13 Activities Including Reefs, Marine Biology, and Oceanography
Geographically isolated, Hawaiiʻs marine environment is relatively species-poor. Hawaiians were as comfortable in the ocean as on land, relying on the ocean for fishing, gathering limu, and tending fish ponds.
Riding The Currents
Dispersal of marine life. Oceanic currents in the Pacific Ocean. Endemism.
Activities in this Unit:
- Navigating the Currents
- Dispersing on the Currents
Science-based management. Conservation. Current issues in marine management.
Activities in this Unit:
- “Weren’t There More of Us?” Game
- Impacts of Aquarium Fish Collecting on Coral Reefs
- Design a Monitoring Study
- Marine-Management Research Projects
What does the Marine Zone Mean to You?
These reflections are offered by individuals involved in studying and protecting the native ecosystems of Haleakalā.
Surfing, diving, fishing—Kim Martz and Forest Starr
Looking up at the mountain from the ocean
Watching fish watching me”
I think of the gardens of coral and how people are screwing it up. I think of people overfishing, overusing the resources. I think of people looking for immediate satisfaction and not worried about tomorrow.”
From the sea we have ventured and to the sea we glimpse our future. From the shallow sands that skirt Haleakalā to the depths of her foundation three miles below, the sea sustains Haleakalā, holding her high, forever reaching to the sun.”
Ku mai! Ku mai!
Ka nalu nui mai Kahiki mai.
ʻAlo poʻi pu!
Ku mai i ka pohuehue
Hu! Kaikoʻo loa!
Great surfs from Kahiki.
Waves break together!
Rise with the pohuehue
Well up, raging surf!
Jane Gutmanis, Na Pule Kahiko: Ancient Hawaiian Prayers, Editions Limited, Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, 1983, p. 101
Where on Haleakalā?
Marine ecosystems surround Haleakalā, from the shallow waters often found near shore to deeper waters further offshore. The intertidal area between high- and low-tide lines is also considered a part of the marine environment because of its exposure to ocean water and the marine organisms that live there.
The marine ecosystem is characterized by constant or regular inundation by salt water. Marine plants and animals are distributed in more or less distinct zones which are distinguished by the island’s age, the amount of reef growth, exposure to wave action (determined in part by geographic orientation), light and temperature (functions of depth), and latitude.
Marine habitats include coral reefs of various types, boulder fields, sandy bottoms, areas where the reef drops steeply to great depths, and caves, caverns, and lava tubes. An incredible array of plants and animals live in these habitats, many of which are commonly encountered by snorkelers and divers. These plants and animals display a wide range of adaptations to different marine environments, from the tube feet with which sea stars move and attach themselves to stable surfaces to the hardened “beak” with which parrotfish feed on algae from the surface of dead coral, turning the coral structure into sand in the process.
Did You Know?
Compared to many other western Pacific island groups, the oceans surrounding Hawaiʻi are relatively species-poor. Looking at shallow-water species of corals, mollusks, echinoderms, and fish is illustrative:
Hawaiʻi: 17 genera and subgenera
Marshall Islands: 59
Line Islands: 59
Hawaiʻi: 1000 species
Ryukyu Islands: 2500
Echinoderms (e.g. sea urchins, sea stars)
Hawaiʻi: 90 species
Reef and Shore Fish
Hawaiʻi: 700 species
Marshall Islands: 1000
This attenuation, or lessening, of species diversity in Hawaiʻi as compared to other island groups in the western Pacific can be explained in large part by geographic isolation. Hawaiʻi is far away from continents and other major islands and reef systems, separated by distances that do not favor species with short larval stages. The west coast of North America is 3900 kilometers (2400 miles) away, and Japan is 6100 kilometers (3800 miles) away. The Society Islands lie some 4400 kilometers (2750 miles) to the south in the South Pacific Ocean. Like other Pacific island groups that are rich in marine life, the Society Islands are separated from Hawaiʻi by ocean currents that do not favor the dispersal of marine life. In addition, Hawaiian waters are cooler in the winter, and nearshore habitats are exposed to destructive storm waves from both the Arctic and Antarctica. In this harsh, mostly subtropical marine environment, fewer species can exist than in the equatorial and tropical western Pacific.
