Issue 17.1: February / March 2014

Bringing Back the Mokes

Katherine Nichols
Photo by Elyse Butler

The “Mokes,” as the twin Mokulua islets rising from the jade-green waters off Kailua are nicknamed, need some TLC these days. Every day dozens of people paddle out to the small beach at Mokulua Nui, the larger of the two islets, and wander along its shoreline. But they are barred from hiking to the interior, where delicate native plants and birds like wedge-tailed shearwaters and Bulwer’s petrels are locked in a life-and-death struggle against invasive species.

Since 2012 citizen-volunteers have made thirty-five restoration trips to Mokulua Iki, Mokulua Nui and Popoi‘a (Flat Island) to remove invasive shrubs that displace native species and leave the soil bare and susceptible to erosion. These restoration efforts have focused on both the islands’ coasts and their interiors. For example, on Moku Nui, with waves crashing a few feet away, a naupaka kahakai plant is treated like a newborn baby. A volunteer crouches in the dirt and wraps a baggie of peat moss around its stem while another volunteer secures the air layering. Hopefully this technique will encourage new sprouts; naupaka is a native shoreline plant that stabilizes soil, fights erosion and, as a bonus, creates a barrier to would-be explorers eager to head inland.

Like many residential towns in Hawai‘i, Kailua is struggling to balance tourism with conservation. Amarisa Marie, offshore island biologist for DLNR, managed to turn that conflict into an opportunity by getting local businesses and the community involved in the conservation effort. She asked Kailua Sailboards & Kayaks to help paddle volunteers and gear out to the Mokes for restoration projects. The response? “Beyond my dreams,” says Marie. The company donated equipment and labor, and it has recruited volunteers from all over O‘ahu, who get the rare chance to explore the interior of the islets.

Think of it as a beach cleanup on steroids. “If we were just picking up trash, that would be rewarding,” says Steve Berg, a Kailua resident and frequent volunteer. “But we are trying to help the species that belong here to survive.”