Cover Story

Malama Maunalua
Image: Chris McDonough

An already-thriving conservation effort shifts into high gear on O‘ahu’s east side


Cover image for Mar 10, 2010

Malama Maunalua / On a Thursday morning in late February, a group of roughly 50 people are gathered at Kawaikui Beach Park near ‘Aina Haina. Most of them are in their teens–students from Kaiser High School and Niu Valley Middle School–and they’re here for a community service project. The gathering looks like any of the many such activities going on at locations around Oahu–teenagers in shorts and T-shirts, alternately goofing off and getting things done, with a few adults scattered around to supervise.

As the younger students get themselves organized off to the side, the high schoolers form a circle and link hands. A kahu enters the scene, and leads them in an oli, or chant, with most of the students participating faithfully. Then, the older students welcome the younger ones into their group.

Soon, the students pair up into teams and gather on the beach, and before long, they’re talking about the different species of limu found in Maunalua Bay and getting the most destructive of the invasive varietals–leather mudweed–into onion sacks and out of the bay.

The activity is organized by Malama Maunalua, a community group dedicated to the conservation and restoration of the part of Oahu stretching, mauka and makai, from Black Point in Kahala to Koko Head in Hawaii Kai.

“When you walk around out here, you see it’s just goops of mud,” says the group’s outreach coordinator, Andrew Laurence. “The mudweed just holding it there like a sponge. And what happens is that when they clear an area, 30–45 minutes after the currents clear out the mud, you’ll be walking on solid sand. It happens that fast.”

The nonprofit has been coordinating huki, or pulls, like this one since 2006. With a small paid staff to do the organizing and upwards of 700 volunteers to do the pulling, Malama Maunalua has shepherded the removal of some 30 tons of mudweed from the bay.

There is much more happening here, however, than an invasive-species action. In the heart of a region that virtually defines the overdevelopment and sprawl that have plagued Oahu for decades, these students are part of a focused, science-based effort to reverse the ecological losses of the past half-century. It’s an endeavor that stretches from here to the nation’s capitol: Drawing on best practices stretching from 18th century Hawaiian resource management to 21st century economic policy, Malama Maunalua has engaged partners at virtually every level of society–from local schoolchildren to private companies to regional researchers to Washington, D.C., policymakers–in its efforts to clean up the bay and keep it vital.

Best of all, it’s working. Areas the group has cleared since 2006 have remained clear, allowing for the return of native fish and the first step toward recovery of a valued yet threatened ecosystem.

“People get around coffee tables all the time and talk about what they’re going to do to change the world,” says Laurence of the group’s founders. “These guys actually did it.”

The Great Huki

Beginning this month, the huki enters a new phase, as 50 workers, paid with federal stimulus dollars, begin working full-time in concert with the volunteers. The goal is to clear 2,000 tons of mudweed and other invasive algae from four sites along Maunalua Bay, and in so doing to clear the way for the return of the reefs, seaweeds and fishes that are vital to its overall health.

Known as The Great Huki, this new phase relies on funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009–President Barack Obama’s so-called “stimulus package”– awarded through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA). The project is coordinated by The Nature Conservancy, long a partner with Malama Maunalua, which will continue to organize volunteer efforts. The contractor on the federal job is Pono Pacific, Inc., a local resource-management consulting firm.

NOAA selected the Malama Maunalua project, along with a few dozen others, from more than 800 applicants around the United States. “The three main criteria for NOAA,” Laurence says, “were that projects be shovel-ready, have community support and be rooted in science.”

Thanks to the foresight of its founders early in the last decade, Malama Maunalua fit that bill.

“The concern for Maunalua Bay started quite a long time ago,” says co-founder and local environmentalist Carol Wilcox. “Many people got together and wanted to do something about it as far back as 2001, but Malama Maunalua was the first time it got really organized.”

Wilcox found herself working with Hawaiian navigator Nainoa Thompson and his mother, community activist Laura Thompson, along with Kaneohe Ranch’s Mitch D’Olier and others.

“A number of us said, ‘We can’t do this alone, there’s too much to do,’” says Wilcox. They raised funds to hire Alyssa Miller as the group’s full-time coordinator, a role she continues today. The next step, Wilcox says, was doing an assessment of Maunalua Bay.

The bay

As recently as 1950, the bay was defined by abundance, with large schools of uhu, a thriving hee population and other marine life. As the surrounding coast and hillsides were cleared and converted to housing, residential and agricultural run-off began to pollute the waters. Nitrogen levels rose in the bay as a result of the fertilizer contained in the run-off, and algae blooms began choking out marine life. By the 1970s, the bay was already under threat.

Then came the leather mudweed. A native of the Western Pacific, Avrainvillea amadelpha was first sighted in Hawaiian waters in 1981. Fewer than 30 years later, it covered nearly 300 acres of Maunalua Bay’s reefs and near-shore waters, making life vastly more difficult for nenue, the native Hawaiian seagrass, and other native limu that provide a foundation for larger marine life. Gone were the days of local residents feeding their families from the bay’s waters. Maunalua had deteriorated to the point that the State of Hawaii had categorized it as “impaired.”

Malama Maunalua needed a starting point. It found a partner in the Nature Conservancy.

