Coffee with Brenda Asuncion

The conservation of the environment and Hawaiʻi’s loko iʻa . . .

Change-maker: Brenda Asuncion

Coffee of Choice: Home-made french press.  For an extra kick: a soy latte.  For an even greater kick: a dirty chai.

Hometown: Waipiʻo, Hawaiʻi

Education: ‘Iolani High School; B.A. in Biology with a focus in Marine Biology from Occidental College in Eagle Rock, California; M.S. in Marine Science from Hawaiʻi Pacific College.

Career: Brenda started her career with volunteer work of loko iʻa restoration with the non-profit Paepae o Heʻeia, a caretaker organization of the fishponds in Heʻeia owned by Kamehameha Schools.  Since, she has continued to work in the restoration of loko iʻa.


Where do you work?
Now, I work for a non-profit called Kua‘āina Ulu ‘Auamo, but we say KUA for short.  KUA kind of grew out of a community project in 2003 where an elder fisherman on Molokaʻi had this idea that rural native Hawaiian communities needed to be able to meet together to talk about the challenges that they were facing trying to manage their resources in their areas in the traditional way.  Based on that idea, people tried to continue fundraising so that these rural communities could meet every year.  They have been meeting since 2003 and over that time they developed a leadership structure, like an advisory council.  In 2011, they wanted to form a formal non-profit organization to keep that going.  So, in 2013 they hired me to take on the facilitation of a second network which is just fish pond organizations – whether they are non-profits or not.  They’re called Hui Mālama Loko Iʻa and my job is to act as a coordinator.  I get to travel and see different fish ponds a lot.  Over the course of the year it probably averages out to one trip a month, maybe even two.  There are ponds on Kauaʻi, Lanaʻi, Molokaʻi, Maui, and the Big Island.

What issues are you passionate about?
I’m lucky I get to do work that overlaps a lot with my personal interest.  I guess broadly, I am passionate about environmental issues and the way that it overlaps with community issues that are reliant on the environment.  Like people who do work that is about growing food, which is really linked to a healthy environment.  I think what is unique about our work is that we’re not like a typical conservation organization with the mindset that humans create all these issues and the way to solve them is to reduce human interaction with the environment or to keep people out of certain places.  But what connects us all in the work that I do is that we want to reestablish a good connection with people and the environment and believe that humans are just a part of the environment and so reliant on healthy water systems and food systems.  Human interaction and management of natural resources is actually the way human communities and the environment can mutually exist, flourish, and be abundant.  Lately, I’ve also been thinking a lot about water issues just because it comes up in our work a lot like access and availability.

I noticed that you’re very conscious about sustainability.  You brought your own metal straw.  I love that!
I’m working on this.  I think a lot of people think I’m a minimalist.  Maybe it’s just not living in excess.  Living a lifestyle that promotes a healthy relationship with the environment.  I think plastics is going to be the issue of our generation.  People saw it coming years and years before.  But I think only now people are realizing the impact of plastic on our lives and the way that it really doesn’t break down.  It just gets smaller and smaller and smaller.  There’s all this research of plastic being in the tiniest animals’ gut systems and what that means of how it gets into our bodies.

Was that ever mentioned in your schooling?
No!  Plastic wasn’t an issue in the 90’s or 2000’s.  I feel that waste streams and recycling was something that people talked about it.  But with recycling, plastics will still be in our lives.  Now, people are thinking about the reduction of plastic in packaging.  Plastic on our beaches – that wasn’t something we saw when we were young and now it’s everywhere.  One generation ago, that wasn’t an issue.  Now, on the most remote beaches there’s tons of plastic.  So, I think that all these policies that are being put in place about plastic and plastic bags is just going to continue in the next few decades.  Then, maybe it’ll be different by the time our kids are growing up.  People have to pay for bags now.  Some states have banned plastic straws and that’s totally going to come here and then utensils will probably be next.  I feel like to make the transition easier, people should just start trying.  Just try.

This is the first year that I’m carrying around a reusable straw and chopsticks.  On my birthday in August, I actually started a list on my phone where I can keep tally of how many straws, chopsticks, and spoons I can save in a year.  I feel like people shouldn’t feel so bad about being a “crazy environmentalist” or whatever – you just try your best.  If you can save a couple straws in a year, that’s cool too.

