Heeia ahapuaa gets national designation unique in the Pacific

KANEOHE, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Community partners gathered at the taro patch at Kakoo Oiwi to collect edible ferns for a celebration Saturday.

That's when the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration will give special status to 1,385 acres in the Heeia ahapuaa from the mountain streams to the ocean. It will be the 29th National Estuarine Research Reserve and the only one in the Pacific.

"It means a place for the community to understand the natural resources the cultural resources they have available to them and how to protect them for future generations," said Erica Seiden, program manager for NOAA's National Estuarine Research Reserve.

"Humbled and honored to be selected first of all, but really excited about the opportunities that we can bring for our children," said Kanekoa Kukea-Shultz, executive director of Kakoo Oiwi, which has been restoring the loi (taro fields) for years.

The research reserve infuses $1 million federal and state dollars into the community for education, outreach, farming and fishing, but it's already under threat. The Trump Administration's proposed budget eliminated the program's $23 million dollar budget for 2018.

"We would lose that 40 year data stream of what climate change is actually happening and that would be a huge loss to not only the science but to communities across the country," said Rob Toonen of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology.

While the budget is still up in the air, stakeholders say they've seen an outpouring of support from Congress and states with research reserves to save the program.

"It makes us feel worried. ... I might not have faith in our president but I have faith in our legislators to help Hawaii out," said Kukea-Shultz.

Another threat to this area is sea level rise and that's why caretakers at the loi are already taking steps to manage that by growing different types of taro that can survive brackish water.

Recent flooding at the Papaepae o Heeia fishpond showed dramatic impacts of recent King Tides giving the community visible proof why Heeia needs even greater protection.

"That's one of the primary goals of the reserve system is to understand those impacts and to help develop the best management strategies for this place."

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