Category Archives: Uncategorized

Google Does Papahanaumokuakea

monksealThe Northwest Hawaiian Islands, better known now as Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, are famously the most remote motes of land in the most remote archipelago on Earth. Almost by definition, that makes them fabulously inaccessible. Native Hawaiian sailing canoes evidently visited the islands, and Nihoa and Mokumanamana were apparently inhabited at least part of the year. Of the low islands and atolls, though, only Midway has been encumbered by anything like “permanent” habitation, first as a failed coaling station for steam ships, then as a residence for employees of a company laying the trans-Pacific cable, and finally as a key naval air station during WWII, the site of one of history’s major air/sea battles. Even so, the human habitation on Midway has always been a tenuous affair, requiring almost every scrap of food and supplies to be shipped in.

The other islands of Papahanaumokuakea have had even less of a human presence. In the 1890s, the Kingdom of Hawaii granted a patent to a pair of American prospectors to mine guano on Laysan, a hapless industrial process that began the island’s grievous ecological decline, a decline accelerated toward the end of the century when the German immigrant Max Schlemmer introduced guinea pigs and rabbits to the island, hoping to create a meat canning business. The guinea pigs and rabbits quickly devoured the native plants. After the guano gave out, there were never more than a handful of residents on Laysan. In the 1920s, a few pearl divers lived at Pearl and Hermes, but in a couple years, the pearls, too, were depleted.

Nowadays, except for a small, intermittent population of researchers from the Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA and a few other scientific organizations, Papahanaumokuakea is basically uninhabited. Even Midway, which once served as a kind of hub in the pro-Age of Aviation, now only entertains a handful of visitors a year.

And yet, the monument is one of the jewels of the National Park Service. The waters team with big fish, serving as one of the world’s best examples of a healthy, predator dominated reef. It’s the main habitat for dozens of endangered species, including the Laysan albatross, Laysan finch, Hawaiian monk seal and innumerable fishes and corals. And here’s the kicker: No one can visit the monument.

At least until recently. Now, though, anyone with a computer can take visit the desolate and alien world of Papahanaumokuakea. Through a partnership between Google, NOAA and FWS, Google Street Views now allows you to stroll the beaches of Midway, Tern Island, Lisianski and Pearl and Hermes. You can pause to gaze at the flocks of albatross or to get a better look at the turtles sunning themselves at the water’s edge. Click the little navigational arrows, and you can spin around in place and get a sense of what it meant to shipwrecked whalers, who sometimes spent months on these low islands, living on seals and bird eggs while they awaited rescue. Gape for a moment at the recently landed FWS researchers and the paltry allotment of blue jerrycans of water that they’ll have to live off of until the next supply boat arrives. All as easy finding where that movie you wanted to watch is playing.

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Marimed Foundation and maritime professions

makani02I see in the December 25 MidWeek that the venerable Marimed Foundation, which traditionally offers sail-training programs for troubled or at-risk youth, now has a special, 13-week training program to expose Hawaii’s kids to opportunities in the maritime professions. As the old-timers on the waterfront and seamen on Hawaii-based ships and tugs retire, there’s a growing shortage of experienced marine technicians, shipwrights, engineers, welders and mariners to replace them. Moreover, kids from disadvantaged communities may not even know about these kinds of high-paying careers, or have the resources or connections to pursue them. Marimed plans to help remedy all that.

By combining its own maritime resources–not least, the 97-foot three-masted schooner Makani Olu–and its experience with youth training with the on-the-job experience of old tars like Kaipo Pomaikai, a former Merchant Marine captain, and Leighton Tseu, who once was in charge of maintenance for the entire Matson fleet, Marimed hopes to expose local youth to the professional opportunities on the waterfront.

Reading about Marimed and the Makani Olu brought back memories of a piece I wrote several years ago about the last professional watermen on Kaneohe Bay. In addition to the fishermen on Nissei, the last aku boat in Hawaii, and the captains and crews of the gaudy fleet of cruise boats and party boats out of Heeia Kea, the young crew of Makani Olu are a throwback to older times. And there’s still nothing quite like driving over the rise from Kailua on Mokapu Drive and catching sight of the schooner riding at anchor beyond the wide flats at Kokokahi, or sailing out along the sandbar as Makani Olu heaves into the channel at Chinaman’s Hat and the crew scramble along the cabin top, furling sail as they go. One day, one of the young kids in the maritime course could be at the helm of Marimed’s anachronistic training ship.

Let’s hope so.

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Featherwork

“Na Hulu Al’i”
“Said of the adornment of a chief, or of an elderly
chief himself who is one of a few survivors of his
generation and therefore precious.”
—‘ Ōlelo No‘eau

 
A million tiny feathers. Brilliant red ones from the
‘i‘iwi bird. Pale yellow ones, sometimes plucked just six
or seven at a time from under the wings, tail or thighs
of endemic forest birds like the ‘ō‘ō and mamo. Miles of
fine olonā cordage, spun by hand and knotted a million
times into a lacy filigree. And the nimble fingers of
old Hawaiian haku hulu, deftly plying their dazzling
craft. These are the basic elements of Nahi‘ena‘ena’s
Pā‘ū, a feather skirt of almost unbelievable luxury and
beauty, and one of the showpieces of Bishop Museum’s
outstanding new exhibit on the Hawaiian art of
featherwork.