Personally, I’d like to some day grow a little more food myself or make connections with people that grow food and find ways to trade more.  With these past few storms, it’s scary to think that it would be chaos if we lost access to the outside world.  People would be violent when we run out of food.  Think about how long you could last with the food that you have in your house.

What inspired you to go into marine biology?
My family grew up doing stuff at the beach all the time.  All of my family gatherings were at the beach.  With my parents and my sister, we would go on hikes a lot.  We were always an outdoors family.  We never really spent too much time at the mall and stuff like that.  I really love the ocean and a lot of my family also had connections to the ocean either through fishing or surfing.  A lot of my dad’s family surfed.  His dad also had a boat so we’d go fishing some time.  My mom’s grandfather was also a fisherman.  There’s this story in the family on how he had a sampan and he got it taken away after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  His boat was taken away and he couldn’t go to the ocean anymore.  Supposedly, he died of pneumonia but my grandpa would always say he died of a broken heart because he couldn’t go to the ocean anymore.  My dad would also talk about growing up and surfing in Waikiki and helping in the family restaurant.  I always like science too.  I was always was more of a science and math kind of person.

Me too… and then I went into art.

I feel like art and the environment go really well together – like design.  Nature is so amazing and it’s so design efficient.

What made you so interested in loko iʻa?
I feel like it was one of those things that was luck and the right people.  I had a scholarship from Kamehameha School for college and a part of the scholarship was community service.  My mom started asking around and through a coworker, someone who worked with the Fish and Wildlife Service put me in touch with a guy who worked at the fish pond at the time.  I didn’t actually choose it or search for a thing to do.  It was one of those things that I had no idea it would change the course of my life eventually.

Being there changed my perspective about the environment and conservation too.  When you go to school, you learn about biology and environmental science.  What you learn in school is just theoretically about human impact and the ideas of parks and marine reserves.  A lot of those are theoretically about keeping people out.  But the pond is where I really learned more about people being deeply embedded in the environment.  Managing places and people being present on the land is what helps steward and lead to that productive relationship.  So that’s where I really changed my perspective on conservation and what it really means to care for the environment.

Can you explain loko iʻa?
Loko iʻa are Hawaiian fish pond systems.  There are actually six types.  Some are just naturally formed pools or anchialine pool systems, which means its a mix of fresh and salt water but there’s no surface connection to fresh water or salt water – it’s all underground.  There’s also some systems that are along side streams or there are loko iʻa with a with a natural or man-made sand berm.  The common type that most people think of loko iʻa is the kuapā style with the built up stone wall.

Loko iʻa, especially the kuapā style, are super unique to Hawaiʻi because they have a circulation system with gates.  The channels and gates are called mākāhā and those are absolutely unique to Hawaiʻi.  That system of having an enclosed pond with gates – a double opening and the gate system – that’s really unique to Hawaiʻi.  Even though fish traps and tidally driven fish traps evolved out of the Pacific and probably came through Asia, we think of Hawaiʻi as the last step of evolution of this style of fish ponds.  Any coastal ponds were always constructed in places where there was some input of fresh water whether that was a stream, an estuary water, or there was ground water that came up through springs.  That brackish water is the environment that really fed the phytoplankton, the small tiny algae that baby fish eat.  That’s why estuaries are such abundant places. There’s so much life in these estuary places because the nutrients that come from the fresh water upland, and those areas are typically shallower and protected from predators.  So, fish ponds were intentionally built in places that had that fresh water mix.  They were also stocked primarily naturally with baby fish because that nutrient water would flow out to the ocean on an outgoing tide.  When fish spawn in deeper water and the baby fish would come closer to shore to find protection, they would be able to sense that delicious water and they would go into the fishponds.  That’s how they were stocked, it was like natural recruitment.  The idea was that if you kept the pond water really healthy by balancing the mix of fresh and salt correctly, keeping the predators out, and reducing the amount of silt in the pond, the fish would want to stay there.  It was really about making a really awesome place for the baby fish to want to stay and they would eat and get bigger and bigger so they wouldn’t be able to get out of the gates.  Those gates would also be used to harvest the fish because their behavioral tendency is to want to go to deeper water to spawn.  When they are of the size and maturity, an incoming tide would help them sense where the deep water is so they would congregate by the gates.  That’s how they would be harvested.  The harvesting in fish ponds wouldn’t be with a net or with a pole and line.  It would just be at these gates.  There are stories: there would be so many fish at these gates you could walk across them; you wouldn’t be able to see the bottom of the ground because there’s so many fish; you could just reach in with your hand and scoop out fish.  There’s stories and recollections about how abundant these places could be.  It’s exciting to just imagine that places like that could be restored and brought back to that potential to feed people.