Status and Threats
Hawaiian marine ecosystems are relatively healthy in comparison to many other places around the world. But human pressures still degrade these ecosystems, particularly the near-shore environment. Long-term fishing catch trends suggest a dramatic decline in the nearshore fishing stocks during the 20th century, perhaps as much as 80 percent. Three factors are probably responsible for this decline:
- Inability to enforce existing regulations and implement new fishing restrictions,
- Habitat degradation caused by coastal development and pollution.
Other threats to marine ecosystems include alien species (including fish and algae), heavy recreational use of beach and reef areas, shoreline modifications such as seawalls, land uses that contribute to sediment runoff, sewage and industrial pollution, and harassment or feeding of marine animals.
Traditional Hawaiian Significance
In the traditional system of dividing the Hawaiian Islands into political regions, the ahupuaʻa was the most important land division. Ahupuaʻa usually extended from the mountains to the outer edge of the reef in the ocean, cutting through all of the major environmental zones along the way. Each ahupuaʻa encompassed most of the resources Hawaiians required for survival, from fresh water to wild and cultivated plants, to land and sea creatures. Because of their dependence on the land’s resources, the Hawaiians developed a complex system of resource management and conservation that could sustain those resources over time.
In traditional Hawaiian society, the ocean and marine life were as familiar as landforms and terrestrial life. The ocean was a source of food and other resources needed for living, as well as a “highway” between shoreline locations and between islands. Living in such close association with the ocean, early Hawaiians were skilled in swimming, navigating, fishing, and aquaculture.
Early Hawaiians were equally at home on land and in the sea. In their cultural traditions, most of the important land creatures had ocean-dwelling counterparts. A counterpart of the humpback whale, for example, was the sandalwood tree. In some cases, Hawaiian kāhuna could accept the ocean counterpart for an offering to the gods if the land creature could not be offered.
Like many land animals, certain marine animals could become ʻaumākua or personal gods that were regularly fed and recognized as individuals. Sharks and turtles were common ʻaumākua.
Hawaiians knew that the ocean was a great reservoir of food for them, and fishing, collecting shellfish, tending fish ponds, and gathering limu were constant, necessary occupations. Conserving the supply of the ocean’s important resources was also a necessary part of Hawaiian culture and society. In traditional Hawaiian society, the ocean was treated like an icebox. Hawaiians took only what was needed at a specific time, knowing that what they needed in the future would be there then. Conservation was based on the understanding that greediness or waste would displease the gods, and on a knowledge of the life cycles and behaviors of each marine species.
The kapu system, which regulated all aspects of society, applied to fishing as well. Certain activities were prohibited or restricted to particular locations or seasons. For example, fishing for certain species during their spawning season was prohibited. Since different fish species spawned in different seasons, there was always food available and the reproducing fish were protected. Other kapu applied to fishing in specific inshore areas to allow populations of fish, shellfish, and limu to rebound. There was also a rule that ensured that all of the fish would not be removed from any given feeding area (or koʻa).
Use some or all of the following topics for student journal entries:
- Listen to the chant. How would you describe the feeling of the chant? What did it make you think about?
- Listen to the English translation of the chant. Do you have different thoughts and feelings now that you know what this chant means in English?
- What comes to mind when you think of the ocean? What are your favorite areas and memories?
- Do you fish or gather sea life? Or do you know someone who does? What have you learned about the ocean from this person or this activity?
To Get a Feel for the Marine Zone
If you are not doing Marine Unit 2, Activity #1 “Adaptation Concentration,” you may use the Waikiki Aquarium video Far from the Cradle to provide an overview of the Hawaiian marine environment for any of the units. Another overview video is the Island Heritage production The Underwater World of Hawaiʻi (available from Island Heritage, Aiea, Hawaiʻi, telephone (808) 487-7299, website.)
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