 
The exhibit is the source of much excitement
among museum staff. Betty Lou Kam, Vice President
for Cultural Resources, breathlessly describes Nā Hulu
Ali’i as “absolutely the best exhibit at the Museum this year.” And with good reason. Although Bishop Museum has the world’s largest collection of
Hawaiian featherwork, many of the most outstanding
pieces have seldom been displayed to the public. This
will be the most extensive exhibit of featherwork ever,
with over 40 early pieces on display, including several
of spectacular beauty and historic significance.

 

Līloa’s Sash, one of the earliest pieces of
featherwork known to exist, is a pre-contact item
that is the earliest representation of the ali’i dates back as early as the 15th century. The sash has played an important role in the history of Hawai‘i. Passed down through the Kamehameha dynasty, this is
the ceremonial sash depicted on the Kamehameha
Statue. Līloa’s Sash was found at an estate sale by King
Kalākaua who assumed control of it. This amazing
10 ft. piece is extremely delicate and will only be on
display for the first 6 weeks of the exhibit.

Nahi‘ena‘ena’s Pā‘ū is the largest piece of
Hawaiian featherwork known to exist. In its original
form it measured 20 feet long by 2½ feet wide.
Featherwork was considered kapu, and normally
restricted to men. This pā‘u was one of the only large
pieces made specifically for a female. Nahi‘ena‘ena,
the daughter of Kamehameha I and Keopuolani, was
asked to wear the pā‘u for a formal reception with the
English representative who returned the bodies of her
brother, Kamehameha II, and his wife Kamāmalu from
England. Under the influence of her mother, Keōpūolani
Ka‘ahumanu, another of Kamehameha’s wives,
Nahi‘ena‘ena had converted to Christianity after the
death of Kamehameha I, and the abolishment of the old
religion. Only with great difficulty was she persuaded
to wear the ceremonial skirt. Much later, Nahi‘ena‘ena’s
Pā‘ū was cut in half and the two pieces joined to form a wide funeral pall, which was used at the funerals of both her brother,
Kamehameha III, and, much later, of King Kalākaua.

 

Two remarkable feather images thought to
represent the war god Kūkā‘ilimoku will also be on
display. One of these is said to have been passed down
from Kamehameha the Great, and represented his status
and authority during his unification of the Hawaiian
Islands. There are only 19 of these images known to exist, and this will be the first time Bishop Museum. Artistically, they epitomize the high technical achievement of Hawaiian craftsmen in both featherwork and basketry. Culturally, they are almost without parallel in representing the Kamehameha era.

 

Several traditional forms of featherwork will also be on display. Long capes and short cloaks were both called ‘ahu‘ula. Mahiole were the iconic feathered and crested helmets worn into battle by high chiefs. Sashes, sometimes of remarkable length, were called kā’ei. Lesser pieces included feather lei (lei hulu) and head lei (lei po’o.)

 

Because of the tremendous labor and resources required to produce it, featherwork was always reserved for the ali’i. Its cost made feathers a real part of the economy. Every community had its kia manu – its bird catchers – who knew intimately the habits of their prey. The dearest feathers, the pale yellow ones of the ‘ō‘ō and the mamo, were taken from birds captured live.
Such a bird may only have six or seven useful feathers.
Sometimes taxes were collected in feathers. Even as late as 1876, a kapu was placed on yellow feathers while a cloak was being made for Princess Ruth Ke‘elikōlani.

 

Featherwork sashes, cloaks and helmets have been historically been considered the sacred insignia for the highest chiefs of Hawaii. These beautiful works carry a freight artistic, cultural and historic significance. One look is enough to understand their artistic significance. Early European visitors to the Islands were astounded by the opulence of Hawaiian featherwork. Captain Cook compared the brilliant cloaks to “the thickest and richest velvet.” Remarking on the feather regalia of the Kamehameha Era, Captain James King wrote in 1779 that their “beauty and magnificence” were “equal to that of any nation.”

 

Culturally and historically, featherwork continued to serve as the badge of nobility throughout the monarchy. The exhibit will include several important kāhili, the feather standards of royalty that were borne in the processions of chiefs, such as at funerals, or set up ceremonially at royal residences. In addition, visitors can see the cloaks and lei po‘o (head lei) belonging to Kapi‘olani Nui, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop and Queen Emma.

 

When the ali’i traveled, they often bore gifts of featherwork, a tremendous show of generosity in light of their value. The exhibit will also feature some non-traditional pieces that tell of the impact of featherwork in other places. These include featherwork capes made in England after Kamehameha II and Kamāmalu traveled there in the 1820s. A number of these pieces, often
in green or blue feathers, have made their way back to Hawai‘i and into the Bishop Museum’s collections. These, along with some more contemporary works, will also be on display.