Are loko i’a different now?
Kind of different in the sense that a lot of them were neglected for decades, if not longer.  Fish ponds originally had dedicated caretakers who would understand the system so well and they would also be able to rally the surrounding community to help with maintenance or harvesting.  In parallel to the socioeconomic and political changes, even before the overthrow of the kingdom, the influx of a cash economy through the plantations – even the sandalwood industry with sandal wood being exported to trade with westerners – pulled man power away from fish ponds.  All those things kind of led to fish ponds not being used as a part of a regular food system for a long time.  Also, land use changes upland of the fish ponds changed the way that watersheds influenced fish ponds who were at the bottom of the water shed.  Folks are now trying to deal with those changes with the land.  A lot of that is just removing the invasive plants that have grown around ponds and probably soon dealing with the sediment that has flowed down through the streams into the ponds.  Theoretically, they would function the same.  They still rely on the mix of fresh and salt water and they still rely on the idea of fish eating the goodness in the pond.  But folks are trying to figure out how it works now.

Do you think they can be restored?
I don’t know, I think so.  Ponds relied on natural recruitment from the wild population of fish but there’s so much decrease in wild stock in fish.  We just don’t know if there’s enough wild population to restock the ponds or whether we would need to do a hatchery.  In other places, hatcheries have been used to restore native populations.  They’ve done that with salmon in the Pacific North West.  I think it can be restored to abundant places but we just might need to make adjustments.

Continuing the conversation on Hawaiʻi’s oceans: how do you feel about the declining state of our coral reefs?
It’s hard.  There are so many factors that reefs are going to have to adapt to.  Reef systems have adapted to climate change in the past.  I do think that coral populations can.  When they survive extreme events, those that survive will continue to grow and continue forming reefs. But for sure, we’ll probably see extreme changes and die offs.  It’s hard to imagine.  People say the sea level will rise so the deeper reefs won’t get enough sunlight; there’s the ocean acidification thing and reefs won’t be able to calcify and become hard; and people also say that reefs now are getting impacted by chemicals in ways we didn’t know before.  There’s all these things that can negatively impact reefs.  For sure there will be devastating changes.  But I think we under estimate the ability of ecosystems to adapt.  I’m sure it’ll be fine.  It’s hard to say.

What change do you want to see in our community?
At an individual level, to see people feel more empowered to support their families.  Also, it would be nice to see more neighborhood collaboration – help each other and support each other.  At least, my street is not like that anymore.  I don’t even talk to people past the houses just around me.  That would be neat for people to actually feel like they’re a part of a community.  I feel like that’s not how people live now.

How can people help to care for and contribute in the conservation of Hawaiʻi’s environment?
This relates to building stronger communities and people getting more connected with each other.  There are so many organizations who are trying to take care of places.  There are many work day opportunities or volunteer opportunities where people do hiking, more mountain stuff, or more coastal things.  I think people should just get involved and they can meet other people who are interested in the same things or other people who may live in the same area.  I think that would lead to so many positive things.  Even the army has a lot of volunteer opportunities on Oʻahu up in the mountains – these places that you can’t go otherwise, they’re not public trails.  Even stuff like that.  You can go to such cool places by volunteering.

Who inspires you?
I feel like I try to find inspiration or motivation from everyone.  There are qualities that I admire from so many people and I aspire to be that way.  Take the best of people around me.  Surround yourself with the best people.

What is the greatest piece of advice that you’ve ever received?
I always remember this intern that was working at the pond when I was there and his whole thing was: when you’re doing something, do it well the first time.  Always try to do your best and do something well.  Not be sloppy, not be lazy.  Put your best effort into everything the first time around so you don’t have to do it again.  I always remembered that.  It was a great lesson that I learned from someone.


Where did we have coffee?  Nalu Health Bar & Café at South Shore Market.