Ranger Randy Clarke and volunteer Annie Mendoza man the Puako Makai Watch booth.
Visiting from Colorado, from left, Jane Fredman, Ian Nordstrom, 15, and Dave Nordstrom, look over provided information at the Puako Makai Watch booth. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Puako resident and homeowner’s association president, Peter Hacksteddle, volunteers his time helping with the Makai Watch program and many other community projects. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Phil Hayward shares his knowledge about the reef and ocean safety at Paniau in Puako. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Chad Wiggins looks over reef information with his son, Atticus Wiggins, 6. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Six-year-old Atticus Wiggins looks at some of the educational materials available at the Puako Makai Watch booth. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Involved members and volunteers of the Puako Makai Watch gather together at their booth, set up at Paniau in Puako. From left, James Heacock, Chad Wiggins, Phil Hayward, Peter Hacksteddle, Randy Clarke, Annie Mendoza, and Robby Robertson share information about the surrounding ocean and reef ecosystem. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Ranger Randy Clark helps educate the public with the Makai Watch Program, as he shares his knowledge about the reef and surrounding area with visitors. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Paniau is used for a variety of recreational activities, from diving, to surfing, paddle boarding and more. The Makai Watch program offers safety information as well as educational materials about the surrounding environment, with the goal to protect and educate the public. PHOTOs BY ANNA PACHECO | SPECIAL TO NHN
Twice a month on Saturdays, visitors to Paniau beach in Puako will be greeted by an information tent manned by an interpretive ranger and enthusiastic community volunteers.
Before the Makai Watch program was organized here in 2006, there was no oversight of this beach, said Randy Clarke, the newly hired Puako Makai Watch ranger, who has been on site since January this year.
The beach at Paniau is unencumbered, urban-zoned state land, not a park or conservation area, and the state doesn’t have the capacity to manage it, he said. So the community stepped up.
“The void was filled by residents and participating groups that care about the ocean,” said volunteer Phil Hayward.
A series of community meetings identified priority activities for enhancing the Puako coastline for the benefit of the environment and the people who use it.
The Makai Watch program has three main goals, said Clark: to educate the public about coral reefs, to educate fishers about regulations, and to add signage. The community association also met the public’s need for bathroom facilities by providing two portable toilets.
“It’s all about relationships — between community members, fishermen, and regulating agencies,” said Chad Wiggins, Makai Watch supporter and Hawaii Island marine coordinator for the Nature Conservancy.
“We’re here to share information, not to police the shore,” said Clarke.
The State of Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR) is the primary agency responsible for coordinating Hawaii’s reef management efforts in the main Hawaiian Islands. The agency established the Makai Watch program in 2005, to enhance the management of near-shore marine resources by providing community members opportunities to become directly involved in this management.
According to their website, Makai Watch groups are active at eight locations on four islands across the state, including Puako and Kaupulehu on the west coast of Hawaii island.
A key component of the program is to educate fishers about how their fishing decisions can impact fish populations.
“If they come in and take the first big fish they see, this will reduce the population of mature fish that can reproduce and replenish the fish supply,” said Clarke. “We would like them to choose to take the medium-size fish and leave the big ones and the little ones.”
Recent translations of Hawaiian-language newspapers from 100 years ago tell a very clear story to Clarke about how our perceptions of fish abundance has changed over time.
“Fishermen in the early 1900s were saying that ‘the fish were almost all gone’ at that time,” he said.
“I have seen changes since I was a young kid in the 1950s and 60s. The kupuna told stories of massive schooling ‘bait balls’ of thousands of akule fish. I have only seen one school like that in my life, a long time ago,” said Clarke.
We need to educate the fishers, so we can get back to understanding the balance of nature, said Clarke.
“All of us that live by the ocean, whether born here or not, have been given a gift. We all need to return that gift to the ocean by caring for it,” said James Heacock, Puako resident and Makai Watch volunteer.
Since 2007, Heacock has conducted a user survey of the beach at Paniau. He has counted over 40,000 people, their vehicles, and how they are using the resources.
What has been learned from those six years of record keeping?
“There are seasonal trends — more surfers in the winter and snorkelers in the summer,” said Heacock. “Scuba has boomed over the years, and there are more dive groups using the beach than in the past.”
This increase in human use doesn’t necessarily correlate with a negative impact on the ocean, however.
“Most people have great respect for this place, and treat it very well,” said Heacock.
The scientific facts in this matter support such optimistic attitudes about the ocean’s health at Puako. The Seattle Aquarium did a five-year study on reef health, looking at fish diversity and abundance.
“The good news is that the reefs at Puako are staying the same,” said Clarke. The study also found healthier fish populations in protected areas like Puako compared to neighboring sites like Mahukona, where there are fewer fishing regulations.
The Puako Makai Watch is dependent upon volunteers, but those that are involved feel that they get back way more than they give.
“Our volunteers get educated about all the things going on,” said Annie Mendoza, local realtor and volunteer. They learn about coral reef ecosystems and management. We hear from marine researchers about water quality, fish monitoring, and coral reef health, she said. A monk seal training for volunteers is scheduled for April.
“Volunteering is not only fun, but it guarantees that you don’t miss out on a date with the ocean,” said Heacock.
The Puako Makai Watch is recruiting new volunteers from across the island, who want to learn more about coral reefs, and give back to protect natural resources. For more information, to report an incident along the shore in Puako, or to volunteer, call ranger Randy Clarke at 345-1345. Visit the Puako Makai Watch website it www.puako.org/makai.html.
The Puako Community Assocation meets on the first Wednesday of each month at 6:30 p.m. at the Vacation Rental Office next to the Puako General Store. Membership dues are $25.