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Fates of freshwater, saltwater intertwined

Wai.Kai Week targets relationship between streams and the ocean

Ikaika Nakahashi, board president of the Maui Nui Botanical Gardens, searches for trash at the Kealia Coastal Boardwalk on Sunday morning. The beach cleanup marked the kickoff of the Maui Ocean Center’s inaugural Wai.Kai week, which aims to bring awareness to the importance and connectivity of freshwater and saltwater. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photos

KEALIA POND — Tommy Cutt and John Gorman were snorkeling along the beach fronting Kealia Pond when they spotted a turtle swimming low with a hook caught in its neck.

The team from the Maui Ocean Center Marine Institute plucked out the hook — of the kind used to catch ulua — and added it to the collection of lead weights and fishing line they picked up Sunday morning.

“The line is potentially more dangerous because the line can cause an entanglement injury and potentially lead to the turtle losing its flipper,” said Cutt, director of the Marine Institute. “We’ve had two cases like that last week.”

Marine Institute staff and community volunteers spent Sunday morning cleaning up the roadside, beachfront and ocean near the boardwalk as part of the Maui Ocean Center’s inaugural Wai.Kai week, which kicked off Sunday as a way to raise awareness about the relationship between land and sea and the connectivity of freshwater and saltwater.

“Water runs from high ground to the ocean . . . so whatever’s in its path, it’s going to pick up, whether it be something physical or something chemical,” said Jordan Saribay, who is organizing Wai.Kai as Maui Ocean Center’s events and marketing coordinator.

Bags of trash are propped up alongside a fence at the Kealia Coastal Boardwalk. Volunteers picked up enough rubbish to fill 15 of these 50-pound bags, along with three more bags of the same size.

Saribay said that he and Dane Maxwell, Maui Ocean Center’s cultural director, came up with Wai.Kai because they were looking for opportunities to promote conservation and provide the community with access to environmental organizations and resources.

Kealia Pond, where Sunday’s cleanup took place, was a prime example of the relationship between wai and kai. The wetlands act like a sponge, “absorbing and filtering excess nutrients, sediments and pollutants from incoming water before it flows to the sea,” according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Saribay said that about 35 to 40 people showed up and helped fill 15 sacks of 50-pound capacity, along with three trash bags of about the same size.

Tamara Sherrill, director of the Maui Nui Botanical Gardens, patrolled the roadside with about a dozen volunteers, picking up mostly Styrofoam, plastic, glass bottles and cigarette butts. As part of her work with the botanical gardens, Sherrill deals with many coastal plants, another example of the relationship of wai and kai.

“The freshwater, where it mixes with the saltwater, that’s the source of water for most of these plants,” Sherrill said. “So a lot of them can tap into the freshwater that’s in the wetlands, and it’s really interesting to see how they react in different places and in different landscapes based on whether they like to be near the saltwater or the freshwater.”

Aleysa Martin, field operations coordinator for the Maui Ocean Center, sits beside a pile of fishing weights and rubbish that she and other volunteers picked up in ocean fronting the boardwalk.

Sherrill said coastal plants play a big role in holding together sand dunes and acting as a buffer.

“Those plants are the ones that are the first line of defense against tsunamis and hurricanes and any kind of tidal surge,” Sherrill said. “They’re really important to keeping coastal erosion down.”

There’s another type of aquatic plant that relies on both wai and kai, and that’s limu. Maxwell said that many people think there’s no limu because of pollution, but he said it’s due to changes in the type of water feeding the limu.

“Instead of being groundwater, it’s now surface water, and that surface water is bringing sedimentation rather than being filtered underground in the aquifers and coming up as freshwater,” he said. “Most limu needs a high level of freshwater in order to thrive. So instead of seeing native limu, endemic limu, you now see invasive limus.”

Whether it’s limu, coastal plants or growing fish, the brackish water environment where saltwater and freshwater meet is crucial to the ecosystem. And, whatever the streams or rains bring will have an effect on the ocean.

“Runoff definitely impacts coral reefs and definitely impacts our ocean health,” Cutt said. “Everything ends up in the ocean, so we have to be careful of pollution or anything that we put in the water.”

Cutt said that people can help by cleaning up beaches, reducing their use of single-use plastics and just being mindful of the decisions they make and the things they’re putting in the water. In June 2018, the Marine Institute affixed large black tubes to fences to provide recycling bins for discarded fishing line and debris. They put 25 bins around Maui — with plans to double that amount in the next month or so — and have collected more than 20 miles of fishing line since then.

Wai.Kai continues this week with free admission to the Ocean Center through Saturday for kamaaina keiki ages 4-12, who must be accompanied by a kamaaina adult with a valid Hawaii ID. Conservation and government organizations will also set up shop at the aquarium, including the Maui Nui Seabird Recovery Project, Pacific Whale Foundation, Coral Reef Alliance, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, The Nature Conservancy and more.

On Thursday, there will be a free talk as part of the Ocean Center’s new cultural speaking series, “Kauhulu.” The talk will include a “wai panel” and “kai panel” of water and conservation experts. The talk has been sold out, but Saribay said the Ocean Center is taking a wait list and that the event may also be livestreamed.

Wai.Kai Week will conclude with a benefit night Saturday for the Maui Nui Botanical Gardens and the Maui Ocean Center Marine Institute. Guests will get access to the aquarium, with live music from Na Hoku Hanohano Award winners Na Hoa and Na Wai Eha, as well as food and drinks, environmental educators and a panel discussion on Kane and Kanaloa.

For more information, visit mauioceancenter.com/wai-kai.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.