Local group teams up with Cousteau to restore wetlands

Jean-Michel Cousteau paints a section of mural along with students from the Ka‘ehu Youth Enhancement & Mentorship Program Wednesday at Ka‘ehu Bay. The mural was being created under the direction of nature artist Patrick Ching (right). Cousteau’s nonprofit Ocean Futures Society is partnering with the local nonprofit Ka‘ehu on a project to restore 64 acres of coastal wetlands. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

WAILUKU — Imagine the Paukukalo coastal wetlands filled with native plants and wildlife, flourishing fishponds, two streams of fresh clean water, cultural sites and a healthy shoreline with limu, fish and corals.

Historically, that’s what the 64-acre undeveloped Ka’ehu Bay looked like, and that’s what nonprofit Ka’ehu Executive Director Kahulu Maluo-Pearson envisions for the area once more and in perpetuity.

“Like many of the world’s beautiful places, Ka’ehu Bay has seen better days as a result of several reasons: overgrowth, runoff from neighboring areas and nature’s natural currents that bring thousands of pounds of ocean debris onto its shore every month,” Maluo-Pearson said Wednesday night. “Our vision for the future is one where the community embraces Ka’ehu Bay through traditional stewardship and reestablishes a relationship with the ‘aina and the kai, in order to restore its marine life, coral and shoreline to its once pristine condition, giving it the honor it so richly deserves.”

As part of ongoing restoration efforts, a partnership between nonprofits Ka’ehu and Ocean Futures Society — founded by Jean-Michel Cousteau — created a community-based program called Malama Ae Kai (coastal caretakers), which aims to restore 64 acres of coastal wetlands in Paukukalo by integrating “traditional Hawaiian stewardship practices and modern scientific approaches to climate change,” Maluo-Pearson said.

The partnership is for the next three years and will involve working with the community and teaching the youth skills on best practices to preserve the shoreline, marine life, coral reefs and seaweed at Ka’ehu Bay in Wailuku.

The nonprofit’s goal is to bring back traditional food crops, lo’i and native plants that once filled the area, which is bordered by Wailuku River and Waiehu Stream.

“It’s an honor for me to be invited here to Maui, to try and better understand nature and what we can do to help it,” said Ocean Futures Society President Cousteau, a French environmentalist, oceanographic explorer, educator, author, architect and filmmaker. “Though I’m very excited about the 64 acres, I still want to know specifically what’s along the coastline, what’s underwater, what’s going on there and what kind of species I may not have seen in other parts of the island, so it’s an exciting time. A very exciting time.”

The Ocean Futures Society team is visiting Maui this week through Sunday and will return again many times to survey and assess Ka’ehu Bay with nonprofit leaders, Cousteau said.

The plan is to dive, film and document, as well as meet with youth, families and community members to talk about climate change and the importance of preserving the ocean and Hawaiian culture for a sustainable future.

“We are using the wisdom and knowledge of our kupuna, our ancestors and working with Jean-Michel Cousteau to use a scientific approach, equipment and techniques such as data collection to understand the current condition of Ka’ehu Bay and help develop a plan to help restore the marine life, coral and shoreline,” Maluo-Pearson said.

The son of ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, Jean-Michel Cousteau has investigated and explored the world’s oceans for over 70 years.

Among the issues causing environmental degradation are plastics and carbon emissions, with waste polluting beaches and coastlines, as well as chemicals and heavy metals found in everyday household items and products, a lot of which is consumed by animals and humans in one way or another, he said.

Still, there has been a shift toward environmental awareness.

“So I’m still very optimistic for the future of our species,” Jean-Michel Cousteau said. “Time is of the essence, but I think we’re heading in the right direction.”


Cousteau founded Ocean Futures Society in 1999 after his father passed away, to “honor his philosophy,” which is to continue sharing experiences and educate individuals and communities as well as local, national and international organizations on the critical bond between people, cultural traditions and the ocean, including the importance of taking “responsible environmental action.”

Now in his 80s, Cousteau has seen the rise of technology and how it has allowed billions of people to stay connected and spread knowledge and awareness of environmental issues that “we can address and take care of.”

From leading the first live undersea interactive video chat on Microsoft Internet from the coral reefs of Fiji in 1997 to producing over 80 films that influence positive change, including a PBS documentary called “Voyage to Kure” for former President George W. Bush that inspired him to designate the 1,200-mile chain of the northwest Hawaiian Islands as the first marine national monument (Papahanaumokuakea), his work and advocacy in conservation has impacted millions of people and wildlife worldwide.

Through his research expeditions, his goal is to inspire young people, the “decision-makers of tomorrow,” and communities around the world to make positive changes for a better future.

Bridging the gap between governments and industries to encourage effective environmental policies will also help to mitigate environmental degradation, he noted.

For example, he spoke with and showed former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo in 2000 the importance of protecting gray whales’ breeding grounds in San Ignacio Lagoon instead of losing it to industrial development. In 2021, he made a statement to the Fiji Republic on protecting its coral reefs.

“The fact is, the more we can communicate with people’s hearts, their families, their children, their grandchildren, they want to protect them too, so we need to make the bridge between organizations right now and the future,” he said. “There are a lot of places where we can do that.”

Cousteau has earned the Environmental Defense Council Lifetime Achievement Award, Oceana Ocean Hero Award and Attenborough Award for Excellence in Nature Filmmaking, to name a few, and is listed in the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame.

Now back in Hawaii, out on a small green wooden bench at Ka’ehu Bay, Cousteau lights up the most when talking about the fascinating behaviors of humpback whales, which make annual visits to Maui, as well as orcas, dolphins, birds and fish.

With a team of experts, he plans to dive and document for a television series the places around Maui that he’s visited over the past 35 years to see how different the marine environment is today.

The purpose is to continue to “educate ourselves to make sure that we stop losing species and at the same time, discover new species and behavior,” said Cousteau.

“I’ve been diving in many parts of Maui and it’s a treasure,” he said. “There are thousands and thousands of species in the ocean that we don’t know about, so we need to do a lot more research.”


Acknowledging and understanding that everything is connected, the public can better comprehend the impact their actions have on the planet, which is 71 percent ocean, and find ways to live in balance, Cousteau said.

And the best lessons are often found in outdoor classrooms. On Wednesday morning, children were collecting rubbish along Ka’ehu Bay as part of the nonprofit Ka’ehu program, which hosts field trips, workshops and after-school and summer training.

“What’s very critical is to take them out to touch and feel and smell nature, whether it’s on land or in the ocean,” Cousteau said. “These young children are learning a lot of stuff, a lot more than if they were inside listening to someone telling them what to do or what not to do.”

Later in the afternoon, a group of summer camp kids headed to Iao Valley to learn about stream stewardship.

“The whole gist of us being here is learning from the cultural knowledge and then implementing the activities that are giving them a sense of sustainability and just living with a smaller environmental footprint, and it starts with the everyday choices we all make,” said Ocean Futures Society marine biologist and environmental educator Holly Lohuis.

Like the variety of plants and animals on land and in the sea, there are a variety of cultures and practices around the world, making each one unique and worth preserving, Cousteau said.

“The objective is to protect, preserve the ecosystem, Maui culture, way of life, language, in order to make sure that the diversity is synonymous with stability and that’s the only way we’re going to save the human species and this is one example of probably hundreds of other examples from other parts of the world,” he said. “For me, it’s a fabulous and extraordinary treasure, and we will do everything we can to help.”

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.


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