Paddling To Save A Way Of Life

About a quarter mile off Keehi Small Boat Harbor sits a tiny, 10-acre triangular island that is rich in history and cultural significance. Mokauea Island is the site of the last fishing village on Oahu. For decades, local residents have fought to preserve this area from development.

“We’re doing our part to preserve a cultural and historical site,” says Lee Kalama, a long-time member of New Hope Canoe Club.


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A view of Mokauea Island. Joni Bagood photos

“This area was deemed sacred by King Kamehameha III and was a royal fishing ground. We want to preserve Mokauea Island for generations to come, so they can experience an offshore island and fishing village and be aware of the fragile environment around them.”

Some may recall a fiery confrontation in 1975, when the State tried to evict the families who lived on the island, in order to make room for an extension of the reef runway. Several homes were even burned, setting off a firestorm of protests from the public.

The State eventually negotiated a long-term lease with the families who lived on the island. They rebuilt their homes and now use the island and its fishpond to help educate children about the history of the area. The lease expires in 2043.

“A lot of people don’t realize or even know that the island exists, but it has an interesting history,” says Kalama.

“It’s state-owned, and the residents there are under lease. They’re trying to perpetuate our culture and encourage other ohana to continue the tradition of the fishing village.”

But now the island’s residents and paddlers who make use of nearby Sand Island and Keehi Lagoon are fighting to preserve the area once again from development. Kalama worries about the children and their future access to the island.

“The kids come from different high schools all over Oahu,” says Kalama. “They come to the island by canoe and are educated about the fragile marine environment and the animal life that lives in tide pools. They clean the fishpond and remove invasive seaweed and marine debris that floats over. They’ve seen refrigerators and even a couch wash up on the island. The children really connect with those on the island and with nature. They love that place!”

For the second year, New Hope Canoe Club is hosting the Malama Mokauea Canoe Race, with hopes of raising awareness about a proposal to develop Sand Island.

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources wants to build 400-500 boat slips as part of a new Sand Island Ocean Recreation Park.

“Canoe paddling is our state and cultural sport, and we and other ocean users need to preserve the area for recreation, instead of a commercial development,” says Kalama.”We have to save some of our land for our keiki and their well-being.”

The race is scheduled for Saturday, May 3, at Sand Island near the Marine Education Training Center. Proceeds from the race will benefit Mokauea Island.

This year, the fundraising event will feature a special nostalgic race to honor Hawaii’s kupuna.

“We’re having a special race for paddlers 70-years-old and older,” says Kalama. “Believe it or not, we still have paddlers who are well into their 70s who still compete at a high level.”

Kalama says the special divisions don’t stop there. This year’s event will also feature a race for the vintage malia and double-hulled canoes, as well as a division for adaptive paddlers.

“We welcome all and we honor all,” says Kalama. “We’re one community, and we’ve been interacting with politicians and the DLNR about development of the area for the past two years. We know the island and appreciate what it provides for our keiki. It’s not a rubbish island; it’s an island with so much history, and we must preserve that.”

For details on the Malama Mokauea Canoe Race, visit