Hawaiian Islands Sentinel Site Cooperative

Where high tech and tradition successfully mesh

Hawaiian Islands Sentinel Site Cooperative

Hawaii stands alone in more ways than one. It is the only U.S. state comprised entirely of islands. There are eight major islands, but the Hawaiian Island Chain consists of more than 80 volcanoes and 132 islands, reefs, and shoals that extend across the Pacific for 1,500 miles (that's the approximate distance from Houston to San Francisco). Located about 2,400 miles from California, the islands are, in fact, the most isolated inhabited pieces of land in the world.

Lo'i kalo, or Hawaiian wetland taro, are an important cultural resource in Hawaii. Taro is a staple food in the Hawaiian diet and wetland taro in Heeia may serve as a form of green infrastructure that helps to trap sediment and absorb water during rain events and storms. Credit: Hawaii Sea Grant

One would expect, then, that protecting Hawaii's natural and cultural resources poses a unique set of challenges. NOAA is working to address these challenges by considering how human activities on land are impacting near-shore systems through the lens of sea level rise and climate change, and fostering practical solutions through its Hawaiian Islands (HI) Sentinel Site Cooperative.

"The Cooperative builds off of many decades of people coming together on various conservation issues," says Maya Walton, who coordinates the Hawaii Cooperative as a Sea Grant extension agent at the University of Hawaii at Manoa on Oahu. "We have a unique group of stakeholders that includes local kupuna (native Hawaiian elders) and community organizations interested in topics like how sea level rise and saltwater intrusion could impact taro fields and other cultural resources like traditional Hawaiian fishponds. We also have involvement from researchers, universities, and nonprofits, as well as state and federal agencies."

"We also cover a lot of distance," she continues. "The Cooperative currently has four priority sites, which are located along a 'human impact' gradient with two sites in remote areas and two in more populated areas of the archipelago. One is here on Oahu, one is on Hawaii Island, and the other two are located 1,300 miles away, on Midway Atoll and French Frigate Shoals in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument."

The NOAA Hawaiian Islands Sentinel Site Cooperative partners with the organization Paepae o Heʻeia at Heeia fishpond. The health of this Native Hawaiian fishpond depends on the health of the wetlands and streams in the upper potions of Heeia Watershed. Credit: Hawaii Sea Grant

Current Projects

Oahu: Oahu's Kaneohe Bay has a long history of human impacts resulting in the degradation of wetlands and coral reefs. Cooperative partner Kākoʻo ʻŌiwi is a community-based charitable organization engaged in efforts to restore wetlands using traditional Hawaiian agricultural practices. NOAA recently took high-accuracy GPS measurements of land leased by Kākoʻo ʻŌiwi near Kaneohe Bay. These elevation data will help identify sources and pathways of sediment erosion, sedimentation, and water movements (hydrology)—all of which are damaging to the island's reefs—through Oahu's Heeia Watershed. This, in turn, will assist Kākoʻo ʻŌiwi's efforts to expand the use of traditional agricultural practices to trap upland sediments, restore wetlands, foster traditional agriculture, and increase Oahu's food security, while NOAA and other partners track improvements in nearby reef communities.

Hawaii: A critical need for Cooperative managers, planners, and community members is accurate maps. Everything from erosion studies to sea level rise projects rely on high-resolution maps and data to inform management decisions. To address the need for highly detailed maps at the Cooperative's West Hawai'i site on the Kona coast, partners sought funding for an airborne LIDAR study. The Cooperative compiled a list of partner needs and submitted them, along with data specifications, to potential funding sources.

As a result, NOAA's Office for Coastal Management provided $200,000 for a LIDAR survey that would cover most of the West Hawaii site. An additional $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Resources Conservation Service ensured coverage for the entire area. Several more funding partners joined the effort, and a significant portion of Hawaii Island will be surveyed in 2017, with grants totaling more than one-half million dollars.

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (PMNM): The Cooperative is working with the PMNM to support action items outlined in its Climate Change Action Plan relating to public educational materials about sea level rise and its impacts. Several species (e.g., endangered Hawaiian monk seal, endemic seabird species) in the PMNM may be vulnerable to the impacts of habitat loss stemming from sea level rise in low-lying atolls.

"Conversations start collaborations," Walton concludes. "The Cooperative's ongoing success is very important, and very meaningful, to many people here in Hawaii."


In addition to NOAA, major partners in the Hawaiian Islands Sentinel Site Cooperative include the University of Hawaii Sea Grant College Program, University of Hawaii, Kākoʻo ʻŌiwi, Paepae o Heʻeia, Papahana Kuaola, The Nature Conservancy Hawaii, and the Pacific Islands Ocean Observing System.