Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month:Kahi Kahakui

By Kahi Kahakui– Ocean Advocate

As a part Native Hawaiian woman, my culture is based upon the concept of resource management. My ancestors called it Kuleana – the responsibility of taking care of resources not only for the present, but for the next seven generations. They had strict rules about the kinds of fish you could catch, and when, to ensure that there would be enough for generations to come. The penalty for violators was death.

I was fortunate to be an “ocean baby.” I began swimming before I could crawl, and was riding on surfboards at age three. Because I loved the ocean so much, at age nine I was given the Hawaiian name, Kahiwaokawailani – Chosen One of the Heavenly Waters, a name which actually shaped my destiny.
At 15, I joined a competitive women’s outrigger canoe paddling group. During practices and races, I saw dead sea turtles with plastic bags stuck in their mouths and around their necks, and Hawaiian monk seals and dolphins trapped in abandoned nets. I wanted to do something, but what? A friend joked that I should do extreme long distance paddling from one island to another. She laughed and told me it would get people to listen. I took it seriously, and began with a 78-mile solo outrigger canoe journey from Maui to Oahu, to build public awareness of the need to take care of our ocean.

It worked! As a result, I ended up paddling the entire chain of Hawaiian Islands, sending a clear message: Take care of our ocean. I founded a non-profit, Kai Makana, which means Gifts from the Sea. We organized cleanups of beaches fouled with plastic debris, and a year-long youth mentorship program emphasizing ocean awareness, responsibility, and action. My biggest project with Kai Makana has been restoration of Mokauea, a small island off Honolulu Airport — one of Hawaii’s last fishing villages. We’ve brought thousands of volunteers there to remove invasive species, plant native plants, restore a native fish pond, and remove the never-ending stream of debris.

As an EPA Special Agent, I’ve seen that one 55-gallon drum of toxic waste can hurt a whole community of people who depend solely on the ocean to live and eat. We live in paradise, and we must remember that it is our Kuleana to take care of it!

About the author: Kahi Kahakui is a special agent for the Criminal Investigations Division of EPA Pacific Southwest Region (Region 9). Kahi is part Native Hawaiian and part Chinese American.

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