 

Feather cloaks and capes ceased being made toward the end of the 19th century, when the art of bird catching and featherworking skills largely disappeared. Featherwork might have died out completely if not for the work of kupuna such as Johanna Cluney, Marie McDonald and especially Mary Louise Kaleonahenahe (Peck) Kekuewa. Featherwork today consists mostly of lei po‘o and lei hulu, but recent visitors to Bishop Museum might remember Aunty Mary Lou’s beautiful ‘Ahu‘ula O Mailelani, which was a part of the Ku I Ka Ni’o exhibit and recalled the glorious days of old Hawai‘i.

 

The birds of featherwork —  the ‘i‘iwi, the ‘apapane, the ‘ō‘ō, and the mamo—are all either endangered or extinct. It is said that Kamehameha himself supported their conservation, saying: “The feathers belong to me, but the birds themselves belong to my heirs.” It was not to be. The heirs of Kamehameha did not get the birds. But, through the collections of Bishop Museum, at least they can still say, “The feathers belong to me.”

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Raising the Reef

story by Dennis Hollier

The Waikiki Aquarium might seem modest compared with some of the super-aquariums that have sprouted around the country. It doesn’t offer the drama of great white sharks, like the Monterey Bay Aquarium, for example, or of whale sharks, like the Georgia Aquarium. But it does offer exhibits of astonishing beauty and naturalism. In one room, swarms of ghostly jellyfish pulse slowly through a spectral realm that recalls the mysterious lakes of Palau. The two giant clams hulking in the heave and surge of the Barrier Reef exhibit are the largest and oldest in captivity—gorgeous, 200-pound, purple-fleshed animals billowing out of boulder-size shells.

Yet these enormous bivalves are overshadowed, even in their own tank, by something even more remarkable: the massive purple, gold and sanguine colonies of live coral, which make the scene so realistic you almost want to snap on your snorkel. What really sets all the aquarium’s exhibits apart is the diversity and abundance of live coral, more than 100 species in all. This dazzling display of bright colors and fanciful shapes is unmatched in any aquarium in the world.

The full story of the aquarium’s coral collection isn’t apparent from the virtuoso displays out front. It’s to be found in the warren of labs and offices behind the tanks and especially in the sheds and holding tanks lining the narrow access road beside the aquarium. Here, in this ramshackle setting, is the world’s most successful coral farm.

The man behind the coral is Charles Delbeek, an aquarium specialist and former hobbyist who’s been raising coral for nearly twenty years. Delbeek is quick to point out that the aquarium’s coral program began long before he got there. “The previous director, Dr. Bruce Carlson, started bringing back corals from his travels in the 1970s,” he says. At that time, the display of live corals was largely the province of hobbyists rather than professional aquarists, especially in Europe. The big public aquariums relied upon rocks, dead coral or man-made substrates for their displays. “Back then,” Delbeek says, “marine scientists would have told you that you couldn’t keep corals alive. Meanwhile, people in Germany were keeping them alive in their living rooms.” Carlson met Delbeek at a conference where Delbeek was giving a talk on raising coral. Some years later, the aquarium offered Delbeek a job presiding over its growing collection. The Waikiki Aquarium became the first public aquarium in North America to display live South Pacific corals, and it still has the largest, most diverse exhibition of live corals in the world. One of its founding colonies, a bristling head of Acropora bruggemanii, is probably the oldest live coral in captivity.

More than two decades ago, the Waikiki Aquarium began systematically raising coral for use in its exhibits. In the early 1990s there was a growing concern about the sources of the coral displayed in public aquariums, which rely upon suppliers in places like Fiji, Indonesia and the Solomon Islands. Although there’s now a trend toward culturing corals and other organisms for the aquarium trade, back then much of the live coral was collected right off the reef. Aquariums had little idea where their coral came from or whether harvesting them harmed the reefs. “We’re probably unique,” Delbeek says, “in that we can say exactly which reefs all our corals come from in the wild. We even have the GPS coordinates for some of the species in our collection.”

Visitors to the aquarium can get a sense of how coral farming works in a special exhibit near the Hawaiian monk seals. Despite the prior reservations of marine biologists, who felt corals were too fickle and sensitive to raise in captivity, coral husbandry turns out to be fairly straightforward.

What we perceive as a single mass of coral is actually a colony of thousands or millions of individual organisms called polyps. In the hard or stony corals, these polyps remove calcium from sea water and secrete the skeleton most of us know as coral. Soft corals don’t grow this hard skeletal structure; instead, their polyp colonies coat rocks or dead coral stone and can resemble a mass of anemones. For both kinds of coral, one form of reproduction is asexual, the simple multiplication of polyps in the colony; thus all you need is one finger-size fragment—a “frag” in the trade—and you can grow a new colony, a genetic clone of the original.

