Climate change research at UH Hilo: Fishpond management and restoration

The goals of the project in Keaukaha go beyond scientific and clinical objectives—the main goal is to help the community and culture surrounding the loko i‘a (fishponds).

By Anne Rivera.
This story is the fourth in a series on climate change research at UH Hilo.

Group photo in front of ocean mural, Cherie Kauahi, Steven Colbert, Kamala Anthony and Jason Adolf.
Research team (l-r) Cherie Kauahi, Steven Colbert, Kamala Anthony and Jason Adolf.

Research projects at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo are more than opportunities for students to do applied learning, they are also often geared toward helping communities and culture in Hawai‘i flourish. A perfect example of this is a project run by Kamala Anthony and Cherie Kauahi, two UH Hilo graduate students, who have taken on loko i‘a (fishpond) research in Keaukaha, Hilo, with the help of two marine science faculty advisors, Steven Colbert and Jason Adolf.

Aerial of fishpond
Aerial of fishpond in Keaukaha, now a subject of research conducted by UH Hilo. Click photos to enlarge.

The project is aimed at studying current conditions in several fishponds in Keaukaha in order to restore, sustain and manage them better in the face of climate change. The research team is collecting baseline data from the fishponds—never before collected—to study how future climate change will affect the groundwater flow into the ponds.

But the goals of the project go beyond the scientific and clinical objectives—ultimately the goal is to help the community and culture surrounding the loko i‘a. Members of the research team each have their own community connections to Keaukaha and a sense of obligation to help the loko i‘a and the local culture.

Anthony and Kauahi are both graduate students in the Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science program at UH Hilo and have a deep, personal connection with this research project beyond the student level.

Aerial of Fishpond
Aerial of Honokea fishpond at Richardson Ocean Park, Keaukaha.

Anthony is originally from Waiuli in the Keaukaha area. She attended UH Hilo for her undergraduate degree in agriculture with a specialty in aquaculture and later moved on to the TCBES graduate program. She says she feels much like the fish who enter the fishpond where the research is being conducted—she says her motivation for doing this project is because she, too, “seeks nourishment, growth, support, function, skills and the potential to pass on these processes to the next generation for the protection of a resource that sustains the community.”

Kauahi was raised on Hawai‘i Island. She completed her undergraduate studies at UH Hilo and earned a bachelor of arts in marine science. She says her overall goal of this current project is to provide the people who mālama (care for) these places added information to continue to perpetuate loko iʻa practices as well as to ultimately provide food for the people who depend on loko iʻa resources.

“I’m learning a lot about groundwater and how complex it is as well as learning different techniques on how to look at it and measure it,” she says. “Most importantly I’m learning about wai [water] not just in the context of science but in the context of a Hawaiian and recognizing that wai is life.”

Aerials of two fishponds
Aerials of road into Keaukaha with (left) Waiahole fishpond on mauka side of road and (right) Hale o Lono fishpond on makai side of road with wall of fishpond visible. Bing Maps.

Wai is life: Linking culture and science

Both graduate students are taking away more than just the technical skills with their work on this project—rather they are learning how to join their passion for community and culture in Hawai‘i with the techniques and applicability of science. Project advisor Adolf, an associate professor of marine science, says he likes seeing students make the linkage between the two.

“I’d like to see the scientific part be as meaningful as well as be interactive with the community and outreach steps,” he says.

Adolf is originally from New Jersey. He received his master of science in botany from UH Mānoa and his doctor of philosophy biological oceanography from the University of Maryland. He worked on water quality in the Chesapeake Bay after gaining his PhD and made his way back to the islands in 2008 when he joined the faculty at UH Hilo.

Because Adolf’s specialty is in water quality and phytoplankton, he is the faculty advisor on the current fishpond project. He has known Anthony for about five years and has watched her come up through her undergraduate program—he has seen her passion and focus on lokoi‘a restoration, which was part of his motivation to join the research team.

Adolf says his favorite part about the research projects on campus is working with the students to help them write their thesis.

“The real satisfaction is using the data to generate information,” he explains. “The process of analyzing data to tell a story and yield information is my favorite part because it gives the research context and the students’ hard work purpose.”

Colbert, an associate professor of marine science, also serves as advisor for Anthony and Kauahi and helped write the proposal for this project because he has his own connections to the community of Keaukaha.

“One of the biggest goals of this project is to provide information about the hydrology of these fishponds that is useful to the community,” says Colbert. “Keaukaha is the community in Hilo where we are and spend so much of our time, so we owe them.”

Colbert is from Indiana and received his master of science in geology and doctor of philosophy in geology from the University of Southern California. While in California he studied groundwater hydrology in the coastal ocean, which is what he continues to do in Hawai‘i. He joined the UH Hilo faculty in 2010 and has developed a deep connection to the ‘āina (land) and takes joy in giving back to a community that he feels has done so much for him and his students.

Leadership for the future

Funding for the fishpond research is from the Pacific Islands Climate Science Center at UH Hilo.  The center is a partnership between U.S. Geological Survey and a university consortium that includes UH Mānoa (the consortium lead) and University of Guam, in addition to UH Hilo.

In discussing the ultimate project goal, Anthony says, “It is to produce a piece of information or a resource that will contribute to the protection and well-being of the resources that we depend on in Hawai‘i, and in doing so will allow for a combination of scientific approaches and ancestral knowledge of the people who have an intimate relationship with these resources.”

She says she plans to continue the work she does with the loko i‘a restoration through a non-profit organization known as Hui Ho‘olei Maluo to support and guide loko i‘a restoration efforts.

Although she is a first-year graduate student, Kauahi is already starting to plan for after graduation. She says she is looking to take a year off before possibly continuing on to earn her doctorate or she may immediately go to work protecting water resources.

Applied learning for students is fundamental in research projects at UH Hilo—however, connecting classroom learning and field work to the communities outside UH Hilo is vital to the success of the students.

On the various skills Anthony and Kauahi have been gaining through the fishpond research, Colbert says, “Technical skills are the number one thing but leadership experience is second because that’s where our master’s students and graduates are going—TCBES graduates are going to take on these leadership roles and they often end up in leadership roles across Hawai‘i.”

This story was edited for clarification after further input from the students.


About the author of this story: Anne Rivera (junior, communication) is a public information intern in the Office of the Chancellor.

-UH Hilo Stories


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