UN honors Molokai group for fishery conservation

Hui Malama o Mo‘omomi receives its prize in NYC

Kelson “Uncle Mac” Poepoe and his wife, Kamalu, walk on stage during the awards ceremony in New York City on Sept. 24 to receive the Equator Prize for Hui Malama o Mo‘omomi’s efforts to protect Molokai’s north shore. MIKE ARRISON photos

A mile away from the United Nations headquarters where world leaders pressed for solutions to climate change, one Molokai community group was honored for its efforts to save the environment in its own little corner of the globe.

Hui Malama o Mo’omomi was among 22 groups to receive the Equator Prize on Sept. 24, a biennial award under the U.N. Development Programme that recognizes “outstanding community efforts to reduce poverty through the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity,” according to its website.

“It feels really good to be recognized and to be put in that status where we making one difference,” said Kelson “Uncle Mac” Poepoe, founder of Hui Malama o Mo’omomi. “So it gives me little bit more incentive to look at things a little bit more serious with what I do, not just studying the species but trying to find the relationship with climate change . . . and how we can look at the solutions.”

The 10th annual Equator Prize ceremony coincided with the 74th U.N. General Assembly and the first-ever Global Climate Summit. The Mo’omomi group and Hui Maka’ainana o Makana from Kauai were the only two awardees from Hawaii.

Kevin Chang, co-director of Kua’aina Ulu ‘Auamo, the backbone organization that supports community-based environmental stewardship networks like the ones on Molokai and Kauai, said that the event drew a full house to The Town Hall theater in New York City. Many environmental delegates who were in town for the General Assembly attended, as well as the head of the U.N. Development Programme and even a couple of “Game of Thrones” stars — UNDP Goodwill Ambassador Nikolaj Walder-Costau and emcee Oona Chaplin.

Ulu Ching of Conservation International Hawaii (from left); Kevin Chang of Kua‘aina Ulu ‘Auamo; Kamalu and Mac Poepoe of Hui Malama o Mo‘omomi; Keli‘i Alapai, Emily Cadiz and Presley Wann of Hui Maka‘ainana o Makana; and Manuel Mejia of The Nature Conservancy gather at the United Nations Development Programme office, just across from the ongoing U.N. General Assembly and Global Climate Summit in New York City last month.

“It was kind of like a big celebrity gala, except the Hawaii communities and grassroots community efforts around the world were the celebrities,” Chang said.

Together, the award recipients crafted statements addressing three themes around climate change — mitigation, adaptation and the new economy. Chang said that the global community is finally starting to take seriously the knowledge of indigenous people who have long cared for the Earth.

“In this shift towards figuring out how we’re going to adapt to climate shifts, countries all over the world are starting to look toward the indigenous people and local communities for some of the answers, because these communities have been, in one way or another, trying to keep these practices and values alive,” Chang said.

The 22 indigenous groups and local communities hail from 16 countries. They include winners like Solar Freeze out of Kenya, which is pioneering the production of portable solar cold rooms that help reduce post-harvest losses of food grown primarily by women smallholder farmers, and Kemito Ene, an indigenous social business enterprise in Peru that has enabled 300 Ashaninka families to directly export sustainably grown organic cacao to the international market.

Hui Maka’ainana o Makana on Kauai, meanwhile, made history in 2015 when it established the first community-based subsistence fishing area in the state. In 2017, Hui Malama o Mo’omomi put together a proposal for its own community-based subsistence fishing area, but it’s still pending a public hearing by the state. The state Department of Land and Natural Resources did not immediately respond to a request for an update.

In 1993, longtime Molokai residents noticed that overfishing and hunting were depleting local resources. Then-Gov. John Waihe’e put together a task force that surveyed the island and found that 28 percent of all Molokai families’ diets came from subsistence activity, including hunting, fishing and growing food. For Native Hawaiian families, it was 38 percent. The task force recommended a marine-protected area where people could still fish but would follow sustainable practices.

The state approved a pilot project from Mo’omomi to Kawa’aloa Bay, and it worked — Mo’omomi exhibited higher levels of marine life than similar exposed north shore locations around the state.

Residents tried to push for a permanent designation, but it never happened, so they decided to continue to manage the area as a community.

Poepoe spearheaded the conservation efforts through Hui Malama o Mo’omomi, educating local families and working on erosion control, turtle nesting and establishing a fishing code of conduct. The hui manages the nearshore fisheries following the art of kilo, which monitors moon cycles and their effects on marine species and ecosystem. They also promote pono fishing and have held family fishing camps to help promote sustainable practices among families and the next generation.

Molokai’s north shore isn’t facing the same impacts of sea level rise as the south shore, but Mo’omomi has its own set of problems, Poepoe said. Some things are beyond his control, like the high tides and king tides that come in and soak the sand, changing the temperature and killing the eggs laid by turtles. Poepoe said the sand movement at Mo’omomi is “too radical,” moving laterally along the shoreline and scraping limu off the rocks. The limu not only provides food for fish but sucks up carbon in the environment.

“We tend to take these things for granted. It’s only temporary,” Poepoe said. “But when you see things happening over the years, it’s not temporary. This thing is affecting stuff that I see. A lot of people don’t see it. So it is serious for me.”

But there are some things Poepoe can influence — like the overfishing and harvesting. He urges people to leave some of the “good stuff” alone and let them repopulate, and he tries to teach students, the next generation of hunters and fishermen, to do the same. He said that people are more cautious now because they know that he’s watching, and he’s seen encouraging signs in some species, such as the spiny lobster, which is making a comeback after Hoolehua fishermen came to an agreement in 2012 to hold off gathering lobsters until the population could return to sustainable levels.

Poepoe said that everyday beachgoers can do their part to help the ocean by picking up trash, which can cover and prevent the growth of things that fish like to eat.

“It’s a part of the ecosystem that people don’t really understand that needs to be taken care of, or else we going lose that part of the system that feeds the other part,” he said. “So it might not seem like it’s important to pick up the rubbish and clean the beach. (But) that’s where you can start.”

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


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