The tanks of the aquarium’s coral farm are fabulously congested with colonies of both stony and soft corals. They grow surprisingly fast. Stony corals can grow as much as 8 inches a year. The impressive samples of purple-tipped staghorn coral that overshadow the giant clams in the Barrier Reef exhibit began as basketball-size chunks only a little more than two years ago. Now they’re shading out other corals, and Delbeek is considering replacing them with smaller pieces. Soft corals are even more prolific. “They grow like weeds,” Delbeek says.

Of course, it’s not as easy as it sounds. It turns out that there are a lot of things to know about growing coral. Lighting, for example, is critical. The Waikiki Aquarium is unusual because its tropical location means that natural light can be used for many of the exhibits. The climate is also a factor. “We can easily do exhibits outside,” Delbeek says. “Other aquariums really can’t. We can just dig a hole in the ground, where other facilities would have to spend millions.”

Delbeek also stresses the importance that water chemistry—calcium levels, alkalinity and pH—has on the health of coral. Part of the aquarium’s unusual success in growing coral might have to do with its extraordinary water, which comes from a saltwater well deep underground. After percolating through 80 feet of calciferous rock, the chemistry of the water is different from normal sea water. Then it’s vigorously aerated to remove excess carbon dioxide. The result is a perfectly clear fluid that one researcher calls “miracle water.” Its superior quality is so sought after that one of the benefits of membership at the Waikiki Aquarium is the privilege of bringing its water home for your private aquarium.

While most public aquariums now have a live coral exhibit, at the Waikiki Aquarium almost every display contains live coral. Except for a small amount of seed stock—frags carefully collected from around the tropical Pacific—all the coral on display at the aquarium was raised on the premises. But one of the principal functions of the aquarium’s coral husbandry program is to supply live coral to other institutions. “I’ve been here since 1995,” Delbeek says. “During that time, we’ve sent out more than 6,000 frags to other aquariums. There’s probably not one aquarium in America that we haven’t sent coral to.” Kathryn Harper, the aquarium’s director of community outreach, highlights the scale of the operation: “We could do this full time if we wanted—there’s enough demand.” The aquarium, which is owned by the University of Hawai‘i, cooperates closely with scientific institutions like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency and the Hawai‘i Institute for Marine Biology. “Right now we’re working with scientists who need samples of genetically identical Hawaiian coral,” says Delbeek. “We also sent about 600 Acropora frags to an environmental consulting company doing research on the effects of crude oil on coral.” Concerns about human effects on coral reefs, like the ship grounding that wiped out nearly 20 acres of reef in ‘Ewa, lend impetus to the coral research at the aquarium.

“Now we’re working with rare Hawaiian corals,” says Delbeek. “That’s the direction we want to move in.” Among the more fascinating corals in his care is a small collection of deep-sea corals recently collected in the ‘Au‘au Channel off Maui. “These are Leptoseris,” Delbeek points out. “They were collected at more than 100 meters—the world’s deepest-occurring photosynthetic coral.” The aquarium is trying to grow this species out so that scientists will have enough material for their research. Another Hawai‘i species in the collection is Montipora dilitata. “This coral is believed to be only found in Kane‘ohe Bay,” Delbeek says. “It’s currently classified as a species of concern by NOAA, but it may soon be listed as endangered.”

Perhaps the greatest threat facing the world’s corals is the worldwide epidemic of coral bleaching thought to be associated with global warming. When exposed for an extended period to higher than normal temperatures, many corals will expel their zooxanthellae—the symbiotic algae that live within the polyps, produce their food and give them their color.

“Hawai‘i’s far enough north that we haven’t really been affected by frequent coral bleaching events yet,” says Delbeek. But eventually, Hawai‘i’s reefs will also face this threat. Hawai‘i’s corals are already under stress from pollution, human damage and invasive algae that choke out the sunlight. Part of the aquarium’s interest in expanding the coral farming project is to be able to restock wild populations of Hawaiian corals after a die-off. The aquarium has more than 100 species of stony coral alone, including several Hawaiian species. Although the current state of the world’s coral reefs is alarming, Delbeek says there’s still some room for optimism. “If the conditions are good, the coral comes back,” he says. “Last October, I was diving in the Solomon Islands and saw a section of reef that just ten years ago was all dead. Now it’s completely covered with living coral.”

That resilience is crucial to the aquarium’s vision to become a kind of seed bank. And maybe one day, in addition to supplying coral to the public aquariums of the world, the pullulating colonies of coral in this improbable farm will help save the fragile reefs of Hawai‘i.

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Mystery of the Avocado

Ken Love, Avocado Man

story by Dennis Hollier
photo by Jack Wolford

Down at the farmers market at Kapi‘olani Community College, Ken Love and I watch people file through his avocado-tasting booth. Under the canopy, there’s a cornucopia of avocados. Love has lugged in more than 300 pounds of them from the Big Island. The avocado mavens quietly sample each of five varieties heaped in bite-size chunks on paper plates. One by one they solemnly taste each selection, savoring them like oenophiles. They take their duty seriously—nothing focuses one’s attention like a free sample—and some have to make two or more passes through the line before they reach any conclusions. While we watch, I hold forth on the intricacies of building the perfect sandwich—a life’s work.
“The world’s best sandwich,” I say, “is a double-decker contrivance of avocado and bacon on wheat toast.” Love sucks thoughtfully on his unlit pipe, watching as a volunteer deftly flays avocados with an old butcher knife and refills the sample plates. “But there are three provisos,” I continue. “The bread must be lightly buttered; the bacon must be crisp and smoky; and, most importantly, the avocado must be rich and nutty and spooned on in thick, ripe slabs.”