“We have a [priority-setting] process that we have done with other agencies,” says the Nature Conservancy’s executive director, Suzanne Case. “It’s a collaborative and thoughtful process, and Malama Maunalua came up with an action plan that identified invasive algae as one of the three main threats to the bay.” The others, in order, were sedimentation due to runoff and overfishing.

Gerry Davis, who manages habitat conservation in the Pacific Islands region for NOAA, has been involved with Malama Maunalua since 2004. He, along with then-University of Hawaii graduate student Kim Peyton and others, helped root Malama Maunalua in hard science from the outset, and it was clear that the leather mudweed was among the largest threats to the reef and, in turn, other sea life.

“Structural formations on reefs provide habitats for fish and other creatures,” Davis says, “and some of these corals, which are being choked out, take a long time to grow.” At rates of between one-eighth of an inch and 2 inches per year, Davis says, some corals can take 25 years to reach maturity.

Another consequence of the leather mudweed invasion is that most marine animals will not settle where it is blocking the reef or the sand.

“It’s pretty simple,” says Davis. “If they like what they taste, they stay. If they taste mud, they won’t stay.”

Malama Maunalua developed resource-management plans to target all three primary threats, with an eye toward clearing the algae as the first step. However, central to all three steps–invasive species, sedimentation and over harvesting–was community involvement.

In stepped Kaiser High School teacher Michelle Kapana-Baird, who began bringing students out to do cleanups on Saturdays. As they had success clearing out mudweed and noting that it stayed cleared, Malama Maunalua began bringing in more volunteers.

Before long, the evidence was in that the mudweed would not come back quickly once removed. Near Kuliouou’s Paiko Lagoon, a large channel and several other patches of sand-covered reef now stand out among the vast stretches of remaining mudweed.

All of the work to this point, Laurence says, has been volunteer labor.

“That’s one of the reasons NOAA awarded the contract,” he says. “Since 2006, we estimate 700 people have pulled algae in Maunalua Bay, and we have about 150 regular volunteers.”

Volunteer Coordinator Tegan Hammond says that by scheduling cleanups at four sites along the bay and on both weekdays and weekends, she is able to accomodate just about anyone who wants to participate.

Closing the loop

Last weekend, one of those regulars was Devin Tatemichi. As a student in Wendy Kuntz’s biology class at Kapiolani Community College, Tatemichi got interested in the health of Maunalua Bay. Sometime in the next few weeks, he’ll take it up as a profession–Tatemichi has been hired by local conservation services company Pono Pacific to be part of a 50-person crew that will begin clearing Maunalua’s algae on a whole new scale.

Pono Pacific President John Leong says he received more than 500 applicants for the Maunalua Bay cleanup.

“We tried to find outstanding individuals who were not only physically capable, but also had the right heart for this job,” he says.

Leong says that while the selections were based on qualifications, the company made sure to reach out in particular to past volunteers and area residents. “One of the crew is a fireman from Kuliouou, born and raised,” Leong says. “He’s been using the bay all his life and wants to give back.”

The Pono Pacific crew, Leong says, is a diverse group–“Fifty-fifty female to male, everyone from students to retirees”–and will be on the Paiko site for 12 months to remove 2,000 tons of mudweed.

“It’s a huge honor for us to be involved,” he says, “and we are going to do the job in a way that’s right for the bay and for the community.” Just like the Malama Maunalua volunteers, the paid workers will remove the algae by hand, and will haul it out of the ocean using kayaks instead of motorized boats. “The tides will definitely be a factor,” Leong laughs, referring to using kayaks to carry large loads over a shallow reef. “But we’ll schedule around them.”

Once the algae is removed from the ocean, both the volunteer and professional groups will take it back to farmers and other agricultural operations in order to convert its compost into a natural fertilizer for local farms. Ed Otsuji, who farms 20 different vegetables on six acres in the back of Hawaii Kai, says he is testing the compost now but has “no doubt” it will work.

Malama Maunalua’s efforts over the past decade point to a model of community action that goes beyond big talk and occasional outings and enters the realm of real and substantive environmental progress. As 2010 opens, what began as a five-person working group known as Malama Maunalua has grown into a partnership involving neighborhood schools and residents, UH, the federal government and local businesses. Even global defense-contracting giant General Dynamics has lent a hand, giving Pono Pacific what Leong calls “a truly amazing price” on technology that will allow his workers to update the community on their progress in real time. “We reached out to them and told them what we were doing,” Leong says, “and they really wanted to help.”

And, of course, it’s not a bad time to create 50 jobs.

“You’re solving two huge problems at the same time,” says Case. “You’re addressing this nasty invasive algae, and you’re creating a bunch of jobs. I think it’s going to be an historic project.”

Still, Wilcox, who remains on Malama Maunalua’s steering committee, says that the community will always be the heart of the project. “We need to [continue to] work together and do things differently in our own backyards,” she says. “Collectively, we can make an enormous difference.”

Laurence agrees.

“The stimulus funding is great, it’s a nice boost,” he says. “It’ll turn this little square of Maunalua Bay into a legitimate biological area. But the only way we’ll be able to maintain that progress is if the community continues to support it. If that happens, Maunalua has an opportunity for a real renaissance.”