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Despite pause in efforts, conservation groups press on

Some scaled back reliance on volunteers in pandemic

Volunteers Nevaeh Howard (in blue) and Elena Beauchamp-Estrella (in red) volunteer on Kaho‘olawe in February. With the ongoing pandemic, Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve Commission has cut their volunteers making the trip to the island in half. Photo courtesy Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve Commission

When the COVID-19 pandemic kept volunteers from traveling to Kaho’olawe to help with planting, the weeds started to grow.

The 14 staff members of the Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission tried as much as they could to spread native plant seeds on the island, but it could not match the level of plantings and seedlings that a large group of volunteers could offer, said Michael Naho’opi’i, the commission’s executive director.

While a pause in human activity during the pandemic gave the environment some relief, it also took a toll on local conservation groups who halted projects and scaled back volunteers as the virus spread across the world last year.

“It just reduced the number of people we can have,” said Naho’opi’i, whose group once took 15 volunteers per trip to the island but has halved the limit due to health restrictions.

Earth Day, typically a moment to galvanize the community to volunteer, was celebrated virtually on Maui last year as many stayed at home under county orders. On this year’s Earth Day, there are fewer restrictions, and local organizations say things have been getting better as they work through new protocols and bring back volunteers.

Volunteer Kristy Gund collects an ocean water sample for testing as part of the Hui O Ka Wai Ola program of the Maui Nui Marine Resource Council. Photo courtesy Maui Nui Marine Resource Council

The Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission took a test group of volunteers to the island in August, and volunteers have been going regularly to Kaho’olawe since September. Group sizes are smaller and every other bunk is blocked off in housing quarters for social distancing, Naho’opi’i said.

The commission is still only taking Maui residents as volunteers, he added, noting the travel restrictions still in place between counties.

Created by the state Legislature to manage the reserve while it is held in trust for a future Native Hawaiian sovereign entity, the nonprofit has not only dealt with the pandemic but also suffered a massive fire in February last year that blackened about 9,000 acres. It destroyed an upland storage facility that housed the majority of the organization’s tools, equipment and supplies.

Naho’opi’i said KIRC was trying to secure funding at the Legislature last year to help with recovery efforts, but all that was dashed when the pandemic took over. This year, funding for his organization is also stagnant with the state holding tight to its dollars.

“We don’t know where we are right now,” Naho’opi’i said of his budget as lawmakers draw closer to firming up the state’s fiscal plan.

In the meantime, the organization is relying on grants and fundraisers, including a recent fundraiser with Flatbread Co. in Paia in which portions of pizza sales during a certain time went to KIRC, Naho’opi’i said.

Other groups have also picked up their projects again as pandemic restrictions rolled back. The Maui Nui Marine Resource Council stopped ocean water quality monitoring for about two months last year due to stay-at-home orders. And, campaigns urging tourists to be kind to the reef and oceans were put on pause with no travelers to educate, said Anne Rillero, a spokeswoman for the resource council.

When the group resumed ocean water quality studies in May, it was only with staff, not volunteers. The laboratories they used to analyze their studies, including one at the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary and another at Lahainaluna High School, were both closed off to the public due to the pandemic.

However, the organization was able to use space from a volunteer instead.

“Flexibility was key,” Rillero said.

Even as COVID halted some programs, the resource council got involved with others, include a study on the absence of commercial tour boats at Molokini.

The study showed more fish and larger predators such as ulua, omilu and reef sharks returning back to Molokini in the first few months of the pandemic as commercial boat traffic was halted.

Rillero said the organization was able to help the researchers of the study with logistics, including securing a vehicle and lodging. It also set up a crowdsourcing campaign to raise funds for the study.

The organization also assisted with a program that used county and federal relief funds to create about 70 new temporary jobs for Maui and Molokai residents who were unemployed due to COVID-19. In turn, the workers were able to help seven conservation nonprofits in Maui County, including the resource council, make progress in different areas.

Volunteers have also come back to lend a hand with water monitoring and other projects for the resource council.

“We are pretty much back to normal now. (But) everyone is wearing a mask and following safety precautions,” Rillero said Wednesday.

Rillero said “people ask that question all the time,” as to whether having fewer tourists on Maui during the pandemic has improved the environment.

However, she said one of the biggest causes of pollution in waters is sediment runoff and cesspools. She pointed out that sediment isn’t caused by tourists and that sediment studies in nearshore waters did not improve during the pandemic.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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