Students Care for Watersheds Using Traditional Hawaiian Practices

The Takeaway: Participants in the Bay Watershed Education and Training program learn that culturally-based practices benefit the Heʻeia community’s environment and quality of life.

For centuries, the Hawaiian people have understood that actions occurring upstream affect people and their environment downstream. Practices that honor this understanding are vital to balancing social, environmental, and economic needs. In the Heʻeia community on the island of Oahu, NOAA’s Bay Watershed Education and Training program has helped K-12 students, teachers, and community members learn about traditional watershed knowledge and practices while also appreciating what modern science has to offer.

Historically, the traditional upland agriculture of Heʻeia had nurtured a large fishpond downstream, providing ample food for the community. But from the 1950s to the 1990s, these traditional practices waned, leaving invasive grasses and mangroves to degrade the healthy fishpond and taro fields. About 20 years ago, youth leaders and community elders started restoring this area to its former health and abundance.

The designation of the Heʻeia National Estuarine Research Reserve, in 2017, was supported by the Heʻeia community. The research reserve is also located in the community, which benefits ongoing restoration, conservation, and education efforts.

The Bay Watershed Education and Training program has played an important part in this restoration through its Meaningful Watershed Educational Experiences, which integrate outdoor and classroom education to increase students’ environmental literacy and stewardship.

During Heʻeia field experiences, students learn about the ahupuaʻa (land division usually extending from the uplands to the sea) and how water sustains both people and ecosystems. Rain from the mountain top flows down to wet taro patches, which filter out harmful nutrients and sediment. The rainwater then reaches the Heʻeia stream and fishpond, where the water slows down, sediment settles, and the cleaned water eventually reaches the sea. Students help cultivate taro patches, remove invasive plants, and test water quality to put this knowledge into practice.

The fishpond, cared for with traditional aquaculture practices, is another site for learning by doing. The monitoring activities here help students understand how a fishpond works, and the role of fishponds in sustaining fish and limu (seaweed) in Hawaiian resource management. Local scientists and research reserve staff members also help students learn about modern data collection methods, such as remote sensing activities and mapping with drones.

A big benefit is the program’s ability to engage students who face educational hurdles, providing them with the chance to learn outside the classroom in a living laboratory. Moreover, some students are inspired to pursue later careers in science, technology, engineering, or math.

In Hawaiʻi over a recent 24-month period, the Bay Watershed Education and Training program reached 7,527 students, 5,371 teachers, and 1,600 community members. Since 2002, NOAA has awarded over $90 million to support 700-plus Bay Watershed Education and Training projects in seven areas of the country. (2020)

More Information: Bay Watershed Education and Training webpage and videos

Partners: National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, North American Association for Environmental Education, NOAA’s Bay Watershed Education and Training program, and Heʻeia National Estuarine Research Reserve