I’m preaching to a choir, of course. Love nimbly palms his pipe and chimes in with the chorus. “Yes, but those supermarket Calavos—they’re pretty much tasteless,” he says, referring to the ubiquitous California-grown varieties typically on offer at supermarkets.

The irony, of course, is that Hawai‘i is the world capital of gourmet avocados. Love, the vice-president of the Hawai‘i Tropical Fruit Growers Association and an officer with the Hawai‘i AgriTourism Association, knows this better than anyone. For more than twenty years, he tended his own diversified Kona farm, 13 acres of coffee and tropical fruit trees—including a grove of avocados. Gradually he became disaffected with coffee (“I was suckered into the coffee thing by a real estate agent,” he says) and began concentrating on the tropical fruits. Three years ago he sold his farm to devote himself fulltime to projects like this—promoting Hawai‘i produce and persuading Big Island farmers to experiment with new, more profitable crops. Hawai‘i’s neglected avocado has become his particular bugbear. He’s written papers on the industry. He’s canvassed and counseled the growers. He’s scolded and pleaded with and nagged the wholesalers and grocers. Now, as the self-appointed spokesman for the Hawai‘i avocado, he stuffs his pipe into his pocket and begins a well-rehearsed lecture.

“Over 200 varieties of avocado trees grow in Hawai‘i,” he says, the result of three centuries of traders who ate avocados on their westbound passage from Mexico and Central America, saving the seeds of the ones they liked. Those seedlings flourished here, and local farmers—many of them Japanese coffee planters—grafted and cultivated the best varieties. Even today many of the local avocados carry the Japanese names of Kona coffee growers: Nishikawa, Yamagata, Ohata. “We have all three races of avocados here,” Love says. “We have West Indians, like the Malama, with smooth skin and large fruit; we have Guatemalans with hard, pebbly skin, like the Hawaiian Hass; and we have small, thin-skinned Mexicans, like the Linda.” With that diversity come advantages. We have varieties that grow at different altitudes and microclimates and trees that fruit at different times of the year; so, in theory, Hawai‘i growers can produce avocados year-round.

It isn’t just that Hawai‘i has more varieties of avocado; Hawai‘i has better-tasting avocados. The buttery, nutty flavor that makes the avocado uniquely savory among fruits comes from its concentration of vegetable fats. And the Hawai‘i avocado is the king of fats. “The California Hass,” Love points out, “has a fat content of about 8 percent; the fat content of the Kahalu‘u, on the other hand, can reach 25 percent. It’s like eating butter.”

That’s my cue to slip in under the awning to sample the goods. This isn’t Love’s first taste test. Just a couple of days earlier, he served up a similar mix of avocados to many of Hawai‘i’s culinary bigwigs—a cohort that included tony chefs like Roy Yamaguchi and Alan Wong. According to Love, they not only ate raw avocados but tried them in innovative recipes. “Alan Wong was really partial to the Kahalu‘u,” Love says, “and the Malama, which he made into a soup.”

Those of us in the tasting line aren’t so genteel. The elderly lady ahead of me in line disposes of five big bites—nearly a whole avocado—before moving on. The young woman behind me takes advantage of a distracted volunteer to palm a cannonball-size fruit and drop it in her canvas tote. And at the end of the line, an aggrieved customer wants to know why he can’t buy a handful of sample No. 1. “They’re not for sale,” the volunteer tells him, “but if you’ll take a moment to fill out this questionnaire, you can have your pick for free.”

Love presides over the operation with a kind of rumpled aplomb. He hasn’t always been a farmer (he spent thirty years traveling the globe as a photographer for Associated Press), but he certainly looks the part. Beneath his floppy hat, he’s red-faced and jowly and sports a Brillo-like mustache. He wears old, scuffed boots and faded jeans that hang loose beneath a modest paunch. Nevertheless, the overall impression is of a thinking man. Leaving the details of the booth to the volunteers, he stands out in the sun, answering questions about avocados and making pronouncements on the proper role of agriculture in society. With his eclectic interests and contemplative cast, he reminds me of Jefferson’s farmer-philosopher.

For my part, I take a scientific approach to the taste test. Systematically, I take at least three bites of each variety—one for consistency, one for flavor and the rest to accommodate my basic greed. By the end—three passes through the line, in my case—I reach the inescapable conclusion: All five varieties are outstanding. Three of them—the Malama, the Kahalu‘u and the Linda—are the three best avocados I’ve ever eaten. Each different, each flawless. I begin to understand the extent of Love’s frustration that Hawai‘i’s superior avocados are unsung, unknown and, unless you have a tree nearby, mostly unavailable.

