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The ‘Skippy Effect’: Biologist’s legacy left in streams he nurtured

DLNR’s Skippy Hau retires after 36 years of educating, studying streams and wildlife

Retiring State Dept. of Land and Natural Resources Aquatics Biologist Skippy Hau receives a lei from Division of Aquatics Resources co-worker Itana Silva as she and her family stop at his surprise drive-through retirement celebration at Keopuolani Park in Kahului Saturday afternoon. Hau is retiring after 36 years of preserving and protecting Maui’s streams, rivers, ocean and the plants and creatures that reside in them. A steady stream of well-wishers stopped by the park to offer their thanks and aloha.

KAHULUI — Longtime aquatic biologist Skippy Hau said he’ll miss teaching youth about native stream animals the most out of his 36-year career developing stream surveys, conducting habitat and ecological restoration and collecting data on coral reef health and fish populations around Maui Nui.

The 64-year-old Wailuku resident retired in December after decades of work with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Aquatic Resources, saying that he had “mixed feelings” while cleaning up his office.

Hau said he’s excited for retirement, but “I will miss the kids and students.”

On Sunday, Hau showed the many laminated photographs he has of different fish species, sharks, sea turtles, snails and eels that he would bring to Wailuku River or Waihee Stream for the kids to view as he shared his knowledge about native species, told stories of the kupuna before him and taught the youth how to be “good stewards” of the land and sea.

“Skippy spent huge amounts of time studying the stream and its inhabitants and, when asked, he would teach the children about the stream animals at one of our (Maui Nui Marine Resource Council) field study events at the Lindsey home in Lahaina,” said Robin Newbold, co-founder and chair of the marine council. “It was every child’s favorite as Skippy came prepared with a bucket full of samples of tiny critters like o’opu (native freshwater gobies), hihiwai (snails) and ‘opae (shrimp/prawns) to show the children.

Retiring State Dept. of Land and Natural Resources Aquatics Biologist Skippy Hau chats with folks who stopped by the drive-through retirement party organized by co-workers from the Division of Aquatic Resources.

“The children loved it and it’s likely they remember it still.”

Just the other day, in fact, a former student at the store lovingly yelled, “Hey, Uncle Skippy,” Hau said.

“I’m surprised he recognized me,” Hau said with a laugh during an interview with The Maui News on Sunday. “They grow up so fast.”

He would often partner with Kamehameha Schools Maui’s youth program, Ho’olauna, or nonprofits like Hui o Na Wai ‘Eha that advocate for natural stream flow.

Kamehameha teacher and Hui o Na Wai ‘Eha President Hokuao Pellegrino said that the best way to show gratitude for Hau and his legacy is to ” ‘auamo important kuleana and continue his work, both in the streams and ocean.”

The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Growing up near Kaneohe Bay on Oahu, fishing and squidding with his father, sparked Hau’s interest in aquatic biology as well as soaking in all the interesting information found on television shows, National Geographic and from his ninth-grade biology teacher at Castle High School who “made learning interesting.”

Still, Hau explained how he learned a great deal from his parents, who taught him that fishing is a privilege and “must be earned” by doing chores around the house and yard.

Hau first joined the DLNR in January 1979 as an unpaid intern from the University of Hawaii at Manoa before moving into a contractor position with the Fisheries Development Unit in 1980 at the Anuenue Fisheries Research Center. He served many years on the Western Pacific Fishery Council’s bottomfish planning team.

There, Hau helped raise aquaculture bait fish to supplement native species in tuna and bottomfish commercial fisheries. He also was a biological observer on bottomfishing trips to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, according to the DLNR.

In 1984, he was hired as an aquatic biologist in the Oahu office where he began working on projects related to the Waikiki/Diamond Head Fisheries Management Area.

However, Hau said he wanted to move to a less-crowded Neighbor Island, which happened to be Maui, after accepting a position as the Maui aquatic biologist in 1985.

He worked to build projects and programs on Maui from scratch centered around the unique aquatic resources, becoming a key member in documenting life cycles, strandings, fish population trends and regulations, shark attacks, coral reef monitoring data, marine mammal tagging and historical events.

Hau said that “many things have changed” over the past 20 years with how scientists collect and classify data in order to understand and better protect marine wildlife.

When turtle nests first started showing up around Maui, he partnered with nonprofit organizations and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to address the threats to these nests, such as setting up a volunteer watch program to keep an eye out for signs of new turtle nests.

It’s evident that sea turtles still hold a special place in his heart –î Hau still keeps extensive records of nesting turtles and their whereabouts around Maui Nui and still has vivid memories of turtles he’s rescued, even years later.

For years, Hau also had a hand in creating volunteer programs and outreach through The Pacific Whale Foundation, the Marine Auction Program, the Maui Nui Marine Resource Council, the Hawaii Wildlife Fund and others.

“Uncle Skippy has been an inspiration to all of us in Hui o Na Wai ‘Eha over the last 18 years,” Pellegrino said. “Through his teaching and mentorship, we learned a plethora of knowledge in regards to stewarding our native aquatic species, whether it was through stream surveys, monitoring, habitat and ecological restoration or stepping up to educate others about the importance of protecting these important natural and cultural resources that have no voice.”

Having spent the majority of his career working in Maui’s freshwater ecosystems, Hau has documented hihiwai (endemic freshwater snails) recruitment into Honomanu stream in East Maui –î these efforts highlighted the importance of these small native snails in freshwater stream ecosystems.

He also regularly collected ‘o’opu and ‘opae in Wailuku River. After data was recorded, they would be released above the flood channels and stream diversions, Hau said.

Today, the presence of native animals in the upper reaches of this stream is believed to be the result of what many call the “Skippy Effect,” the DLNR said.

Through his research and advocacy for water flow in Maui’s streams, the Division of Aquatic Resources has been able to “link the health of both freshwater streams and muliwai to the overall health of marine ecosystems and fisheries,” the DLNR said.

“Throughout his career, he contributed greatly to science, sound fishery management and other critical aquatic resource issues,” the DLNR wrote in a statement.

The DLNR’s Maui branch organized a drive-thru celebration on Jan. 15 at Keopuolani Park, where co-workers, friends and supporters drove by to congratulate Hau on his decades of service with the department.

He said he was surprised to see how many people from the community stopped by to greet him.

Resident Monica Nakahashi said last week at the drive-thru that “he’s amazing” and wanted to “thank him for all he has done for Maui and Hawaii and the world with his knowledge of the ocean and streams.”

Though Hau has a few educational talks in his schedule, his days will be wide open.

His legacy, however, will continue to fill classrooms, programs and the Maui DAR district office.

“Skippy showed an incredible commitment to kokua or take care of aquatic animals, their ecosystems and the communities that depend on them,” Brian Neilson, DAR Administrator, said in an email. “DAR will carry on the incredible work that Skippy pioneered in Maui. I’m sure he will approach his retirement with the same passion and energy that he did throughout his career at DAR.”

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@maui news.com.

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