The Hawaiian Islands are surrounded by a complex and dynamic marine ecosystem—home to creatures like corals, reef fish, manta rays, and turtles. An environmental backbone to the economy and well-being of its communities, the marine environment and Hawaiian society are linked in various ways. In West Hawai‘i, people dedicated to the region worked together to build a comprehensive understanding of these connections through a series of workshops.
Participants identified the strongest pressures affecting the marine ecosystem, as well as impacts to numerous benefits communities derive from nature. They found that communities rely on a multitude of benefits from the natural environment that support our physical and mental well-being, such as seafood, coastal protection, and cultural value. We often refer to these benefits as “ecosystem services.”
Stakeholders perceived that fishing, ocean temperatures, nutrient input, and habitat destruction are the ecosystem pressures that have the strongest impact on the marine ecosystem. More than half of the 24 pressures can be managed locally, rather than globally, presenting an opportunity for local management action.
Participants also collaborated to identify which ecosystem services would be most vulnerable to changes in the ecosystem. The majority of services that people perceive as vulnerable to ecosystem change are intangible, non-material, and can be difficult to count or quantify (frequently referred to as “cultural” ecosystem services). Examples include spiritual value and connection to place, being able to gather with family and friends, and appreciating the existence or beauty of a place.
It is important to note that resource strategies tend to omit these cultural benefits, perhaps in part because it is difficult to incorporate aspects of the environment that are hard to count or measure. These intangible benefits, however, are critical to human well-being.
This study presents a way to apply ecosystem-based management that is both locally-specific and transferable to other locations. Local resource management could use this research as a basis for assessing ecosystem pressures that stakeholders specifically identified as influential and important. Cultural ecosystem services, which are critical to society yet not often incorporated in management strategy, were perceived by participants as the most vulnerable to ecosystem change. Increasing our understanding of these intangible benefits to communities will be a critical step towards integrating them into resource management.