Of course, marketing 300 kinds of avocadoes is impossible. There’s just too much variety. Even Love has a hard time keeping them straight. There are big, nutty Murashiges and Yamagatas, which are great for salads. The fruity Yamanes and Beshores are suited to dips and guacamole. The issue is further clouded by hundreds of wild avocadoes—the unnamed varieties and accidental hybrids found in people’s backyards and escaped into the forest. Typically these are inferior fruit; the great ones are quickly shared among friends and farmers. Thus, the vaunted diversity of Hawai‘i’s avocados actually works against them in the marketplace. “People don’t know what they’re buying,” Love says.

Although you’ll occasionally find a few local varieties at a farmers market, you’re unlikely to find them at the supermarket. Even grocery stores with local roots, like Times and Foodland, rarely offer Hawai‘i varieties; at the national chains like Safeway and especially the big-box stores like Wal Mart and Costco, the avocado bins are full of imported fruit. “Last year,” says Love, citing a 2007 study he helped to organize, “Hawai‘i farmers produced over 800,000 pounds of avocados, but nearly half of that went to waste.” It’s not for lack of avocado consumers, he points out. While more than 350,000 pounds of prime avocados rotted on the tree here, Hawai‘i’s supermarkets and wholesalers imported 1.5 million pounds of avocados from California and Mexico.

“Currently, grocery stores only pay 60 to 80 cents a pound for local avocados, but they pay $2.30 for the California Hass,” Love says. Sometimes the local varieties retail for less than the wholesale price of the California avocados. Thus the wastage: For many farmers it’s not worth the effort to harvest local avos. Besides, few are actually avocado farmers; they’re coffee or macadamia nut or tropical fruit farmers who happen to have a few avocado trees.

This is all madness, of course, spending top dollar for an imported, inferior fruit when you have a veritable orchard in your own backyard, but Love has his work cut out for him if he wants to make sense out of Hawai‘i’s avocado market. Despite their superiority, there’s a built-in prejudice against local avocados; grocery stores want the consistency and predictability—both in look and supply—of the California avocado. Never mind the quality.

Export isn’t an option either. “This year is a centennial of a sort,” Love says. “Back in 1908, the California growers got the Hawai‘i avocado banned. For the fruit flies, they said.” There are treatments for the fruit flies, but they’re not economical for Hawai‘i’s small-time producers. Now and then there’s a quiet movement to lift the ban—at least for the cold, northern tier states during the winter, when fruit flies pose no threat to agriculture. Love isn’t hopeful, though; the big California producers will never let it happen. Instead, he focuses on persuading local markets to change their buying habits.

Taste tests at tiny farmers markets are well and good—they educate consumers, and they’re useful to growers who want to know which varieties people prefer—but Love knows they’re just a first step. The problems facing the Hawai‘i avocado are systemic, and solving them will require better collaboration among Hawai‘i growers—perhaps branding Hawai‘i avocados much like Kona coffee has been. But to Love, the issue is just a symptom of a much larger problem, one that has to do with us, the consumers. “We have 168 million pounds of competitive vegetables coming into Hawai‘i each year,” he says. “Things we already grow here.” If we want to support Hawai‘i agriculture—and those incomparable avocados—then, as Love puts it, “We have to consume local.”

Of course, Love too is sometimes preaching to the choir. Just as the farmers market is winding down, an elderly couple makes their way deliberately through the samples. They linger over the Linda, savoring its creamy texture and indescribable richness. Like an old memory, a smile passes between them, and wordlessly they link hands. As they stroll away, Love and I can just make out the faded logo on the back of the old man’s shirt. It reads, “Support Local Agriculture.”

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Arrested Development

Allen Leong, KC Rainbow Development
Photo by Oliver Konig

It’s tempting to believe the map. To run your finger over the blue swath of the Pacific and imagine that these are islands. But the turmoil in the world’s financial markets has demonstrated that Hawaii’s isolation is an illusion.

Our economy — particularly capital-intensive sectors like real estate development and construction — has become dependent on access to money from the Mainland and abroad. And the long string of failures in the financial community — Washington Mutual, IndyMac, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers — has cut deeply into the availability of that capital.

Some failures have affected Hawaii directly: The Ritz-Carlton development at Kapalua was nearly derailed when Lehman Brothers, the lead bank, went bankrupt last year. Similarly, the credit problems of General Growth Properties have halted construction at its Ward Villages project in Kakaako. But more damaging has been the complete collapse of the market for the Commercial Mortgage-Backed Securities and other financial instruments that have been the conduit for most of the Mainland capital underpinning development in Hawaii over the past six years.

The Return to Local

“Sixty percent of all loans were through the CMBS market,” says Mike Hamasu, director of consulting and research at Colliers Monroe Friedlander.

“The majority of that is now frozen.”

The result has been an exodus of Mainland lenders — with boggling effect. “I can give you our preliminary findings for last year,” Hamasu says. “In 2007, total sales for the state came to $3 billion. Our prediction for 2008 is $780 million,” an astonishing 74 percent drop. This year will be even lower: “We’re anticipating sales of only $580 million in 2009,” he notes.

