Run a web search for images of “Hawaii,” and the top results fill your screen with stretches of pristine white sand and blue water. Look familiar? They are archetype images of paradise, yet tell a story of this place that is largely incomplete.
Among the many things you won’t find in those images are Hawaiʻi’s native seaweeds. Named limu in the Hawaiian language, these “plants of the sea” are found throughout the islands and form a critical cultural and ecological piece of Hawaiʻi’s oceanscape. Limu are food for fish, forming part of the foundation of a complex trophic web that spans from people to plankton. For many of us in Hawaiʻi, limu are most commonly brought to mind as an essential ingredient in our lunchtime poke bowls. They are also a gift shared among friends and family for affirming ties, used medicinally and featured in ho’oponopono, a traditional practice for reconciliation and healing.
Less known is that the health of limu serves as a key indicator for environmental health. An elder skilled in limu can tell when certain fish have come in and where freshwater is flowing simply from observing the limu. He can look at limu at certain times of the year and tell what is happening with trees up in the mountains.
Thanks to a grant from Audubon‘s Toyota TogetherGreen program, I have had the humbling opportunity over the last 12 months to spend time with limu elder Uncle Henry Chang Wo Jr. of the ‘Ewa Beach Limu Project. At 73, Uncle Henry is long-haired, lean, tall and nimble, a former commercial diver schooled in limu by his mother and grandmother. A jokester with a wide smile, he is a well-known native Hawaiian kupuna (elder) on the beaches of leeward Oʻahu.
Like those before him, Uncle Henry has maintained a connection to the knowledge and traditions of Hawaiʻi’s many generations of skilled ocean people through a period of deep and broad social, economic and cultural change. Skilled men and women who knew their oceans intimately, they not only discovered the art of riding on the waves but were masterful caretakers of what lies beneath.
Limu gathering and surfing (heʻe nalu) are both indigenous Hawaiian arts. They have continued in an unbroken line of practice through time, surviving the early ravages of population loss from Western diseases, overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and later institutional repression of the Hawaiian language.
While surfing has exploded around the world, gathering and caring for limu is a practice increasingly concentrated in small pockets where elders still hold traditional knowledge. Once abundant but now declining, urban development, improper harvesting, climate change and other pressures continue to grow and affect limu around the islands.
From Uncle Henry I have learned that like Hawaiʻi’s surfers, limu gatherers rely on the flow of clean fresh water from mountain to sea. When upland streamflows are polluted or diverted or new coastal areas dredged, the impacts to surfers and limu gatherers are the same. Pollutants in the water and potential changes to the hydrology and movement of sand degrade the conditions in which both practice their art. As urbanization pressures increase the impact of this development has become apparent. The limu which Uncle Henry remembers so fondly is disappearing.
Today, with support local non-profit KUA, Uncle Henry and his project partners at the ʻEwa Beach Limu Project are bringing together limu elders and masters from areas across the islands to share, document and pass on traditional ecological knowledge and grow connections between various restoration efforts. Mahalo piha (deepest thanks) to Audubon, Toyota TogetherGreen and our generous foundation and organization partners for making this work possible!
The loss of native limu runs hand-in-hand with loss of Hawaiian cultural practice and loss of generational, ancestral knowledge. Reversing this co-extinction process will require effective and immediate efforts for co-restoration. The need is pressing, as limu declines continue and elders who hold traditional knowledge are aging, some today in their 90s.
If all that seems overwhelming this story is actually a hopeful one. We have a lot of what we need to return native limu to abundance. We have the knowledge and technology today to design and redesign urban areas to thoughtfully tackle urban runoff and better preserve the natural hydrology of the system. We also have the choice, where appropriate, to keep rural areas rural. However, both actions take resources, political will and the voices of concerned communities of limu gatherers, surfers and others ready to join efforts, and who understand the critical connection between land and ocean. Yep, us!
The next time you see Hawai’i represented by a picture of white sand and blue ocean, I hope you will see as I now do, what is not depicted: the limu, the skilled elders and masters who care for it and the community of surfers, scientists, divers, fishers and others who support them. Is the limu you don’t see in that picture thriving? Or disappearing?
That answer is being written today by all of us.