.

Throughout Hawai‘i, traditional agriculture, and specifically lo‘i kalo (terraced wetland taro fields) have played an important role within the traditional ahupuaʻa (watershed) system. Lo‘i (taro) provided a host of ecosystem services to native plants and animals while, at the same time, supported a large human population and contributed to vibrant and sustainable communities. By combining traditional knowledge with current science, the broad scale use of lo‘i kalo within a modern context can potentially provide a superior stream restoration solution.

While lo‘i kalo represent a powerful tool for restoring degraded landscapes, there is a rising interest in lo‘i kalo and other traditional food production systems as means to feed communities, support families, and restore the health of the watershed. Last year, Governor Ige made a commitment to double food production across Hawai‘i by 2030; lo‘i kalo and other forms of traditional agriculture have the potential to help Hawai‘i achieve this ambitious plan. Thus, expanded use of lo‘i has the potential to deliver a triple benefit of restoring coral reef health, improving food security and promoting Hawaiian culture.

Explain your idea

For the past year, CORAL and its partners have been piloting and developing Hawaiʻi-specific methods for stream restoration that are proving effective at capturing and retaining sediment on the landscape. Native plants and vetiver, a long-rooted grass, have been proven to stabilize sediment in similar situations. More recently, we have examined the sediment trap efficiency of loʻi and other traditional agriculture techniques within a stream restoration context.

We believe the broad scale use of lo‘i kalo within a modern context can provide a superior stream restoration solution for a number of reasons. Lo‘i kalo has the capacity to remove entrained sediments from stream water and provide the needed retention times that allow fine-grained sediment to settle out of suspension. Lo‘i kalo can also ‘decentralize’ stormwater management by treating water close to its source and at key points throughout the landscape instead of relying solely upon a few large dams or basins. The plants also plants absorb nitrogen and phosphorous, nutrients essential for the growth of lo‘i kalo, but harmful to coral reefs.

CORAL’s plan is to collaborate with Maui Cultural Lands (MCL) – an organization that is already using native species and traditional cultural practices to restore lands. The vetiver and native plant components of the project require far lower maintenance than modern techniques, such as concrete sediment basins. Once native plants are well established (3-5 years), longer term maintenance is minimal. The loʻI kalo will require more maintenance. However, the benefit of including marketable products—such as taro—in restoration activities is that maintenance and expansion of loʻi to new areas can be funded through markets, instead of using grants. Wetland taro is used locally to make products such as chips, poi, and leaf (an essential ingredient in traditional Hawaiian dishes). We aim to leverage this market to scale this restoration technique across Hawaiʻi—and at the same time create sustainable jobs and a food source that is aligned with Hawaiian culture and watershed restoration goals.

Site selection and surveying within the Wahikuli-Honokowai ahupua’a are currently under way, and we expect to begin the construction phase for installation this summer. We will conduct impact monitoring at each site to measure sediment and nutrient removal. Monitoring information will help us to improve and refine our approach and will inform future restoration efforts. We are confident that we can significantly reduce pollution reaching priority reef tracts, while simultaneously providing a model that can be replicated throughout the state.

Who Benefits?

Reef ecosystems in West Maui are vital to humans: they provide livelihoods and drive the local economy (Maui’s tourism was worth $4.1 billion in 2014). These reefs protect the lives and property of coastal populations from extreme weather events and are fundamental to Hawaiian culture.

This project addresses are the social ramifications that have emanated from Western influence – especially as a result of the shift from land tenure to private ownership. This project will empower native farmers to once again use the traditional sense of kuleana (responsibility for land).

Through the restoration of natural watershed filtration processes, coral reefs in Wahikuli and Honokowai (~500 acres) will be more resilient to the impacts of climate change. By expanding this project, we can raise the bar higher towards restoring coral reef health across West Maui, while also improving food security and promoting traditional Hawaiian culture and knowledge.

How is your idea unique?

This project utilizes a suite of best management practices to deliver a triple benefit of restoring coral reef health at priority sites in West Maui, improving food security, and addressing an increasing desire to promote the Hawaiian culture. It will also provide a working laboratory to understand, quantify, and enhance the efficacy of the various traditional agriculture ideas and techniques.

To maximize sediment reduction capabilities in the Wahukili and Honkowai watersheds, we will leverage our relationships with partners as well as traditional farmers to identify and document which plants can be readily utilized to meet both farming and watershed restoration goals.

This project will enable us to design best management practices for maximum sediment reduction from stream water flowing through. We will be able to ground truth the effectiveness of loʻi and vetiver as a stream restoration tools and inform future restoration efforts throughout the state.

Idea Proposal Stage

  • Piloting: I have started to implement my solution as a whole with a first set of real users.

Tell us more about you

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to conservation, nor is it possible to successfully conserve natural resources without buy-in from the people who are most closely connected to and rely on that resource. CORAL takes a multi-pronged and design-thinking approach to restoring and protecting coral reefs in partnership with the communities living nearest the reefs. Our strategies include:

♣ Reducing local threats to reefs, including overfishing, poor water quality, and unsustainable development 
♣ Helping communities benefit socially, culturally, and economically from conservation
♣ Improving reef management so those responsible for the creation, enforcement, and durability of protected areas have the tools and financial support they need to be successful 
♣ Working directly with the tourism industry to decrease its environmental footprint and to educate visitors about the beauty and importance of coral reefs
♣ Ensuring that what we learn within our project sites has a global impact

For this project, we are serving as a lead organization from a conceptual standpoint as well as a facilitator and convener. We are working with a number of partners to facilitate these ideas. Partners include:

• Maui Cultural Lands (MCL) – MCL is already using native species and traditional cultural practices to restore lands. We will collaborate to develop restoration templates that honor cultural traditions and effectively restore ecosystem function to the land and streams.
• West Maui Ridge to Reef Initiative (WMR2R) – the WMR2R represents the culmination of federal, state, and local efforts to create a holistic approach across multiple agencies and organizations to build effective watershed management within priority areas in West Maui.
• Ridge to Reefs Based – based in the Chesapeake Bay Region of Maryland, Ridges to Reefs has conducted watershed restoration activities throughout the world, including other coral reef priority sites.
• Stream Restoration Knowledge Sharing Group – at the request of the Ridge to Reef Working Group, CORAL is facilitating a Knowledge Sharing Group to identify, pilot, and refine stream restoration BMPs that are technically feasible, culturally appropriate, and financial sustainable.
• The Nature Conservancy (TNC) – CORAL is collaborating with a lo‘i and land restoration project located at He‘eia on the North Shore of the Island of Oahu.
• US Geological Survey (USGS) USGS is conducting ongoing stream sediment studies of sources and loading in West Maui and led the surveys that mapped the extent of the legacy sediment problem in three streams in West Maui
• National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Coastal Resilience Program granted us funds to implement a suite of 26 traditional and modern pollution reduction BMPs in the Wahikuli Watershed.

Expertise in sector

  • 7+ years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered non-profit.

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