Hawaiʻi coral reefs support vibrant communities of coral, fish, and other ocean life—despite facing increasing threats. That life, in turn, provides Hawaiʻi with an estimated economic value of $863 million annually. For Native Hawaiians, the value of coral runs much deeper. The Kumulipo, a Hawaiian creation chant, explains that all life started with the coral polyp, their earliest ancestor.
To preserve this ecological and cultural heritage, the Office of Habitat Conservation’s Restoration Center is investing $18 million in Hawaiʻi habitat restoration projects through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act. Coral reef restoration is still relatively new in Hawaiʻi, so the funds will also support training Native Hawaiians and local residents in underwater coral restoration techniques.
Kuleana Coral Restoration, the first Native Hawaiian nonprofit dedicated to coral restoration, recently graduated their first cohort of early-career ocean conservationists. With serious problems like warming temperatures, overfishing, land-based pollution, and powerful waves, all hands are needed to protect and restore coral reefs.
Challenges Facing Local Conservationists
Kuleana’s NOAA-sponsored Coral Occupational Applications and Scientific Techniques (COAST) training program puts Oʻahu residents, including Native Hawaiians, at the forefront of coral restoration in Hawaiʻi. Despite growing up with deep cultural and economic connections to the sea, Native Hawaiians on Oʻahu face many barriers to entering marine science fields. Most simply can’t afford to pay for expensive certifications or participate in unpaid internships and volunteer positions. Those positions typically lead to a first job in the field, according to Kuleana Executive Director Alika Garcia.
“In Hawaiʻi, we have this amazing potential—a state full of water babies,” says Garcia. A Native Hawaiian fisherman and firefighter, Garcia was financially unable to pursue a career in marine biology before co-founding Kuleana. “Our students find themselves getting passed over for jobs that often go to people from the U.S. mainland who have a lot more certifications. We saw in the conservation world that our communities weren't getting the attention they needed because we didn’t have a seat at the table.”
Kuleana provides students with a $2,000 stipend and covers the cost of certifications, dive gear, and other learning material. This year, Kuleana was able to recruit a diverse cohort of eight students from an applicant pool of 80. They ranged from recent college graduates trying to break into marine science fields to a construction worker and a coder hoping to earn extra money as restoration technicians.
“I think a lot of us are really happy to finally get a chance to be seen and get a skill set that puts us in a more competitive place,” says Baylee Jackson, a member of the 2023 cohort. Jackson earned a bachelor’s degree in marine biology from the University of Hawaiʻi in 2019 but had been unable to find a job in his field.
“I’m interested in coral restoration, but I saw how difficult it is to enter this career,” says Ciara Ratum, another recent local college graduate. “Before taking this course, I thought I needed to choose a different route.”
Combining Science with Indigenous Insight Just Makes Sense
Kuleana incorporates Western scientific methods with traditional Hawaiian knowledge and using more affordable, practical restoration techniques. It has become the go-to practitioner for major restoration projects on Oʻahu. The COAST program strives to pass that blended approach to its students. Members of the cohort received training on coral restoration and monitoring techniques, community outreach and education, career-building mentorship, and accomplished scuba certifications up to the rescue diver level. They also learned from community leaders and guest speakers about Native Hawaiian perspectives on how to mālama, or care for the environment.
“Kuleana means responsibility in Hawaiian,” says Jackson. “The people who have a deep involvement and responsibility to this place are the best people to go up against the threats coral face now and in the future.”
Indigenous people have spent millennia learning about their environment through careful observation and interaction. This directed their relationship with the natural world, which sustained them. “Our ancestors had many rules to protect the plants and animals,” says Garcia. “Not because it felt good, but because it helped us to survive.”
“Traditionally, Hawaiians divided the land into ahupua‘a, or ridge-to-reef districts,” says Carissa Cabrera, Development Manager for Kuleana. “Shaped like pizza slices, ahupua‘a typically follow a watershed, starting with streams in the mountains and flowing downhill to the reefs. The people managed the ahupua‘a so that it provided for all of their needs and was self-sustaining.”
“With so many complex problems facing coral and time running out, why wouldn’t you want this perspective to help solve these challenges?” says Garcia.
Students were trained by coral restoration divers and attended lectures and workshops led by NOAA staff, local scientists, nonprofit leaders, and Hawaiian cultural practitioners.
“It was so beneficial to be trained by a working team of divers,” says Jackson. “It gave a lot of us inspiration for where we can take this new skill set. Whether it be working for Kuleana or another coral restoration team or using those skills as a working diver in a related field.”
“Although I grew up in Hawaiʻi, I was not taught about Hawaiian culture in school,” says Ratum. “It was inspiring and touching to learn about the cultural significance of coral and more about the place I grew up.”
The program invited guest speakers to talk about ocean science careers and how to build a resume and apply for jobs. “One of the greatest things about the program was just being able to network with a lot of people who are already in the conservation scene in Hawaiʻi,” says Jackson. “Being able to hear their journeys and how they got to their positions was incredibly beneficial.”
Making Connections for the Future
Kuleana has offered both Jackson and Ratum the opportunity to work with them on another NOAA-funded restoration project led by the nonprofit Malama Maunalua. Kuleana is the lead partner for the coral restoration work on this program. They are also applying for additional NOAA funding to support their growing team.
“I went to the cohort’s graduation day and it was really neat to see how supportive the group was of each other,” says NOAA Marine Habitat Resource Specialist Shannon Ruseborn, who is helping Kuleana develop their programs. “They seemed incredibly grateful and excited to have this opportunity.”
“I’m a big crybaby, but a lot of us were getting emotional at graduation,” says Ratum. “We worked super hard to get all of our certifications. Some of us are working other jobs and have kids and a whole household to take care of. We're all just really proud of ourselves. Being in that group was kind of a first. We all came from different backgrounds but we all have that one common love for Hawaiʻi and our oceans and that responsibility to take care of it.”
Kuleana will start recruiting for next summer’s cohort in the early spring of 2024. Check their website and social media for updates. Additional sessions will run in 2025 and 2026.
“One of our visions for this program is showing other institutions that restoration courses that are funded and include a stipend can be used to scale up local capacity,” says Cabrera. “They can do the exact same thing as us.”
NOAA is offering a $45 million funding opportunity for projects that will advance the coastal habitat restoration and climate resilience priorities of underserved communities and tribes. Applications are due by December 19, 2023.