Native Hawaiians to embark on scientific research voyage to Papahānaumokuākea

This will be the first time that an entire crew of Hawaiian scientists will lead research in Papahānaumokuākea under a research permit. Four of the 12 members of the hui are from UH Hilo.

Group photo at the water's edge.
A hui of 12 Native Hawaiians will embark July 31, 2021, on a 15-day scientific research voyage into the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. From left, hui members Aloha Kapono, Kammie Tavares, Haunani Kāne, Kristian McDonald, Kainalu Steward, and Lauren Kapono. Courtesy photo from Aloha Kapono.

By Susan Enright

Four scholars from the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo are part of a hui of Native Hawaiians to depart from Kāne‘ohe Bay on July 31, 2021, to begin a 15-day scientific research voyage into the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. The goal of the trip is to collect data to help create better management strategies to deal with climate change and sea level rise affecting communities in the younger islands.

Sailing aboard the Makani ‘Olu, a 96-foot, triple-masted schooner, the hui of 12 Native Hawaiian researchers will visit the most eastern islands in the monument: Nihoa, Mokumanamana and Lalo (French Frigate Shoals).

Haunani Kāne, a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at UH Hilo, and Lauren Kapono, Aloha Kapono, and Kainalu Steward, graduate students in the Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science program, will be on the research trip. All are associated with the Multi-Scale Environmental Graphical Analysis or MEGA Lab at UH Hilo.

Haunani Kane
Haunani Kāne

We hope that our trip will help to inspire other Native Hawaiians to push the boundaries of Hawaiian perspectives in their field, even when they feel like their voice is the minority,” says Kāne. This will be the first time that an entire crew of Hawaiian scientists will lead research in Papahānaumokuākea under a research permit and our research will directly contribute to four Native Hawaiian graduate degrees and an early career professor.

The hui of 12 researchers will be collaborating on two separate scientific studies on sea-level rise and intertidal fisheries management, working alongside each other during field work and expanding on future cross-collaborations.

Led by Kāne, an assistant professor at the Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science at Arizona State University now doing her post-doc work at UH Hilo, the first study will identify shifts in dominant sediment types and its sources from the nearshore reefs at Lalo.

In 2018, Hurricane Walaka devastated this area and resulted in the loss of an entire islet and large expanses of pristine reef. The study seeks to improve understanding of the potential loss and timescales for recovery of critical habitat following extreme storm events. It will also focus on learning more about how the predicted increased sea level rise and hurricane activity in Hawai‘i will impact essential habitats for priority species, such as sea turtles, monk seals, and various seabirds.

The second study will be conducted by Nā Maka Onaona in partnership with the UH Mānoa and UH Sea Grant to build on more than a decade of monitoring the Hawaiian intertidal fishery in the main Hawaiian Islands and Papahānaumokuākea.

This summer’s scientific research voyage is supported by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and Arizona State University.

“These researchers are following in the footsteps of our kūpuna as they use our native language, traditional protocols, and cultural worldview to pursue a better understanding of our environment and develop new methods to help us survive in our island home,” says Carmen “Hulu” Lindsey, chairperson of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

The UH Hilo scholars

Kāne’s overarching goal of her research is to interpret how Pacifc Islands respond to environmental stressors. “Typically this is done by interpreting the formation and evolution of an island from fossil corals and island sediment,” she explains on her website. “It is my hope that by sharing the stories that are recorded in kupuna coral and sediment, that I may contribute to a better understanding of how islands and islanders may be impacted in the future by changes in climate and urbanization.”

Lauren Kapono was a Keaholoa STEM Native Scholar as an undergraduate at UH Hilo. She graduated in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in marine science. She then served as a Hawai‘i Island program coordinator for Nā Maka o Papahānaumokuākea, a small non-profit organization on Hawai‘i Island that focuses on community health and wellness by supporting the overall cultural, spiritual, and physical health of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. In her graduate studies, she has been investigating ‘opihi as indicator of climate change.

As an undergraduate, Aloha Kapono studied the impacts of rats on Hawai‘i elepaio nesting success and survival and impacts of rats on arthropod and plant communities that support forest birds; she interned with the United States Geological Survey in 2016. She also was a USGS volunteer working with Hawaiian hoary bats in 2015. Before volunteering with the USGS, she worked with bats during an international undergraduate program. She graduated from UH Hilo in 2016.

Steward graduated from UH Hilo in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in Hawaiian studies and a minor in agriculture. He also was a Keaholoa STEM Native Scholar as an undergraduate. His graduate project is centered on mapping the recovery of Lalo over the course of three years following Hurricane Walaka. He is combining satellite imagery with global positioning system (GPS) surveys to determine the rate at which the islands have returned and continue to naturally evolve. His research will provide valuable tools and guidance for the long-term management of Papahānaumokuākea.


Read the full OHA media release.

Story by Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.


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