One of the signature effects has been the emerging dominance of local banks. Central Pacific Bank, for example, came forward to replace Lehman Brothers as the lead bank in the Ritz-Carlton development on Maui. Most developers indicate that deals will now have to include local banks. The change is not an idle one; Hawaii’s local banks have a reputation for conservative underwriting. For developers, this means much higher equity requirements; no non-recourse loans; and, critically, higher presale and prelease requirements before the borrower can access construction loans. All of which are more difficult in a recession.

Presales Are Crucial

For Allen Leong, director of operations for KC Rainbow Development Co., the crisis in the world capital markets is neatly bracketed by two projects along Kapiolani Boulevard: the twin towers of Moana Pacific, completed in early 2007, and the Moana Vista, started in 2007 but still unfinished and awaiting new capital.

“The issue with Moana Vista is the basic issue of every single real estate project: presales,” he says. “At the Moana Pacific, the first tower sold out within six months. The second tower might have taken nine or 10 months to sell out.” Presales of the 492-unit Moana Vista began in 2007, amid much the same atmosphere of optimism and enthusiasm. Hundreds of people showed up when units first went up for auction. “At one point in time,” Leong says, “I had 300 units sold.” But the stream of bad economic news sapped the confidence of buyers, and more than half canceled their contracts.

Only deep pockets kept the project afloat. Indeed, one of the remarkable things about the Moana Vista project is that the work so far has been done out of KC Rainbow’s cash flow. “You have to remember, I just came off a pretty successful project,” Leong says, alluding to the highly profitable Moana Pacific project. “But now, we’re going to have to touch our loan. That’s why presales are so important. Without presales, you can’t touch that construction money.” It’s this gap in funding that has brought construction nearly to a standstill.

Of course, in real estate, it’s possible to view almost any problem as a question of price. In December, KC Rainbow began slashing prices at Moana Vista, with units going for as much as 25 percent off. “I can tell you,” says Leong, “right now, we’re at the right price point. We’ve had very good interest in the project. People like what they see. so, I know there are buyers out there who like the price. I just don’t know how many there are.”

The Contractor’s Perspective

Bill Wilson, president of Hawaiian Dredging, also views Hawaii development through the lens of the current credit crunch. “We’ve got four stories with projects that Dredging is working on, with four sets of issues,” Wilson says. “Others, I’m not sure, have similar examples.

“No. 1 is Maluaka on Maui.” This luxury condominium project – plans included 69 high-end units on 500 acres of land attached to the Kapalua Resort – came out of a partnership that included Dowling Development and investment banker Morgan Stanley. Construction never started. “They put the financing together a year and a half ago,” Wilson says, noting that, at the time, “there were still multiple financing options available.” One by one, though, lenders dropped out as the capital markets collapsed. “They’re not looking at revised development plans,” he says, but the project is moribund.

Hawaiian Dredging’s second story concerns Starwood’s latest planned timeshare on Maui. “In this case, we were two months into construction,” Wilson says. “That was a $300 million job. It was their preferred job in Hawaii.” Nevertheless, despite their investment of time and money, Starwood blanched at pursuing the project in this economic climatem, pulling the plug on construction. “We negotiated a scope-of-work so that it could be put on hold,” Wilson says. “Conceivably, we can start the project again in a year or two.”

Hawaiian Dredging is also the contractor on KC Rainbow’s Moana Vista project, which is Wilson’s third story. In this case, of course, the company was already deeply committed to a project that appeared to be more than adequetly funded. The building was scheduled to be completed by 2009; instead, the tower crate sits idle, and the most optimistic finish date is well into 2011.

“No.4 is General Growth,” says Wilson. “We filed a lien of $9 million against them.” The credit troubles of General Growth Properties, the nation’s second largest developer of shopping centers, and the owner of both Ala Moana and Ward shopping centers, have received a great deal of publicity. Although generally regarded as well-managed, the company has succumbed to the credit crisis. Its inability to refinance its extensive debt has put the company on the brink of failure. The spectre of bankruptcy has halted construction at Ward Villages, General Growth’s most recent development in Kakaako. Once again, Hawaiian Dredging is left holding the bag. “All I want is our little $9 million,” Wilson says. “And the majority of it doesn’t belong to us; it belongs to our sub-contractors.”

Other contractors have a similar view of the market. Roger Peters, the new executive vice president at dck pacific construction (formerly Dick Pacific), says, “I know of five out of about 15 projects that we’re tracking that have stalled because of lack of funding. And that’s not just on Oahu; that’s on Maui and the Big Island and Kauai.” In fact, one of the most alarming aspects of the capital shortage for developers is that it touches almost every sector: residential, commercial, industrial and retail.

Light at the End of the Tunnel?

One bright spot on the horizon is Halekauwila Place, an affordable-housing project in Kakaako being developed by Stanford Carr. This project, like so many others around the state, stalled due to inadequate funding. The details are telling: Although Carr was able to secure a $71 million construction loan from the National Electrical Benefit Fund, that still left him well short of the estimated $86 million price tag for the project. Normally, Carr points out, affordable housing is supported with tax credits, which the developer sells to investors. In the current market, though, there’s no appetite for tax credits. The project looked untenable.

