Marine Conservation Biology in Hawaii

Where are all the locals?
by -- May 5th, 2017

When I descended upon the Hawaiian coastline, racked with misguided preconceptions and ill-planned luggage, it takes very few minutes to gather this question: Where are all the locals? From Hanuama Bay to Diamond Head, the Bishop Cultural History Museum to conservation tours, there is a distinct lack of natives preaching the importance of Polynesian culture and history. This irony is hard to miss, but given that Hawaii is a vacation haven, I can only assume the irony is largely brushed aside by tourists in attempts for light-hearted fun on vacation. Of the roughly 15 activities our group partook, only 2 members of any crew had any semblance of Hawaiian descent. From a far-off view, it seemed the “haole” – a term for those not of Hawaiian descent – dug the native culture, used it as a prop for tourism activities, but didn’t really care to integrate the Hawaiian people. But, like most indigenous v. ex-patriot relationship scheme, this notion is wracked in nuance.

To understand the Hawaiian/haole relationship you would have to dig into years of colonization and American civics history. A history far too dense for 500 words. For ease of reading this blurb, understand that tensions between haole and Hawaiians have been rough – very rough – like beat up white-kids-every-Thursday rough. Hawaiians feel their culture has been hijacked and used as a storyline for a profit-making scheme. That, unlike historians remarking on ancient traditions, the haole grandstanding of Polynesian culture props up a culture of marine mysticism and significance, while scooting the “real” Hawaiians to less picturesque parts of the island, where economic and political opportunity are sparse. On the flipside, as noted by a Kona Hawaiian local, the haole have been spearheading marine debris clean-ups, ecotoxicology studies and endemic species conservation. The haole have been the villains in some schemes, as evident in the international tourism companies encroaching on spinner dolphin ecosystems, but have also been leading the charge in monk seal conservation efforts. As is always in assessing anthropological relationships, sweeping generalizations are misleading. This is not to say that the majority of conservation issues in Hawaii are not caused by haole. The millions descending upon the fragile coral reef in Hunuama Bay are proximately responsible for its bleaching. The encroachment of endemic species has caused issue whether it be stress or decrease in population. And cats? Don’t get me started on the damn cats.

One Hawaiian conservationist, our leader in our off-shore snorkel, noted that the relationship between haole and Hawaiian is strained and that, although relationships are mending slowly, they are far from “productive.” Hawaiian children are still kept under reservation mentality and have been likened to Native Americans on the mainland. To haole, Hawaiians are kept at arm’s length and are comfortable in this social position. A maintained space is desirable on both ends. It is the role of the millennials to bridge this gap. Millennial Hawaiians are spearheading a cultural revolution; many are fluent in Hawaiian and are exploring marine conservation in new Hawaiian-only marine focused charter schools. It is on the backs of the young, as it often is, to integrate haole and Hawaiian, economic development and conservation and attempt to salvage a culture that values the ocean as “Hawaiian everything.” How this will be done? That is the question that only time and open dialogue can solve, but as noted in the recent town hall meetings: the Hawaiian natives are peeved and do not stand with encroachment.

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