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Kahalu‘u Bay Named Mission Blue Hope Spot

May 29, 2022, 11:09 AM HST
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Kahalu‘u Bay in Kona is the second Mission Blue Hope Spot to be named in Hawai‘i. (Photo courtesy of Kahalu‘u Bay Education Center)

Mission Blue, a marine conservation nonprofit that works to rally local and international support to preserve and protect marine ecosystems, has designated Kahalu‘u Bay in Kona as one of its Hope Spots. Kahalu‘u Bay is the 141st Hope Spot named by the organization worldwide and the second in Hawai‘i.

“A Hope Spot is a special place that is scientifically defined as critical to the health of the ocean,” Cynthia Punihaole Kennedy, director of the Kahalu‘u Bay Education Center at The Kohala Center, said in an email to Big Island Now.

ReefTeach volunteers have worked for more than 15 years to protect the bay through long-term ecological monitoring and daily educational programs. (Photo courtesy of Kahalu‘u Bay Education Center)

Kahalu‘u Bay is distinguished by its clear, shallow waters and diverse marine life. It has supported the community for centuries, providing food for local residents and serving as a sacred link to ancestral heritage. More recently, the bay has also served as a snorkeling destination for visitors from around the world as they come to experience its rich natural and cultural resources.

“Kahalu‘u Bay serves as a model for other smaller bays around the world and shows how they, too, can harness the deep relationships between people and the environment to protect these cherished places,” Sylvia Earle, founder of Mission Blue, said in a press release. “(The) bay has become a beacon of hope and a source of inspiration for the community.”

The bay and its surrounding waters are home to several endangered and threatened species. It is also a critical habitat for hundreds of fish and invertebrate species, of which approximately a quarter are endemic.

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However, the safe and shallow nature of Kahalu‘u Bay is a bit of a double-edged sword.

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During the past several decades, the bay’s natural and cultural resources have degraded because of an increase in stressors such as the impact from more than 400,000 beachgoers each year, poor water quality from nearby cesspools, increased runoff from development, coastal damage from rising sea levels and climate change.

Kahalu‘u Bay is a wahi pana, a sacred, celebrated and storied place abundant with cultural and ecological treasures, and Punihaole and Christine Zalewski, president of Dear Ocean, are working to preserve the bay for future generations.

Mission Blue also named Punihaole and Zalewski as Hope Spot Champions. They have seen Kahalu‘u change through the years, and both of their organizations are working to reverse they damage done.

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“We need to be cognizant of ‘shifting baseline syndrome,’ in which perceived accepted norms for an environment gradually change over time, causing the previous state to become forgotten,” Zalewski said in the press release. “Today, when younger people go into the bay, they still see beautiful tropical fish and coral, but they don’t have a reference point to understand how much the bay has changed from what it once was.”

Punihaole’s Native Hawaiian upbringing shapes her perspective and approach to conservation.

“We were taught by my elders the importance of taking care of a place, for the land gives us life,” she said in the press release. “I left for the mainland after graduating from high school. Upon my return, I was saddened as I observed so much of what I took for granted had begun to disappear, including our abundant coral reefs. I felt the need to do something.”

Punihaole said to effectively address the issues and restore the bay to its previous condition, people must engage with more awareness, care and respect.

“The ecosystem is at a tipping point and requires ongoing, effective management from the ground up,” she said in the press release.

Great strides have already been taken through multiple partnerships with community members, organizations and local government.

An example is the annual temporary closure of the Kahalu‘u Bay beach park in mid-May, during the spawning period for cauliflower corals. For more than 15 years, Punihaole and her team of community ReefTeach volunteers also have worked for more than 15 years to protect the bay through long-term ecological monitoring and daily educational programs.

“Our work at Kahaluʻu Bay fully aligns with Mission Blue’s views on empowering local communities, and we hope to prove that even geographically small bays can create profoundly large, global impact,” Zalewski said in the press release.

“The land, the sea, the air and the people are all connected,” Punihaole said in the release. “It’s this connectedness that extends the size of Kahaluʻu Bay far beyond its physical boundaries.”

“We can make a difference if we respect and care for each other and our environment!” she added in her email to Big Island Now.

To learn more about Mission Blue Hope Spots, click here.

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