That was the question that Maka’ala Ka’aumoana asked us when we met her in Hanalei this afternoon. A noted community organizer, conservation advocate and Executive Director of the Hanalei Watershed Hui, she described how her mother asked her this question when she was growing up. Her mother meant it in terms of social behavior, of course, but when Maka’ala asked, she meant did we know our place in the natural world? It was a great question and the start of a wonderful hour of conversation with this engaging woman.
We stood in front of a taro field teeming with endangered and threatened Hawaiian waterbirds (including one of my favorites, the Hawaiian Stilt) and chatted about monk seals, taro farming, watershed protection, coastal development, the threat posed by feral cats to the seabirds of Kauai and a host of other topics She is truly a force to be reckoned with.
Earlier in the day we had the pleasure of a conversation with Keith Robinson who, with his brother Bruce, own the island of Niihau, just off the western coast of Kauai. Often described as the Forbidden Isle, Niihau is administered privately by the Robinson family and supports a small population of Niihau islanders who continue to speak a particular dialect of the Hawaiian language. Niihau was purchased in 1864 from King Kamehameha V in 1864 by the Robinsons’ ancestors. Access to the island is strictly controlled, so the island provides an important refuge for the flora and fauna of Hawaii, including the endangered monk seal.
Keith described the recent history of monk seals on Niihau, starting with the first sighting in 1970 when (just like today) a massive winter storm brought 40 to 50-foot waves to the north shores of the main Hawaiian islands. Under their protection, the population of monk seals grew to perhaps as many as 200 individuals and has likely been the source of much of the recent colonization of the Main Hawaiian Islands. The Robinson family granted the NOAA monk seal research team, led by Charles Littnan, access to Niihau for the fist time last fall and they counted 16 pups, doubling the number of births documented last year in the Main Hawaiian Islands. The Robinson family are now seeking special protection for the coastal waters of Niihau.
During this class we have been fortunate to hear first-hand from influential stakeholders like Keith and Maka’ala about their views on marine conservation and we are enormously grateful for their perspectives. Listening to both of them made me reflect on my own place in the world and on the intersection of their views on how to best conserve nature. We missed participating in a seal capture and Crittercam deployment today, but after spending time with Maka’ala and Keith, it didn’t seem to matter.