USA designates site on Hawaiian Islands


Social and cultural values of Hawaiian Ramsar site

The Government of the USA designated three new Wetlands of International Importance in celebration of World Wetlands Day 2005, two of which have been reported earlier, Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve (TRNERR) and Grassland Ecological Area, both in the state of California. A third designation is now ready to be added to the Ramsar List, Kawainui and Hamakua Marsh Complex (414 hectares, 21°24'N 157°45'W).

Sacred to Hawaiians, Kawainui Marsh, the largest remaining emergent wetland in Hawaii and Hawaii's largest ancient freshwater fishpond, is located in what was once the center of a caldera of the Koolau shield volcano. The marsh provides primary habitat for four of Hawaii's endemic and endangered waterbirds, including Laysan Duck and Hawaiian Goose or Nene, and contains archaeological and cultural resources, including ancient walled taro water gardens (lo'i) where fish were also cultivated. Kawainui Marsh stores surface water, providing flood protection for adjacent Kailua town, one of the largest towns on the windward side of O'ahu. Hamakua Marsh is a smaller wetland historically connected to and immediately downstream of Kawainui Marsh, which also provides significant habitat for several of Hawaii's endemic and endangered waterbirds.

The Ramsar Information Sheet documentation was compiled by David Smith, Wildlife Manager with the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources; Eric Gilman of the National Audubon Society and Chair of the International Chapter of the Society of Wetland Scientists; and Muriel B. Seto, Culture Chair of "Hawaii's Thousand Friends".

From the Ramsar Information Sheet, item 21.

21. Social and cultural values:

Kawainui Marsh and the surrounding area was a significant prehistoric settlement as evidenced by Hawaiian legend, extensive agricultural systems, ceremonial sites, burial sites, and habitation areas. This area once supported one of the largest native Hawaiian settlements, contains some of the oldest known

Hawaiian agricultural sites, and Kawainui Marsh and surrounding environs have provided significant information about Hawaiian culture, particularly having to do with the relationship of the early Hawaiians to the environment of a windward valley (Handy et al., 1972; Kelly and Clark, 1980; Kelly and Nakamura, 1981; Drigot and Seto, 1982). Kawainui Marsh was a primary food-producing area from traditional Hawaiian times to the early 20th century. Kawainui is a significant archaeological site because it is one of the few areas remaining on O'ahu where evidence of terraced agricultural pondfields and a fishpond still exist in conjunction with associated religious structures (Handy et al., 1972; Kelly and Clark, 1980).

In 1979, the U.S. National Registrar for Historic Places issued a "Determination of Eligibility Notification" finding that Kawainui Marsh area is eligible for listing in the National Register for Historic Places (U.S. Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service, 1979). According to the determination, "Kawainui Marsh is important as a major component of a larger cultural district which would include... the ponding/wet agricultural area.. .remains of extensive terracing systems, ceremonial sites, burial sites, and habitation areas associated with this agricultural complex" (U.S. Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service, 1979).

The earliest navigators and chiefs who inhabited the area directed the water management and agricultural systems, which are unparalleled elsewhere in Polynesia. On the slopes of Ulumawao are two great stone platform temples which overlook Kawainui Marsh, Pahukini Heiau attributed to the 14th century Tahitian Chief Olopana (listed in the State and National Registers of Historic Places), and the newly re-discovered Holomakani Heiau attributed to a 10th century home-grown navigational chief, Paumakua. Surrounding the 180 hectare (450 acre) former freshwater fishpond and its tributaries are the remnants of walled water gardens (lo'i) in which the Hawaiian staple crop, taro (Colocasia esculenta), was grown for one of the largest native Hawaiian settlements (Kelly and Nakamura, 1981; Drigot and Seto, 1982). The agricultural site cluster associated with the Kawainui area has been described as the earliest agricultural field dated in the Hawaiian Islands. Hawaii State Department of Land and Natural Resources (1994) contains a seven page list of records of archaeological sites known in Kawainui Marsh. Hamakua Marsh was once part of this extensive system of wetlands, fishponds, and agricultural terraces of this Native Hawaiian settlement, and a historical study of the wetland found platforms, lithic scatters, and a possible habituation structure (Ducks Unlimited, 1993).

About 500 years ago, early Hawaiians maintained the freshwater fishpond in Kawainui, which was joined by a stream to nearby Ka'elepulu Pond (Enchanted Lake). The fishpond was surrounded on all sides by a system of canals ('auwai) bringing water from Maunawili Stream and springs to walled taro lo'i (Handy et ai., 1972). The historical walls from the lo'i still exist in Kawainui Marsh, thought to be approximately 50 cm below existing ground elevations (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 1998). The system of terraces east of the seaward end of Pu'uo'ehu was fed by the stream running from Kawainui to Ka'elepulu Stream. Terraces west of Kawainui Pond at Kapa'a Valley were fed by Kapa'a Stream, while those to the north, below Mahinui, received waters diverted from Kawainui. Where the system of canals moved through what is now called the Hamakua area, excessive runoff could be directed into Kailua's other freshwater, spring-fed fishpond, Ka'elepulu (now called Enchanted Lake). Both fishponds were used to raise fish (milkfish, mullet, aholehole, and o'opu), with the residents of Waimanalo and Kailua seasonally called upon to help clear the ponds of excessive algae; all who participated in maintaining the fishponds were permitted to keep fish (Handy et al., 1972; u.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1997).

The Kawainui Marsh area has many landforms named for sacred persons revered in over 1,500 years of Hawaiian tradition (Drigot and Seto, 1982). There is Hawaiian legendary history associated with the Kawainui Marsh area, including a legend of Hau-wahine, a guardian spirit over the Kawainui fishpond, called a mo'o, and a famous mythological tree, Makalei, which had the power of attracting fish (Kelly and Nakamura, 1981). Mo'o purportedly lived in her grove of awa by the Makalei tree near where the waters drain from Kawainui Marsh to Hamakua. Hauwahine's companion mo'o, named Kilioe, lived at the opposite end of Hamakua near where Kawainui Stream enters Ka'elepulu Stream. The length of Kawainui Stream is the area of coitus between the male, Kawainui, and the female, Ka'elepulu, explaining why those waters always teemed with the juvenile fish common to both ancient fishponds. The Hawaiian coot and Hawaiian moorhen are sacred to Hina, a Hawaiian Earth-mother category of goddess who can take the form of these birds. The eggs of these birds were traditionally used in ceremonies to consecrate chiefs and priests. The Hawaiian Stilt is sacred to the Hawaiian god Ku, in his form as a fisherman. These birds are a culturally significant and endangered resource.

Since the 1960s, the local community around Kawainui Marsh, and a variety of local and statewide environmental, educational, and native Hawaiian groups and individuals, have consistently advocated for resource protection and against development in and around the marsh (Hawaii State Department of Land and Natural Resources, 1994; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 1998).

[The full text of the Ramsar Information Sheet will be available in due course on the Ramsar Sites Database Service maintained by Wetlands International,]

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