Climate Change Threatens Tropical Coasts’ Ability To Be Self-Sufficient

Dash Dicksion is an avid fisherman and strong swimmer. He lives in Kailua, a town on the windward coast of Oʻahu. He is also fifteen years old, which means that when the pandemic struck and school was relegated to random Zoom lectures, he had a lot of free time. He’d often go out fishing. But what he found underwater was absolutely baffling: nothing. 

YPCCC’s Climate Change in the American Mind 2021 study found that two in three Americans rarely discuss climate change with their family. But these estimates downscaled to Hawaiʻi show that Hawaiians discuss climate change significantly more than Americans as a whole (45% at least once a week compared to the national average of 35%). 

This difference makes sense: Hawaiʻi is  a place of great beauty and abundant resources, which just some generations ago was completely self-sufficient.  The hallmarks of a globalized, quickly warming, overpopulated, and changing world are remarkable and conversation-worthy. Case in point: Dash and I talked about climate change. 

Granted, climate change isn’t the only reason Dash wasn’t catching many fish. Polluted waters and overfishing must have played a role. But climate change certainly is fueling the acidification of oceans, a warming earth, and mega storms. 

This means that Hawaiʻi’s natural environment is becoming increasingly volatile and extreme. So it’s becoming increasingly difficult to rely on the local natural environment for food. Fishermen like Dash aren’t able to catch dinner anymore. 

This is perhaps the most frightening aspect of climate change for Hawaiʻi: it threatens sustainable food practices. For example, Hawaiian fishpond aquaculture is growing more tenuous. There are a number of reasons that climate change is threatening this sustainable form of aquaculture. Firstly, fishponds were first built in Hawaiʻi more than nine hundred years ago. Ancient Hawaiians dry-stacked rocks to form kuapā around a natural estuarine environment. Sometimes, the rocks fall down. 

Years ago, Walter Ritte, a Hawaiian activist from Molokaʻi, was restoring a fishpond. It took five years to clean up the surrounding land and fix the kuapā. Two days after they finished, a giant wave came through and knocked the entire wall over. It took another year and a half to restack the wall. 

As storms intensify and increase, situations like this one will become more frequent.  

Secondly, sea level rise has caused king tides, which are exceptionally large tides. These tides can surmount the kuapā, allowing fish to swim out and disturbing the placid nursery-esque habitat. One fishpond, Waikalua Loko, experienced its first king tide in 2016. Herb Lee, the CEO of the nonprofit that operates the pond told me that every year they experience some form of rising seas. “We’re undergoing, in my generation, a shift in the global climate. That’s impacting places like this. We’re impacted by it.” 

Lastly, Hawaiian fishponds rely on natural recruitment from the ocean to stock the ponds. Extreme weather, ocean acidification and warming, and other dangers like pollution have depleted Hawaiʻi’s nearshore fisheries. 

These threats lead one to wonder: will it even be possible to have fishpond aquaculture—non-industrialized, nature-based, sustainable aquaculture—as the world keeps warming? 

Modern fishpond caretakers themselves are contending with this question. Some fishponds are adopting different adaptation strategies. Waikalua Loko is building up its kuapā. Moliʻi Pond’s team planted mangroves over the kuapā to hold the rocks in place with their roots. Most ponds, if they are growing native fish, procure fingerlings from the Oceanic Institute or the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

Climate change has become personal, rather than some abstract phenomenon. Dash wants to run a fishpond, but climate change and its potential destruction of ponds brings everything into question. What is especially saddening is that this same phenomenon is happening throughout the tropics. YPCCC found that for people on islands, like the Philippines, and coastal areas, like Costa Rica, climate change is important to them personally, more so than for inland and mainland residents. Climate change is at once a universal and deeply personal threat.