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Lifestyle // Good Neighbors
Christina O’Connor

Trisha Kehaulani Watson

Photo from Trisha Kehaulani Watson

When Trisha Kehaulani Watson first joined the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary as a volunteer six years ago, she was eager to help with its mission to protect the whales and their habitat. But she found that Native Hawaiian knowledge and cultural practices were largely missing from the organization’s structure.

“It was very strictly Western science, which is all incredibly important,” recalls Watson, who now serves as the Native Hawaiian representative on the sanctuary’s advisory council and as chairwoman of its first Native Hawaiian subcommittee. “But the reality is that this is also a Hawaiian place, these are Hawaiian waters.”

Since then, Watson, who has a Ph.D. and a J.D. specializing in environmental law, has been instrumental in helping the sanctuary broaden its objectives to increase the role of Native Hawaiian culture in management practices.

“Whether you are looking at water or resource management or species protection, we wanted there to be a Native Hawaiian element in all of that,” explains Watson, who is the founder/owner of environmental consulting company Honua Consulting.

For her efforts, Watson was recognized as one of the top volunteers at the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation’s 11th annual Leadership Awards Dinner in Washington, D.C., last month. Watson was one of just 14 volunteers throughout the country to earn the honor.

“Dr. Watson has been an exemplary member of our Sanctuary Advisory Council – working countless hours to help move our management plan review process forward and providing innovative solutions to ensure that communities and agencies are working side-by-side to better manage Hawaii’s marine resources,” sanctuary co-manager Elia Herman states.

Her recent projects include working to restore the practice of traditional Hawaiian fish ponds. She also runs a program in the sanctuary’s ocean engagement training. Moving forward, Watson also strives to promote a more holistic approach to resource management. She explains that historically, Native Hawaiians managed resources by looking at entire habitats as one entity, rather than focusing on just the individual species.

One of her proudest accomplishments has been coordinating the Aloha Aina workshop, which brought together various experts to discuss ways to incorporate Native Hawaiian practices into the overarching mission of the sanctuary itself. The sanctuary’s advisory council then voted to adopt the new framework produced by the workshop.

“To get (the sanctuary) to the point where conservation is something that is really driven by the community is miraculous,” Watson says. “It is really exciting. I hope that other conservation efforts in Hawaii see what is happening and recognize that you can just have so much more success when you engage community and you prioritize culture.”

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