But Halekauwila Place was very attractive to the Hawaii Community Development Authority. As Anthony Ching, executive director of the authority, points out, HCDA was eager to add the affordable housing units to the inventory in Kakaako. They also hoped to retire the tax credits so they couldn’t be sold to another developer. In the end, HCDA agreed to loan the developer $14 million. Perhaps just as important, the terms of the loan allows $4.5 million of that to be used for the critical permitting and entitlement period. “Essentially, the state is providing a soft second mortgage,” says Carr.

Affordable housing is hardly a salvation for developers, though. The margins are just too low, and few government agencies have the cash to lend. Instead, most developers and contractors look at the capital markets and see no near-term solution. They point to Kapolei: The plat map shows a quilt-work of projects in various stages of planning and construction. But most developers agree with the words of Stanford Carr: “If it hasn’t come out of the ground, it’s probably on hold.”

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Unrestricted Funds

Jan Harada, Executive Director, Palama Settlement
Photo: Rae Huo

The fuel that powers the engines of charity is the same as that which runs any other enterprise: money.

Nonprofit organizations, after all, are businesses. It’s true, their primary mission is to feed the poor, or heal the sick, or save the environment — all of which cost money. Just like everyone else, though, they also have to pay for rent, utilities, insurance, salaries, benefits and supplies. That also takes money — money that is increasingly tough to come by.

For most nonprofits, funds tagged for specific programs account for the bulk of the organization’s revenue. This is what buys the food for the poor, medicine for the sick or educational programs on the environment.

But these program funds rarely pay for staff training, or new technology, or program innovations, or even building maintenance. In fact, program funds operate much like pass-throughs; they help the public without providing much underlying support to the charitable organization itself. That support requires a much rarer kind of money. In the nonprofit sector it’s called organizational support, administrative funding, operational funding, unrestricted funds or overhead. Businesses know it as “working capital.”

Whatever you want to call it, it’s scarce and getting scarcer.

To understand the importance of unrestricted funds, you have to poke around in the Byzantine world of nonprofit finance. More often than not, that starts with government.
“We know that, if you look at the total revenue in the not-for-profit sector, well over half that money is coming from government sources,” says Kelvin Taketa, president and CEO of the Hawaii Community Foundation. For health and human-services agencies, that number is even higher. The bulk of government support isn’t in grants or charity; it comes in the form of inflexible contracts. Agencies like Child and Family Services and the Waikiki Health Center, for example, are paid a fee to provide services to their clients. Such fees often add up to most of the agency’s income. But again, this is money for specific programs.

While government contracts usually allow some overhead costs, they tend to be stingy and difficult to justify. As a result, the complexity of calculating overhead costs in government contracts is one of the biggest challenges nonprofits face as they seek adequate unrestricted funds. According to Norm Baker, vice president of community building for Aloha United Way (AUW), part of the problem lies in the contracts themselves. “The federal contracts vary, going from allowing absolutely no overhead,” he says, “to ‘you have to demonstrate how that overhead expense applies to that program.’” The complexity of the process tends to shut out smaller organizations that lack sophisticated accounting departments.

Baker also notes that part of the problem is in the nature of nonprofit accounting. “What is really overhead in a nonprofit is a question that’s not well-defined,” he says. “So, the talk about overhead rate is a very tricky subject. What makes the nonprofit accounting system so difficult to understand is that it’s exactly the same as the medical system.”
In other words, it’s essentially a third-party payer system — with all the complications that entails. It’s a devilish way to earn your working capital. Even for relatively large organizations, the effort that goes into accurately including overhead in government contracts is a burden.

Brian Schatz, CEO of Helping Hands (and chairman of the Hawaii Democratic Party), sketches out the problem:

“We try to build in administrative costs whenever we write a contract or a grant,” he says. “For example, we’re constantly adjusting the allocation of our salaries — my salary is paid from seven or eight sources. We try to do time studies to find out where our staff spends its hours. That’s a crucial point: The rigor with which we analyze our finances is impossible to achieve in a three- or four-person shop.”

The solution is for organizations to seek out more diversified forms of funding, particularly unrestricted funds. This calls for creativity and a fair amount of scrambling.

For example, Jan Harada, executive director of Palama Settlement, says that for her organization’s $1.8 million budget, she can tap a variety of sources. “We have a state contract for $250,000 a year,” she says. “In addition, we have grants that come to maybe $100,000 a year.” Perhaps more valuable, the center also has income from ground rent on property it owns across the street from the center as well as from renting the gymnasium and office space to other nonprofits. These rents provide an important source of unrestricted funds.

Clearly, not all nonprofits are fortunate enough to have these kinds of options. David Nakada, who, after more than 30 years at the Boys and Girls Club, may be the dean of Hawaii’s nonprofit community, readily acknowledges that smaller organizations sometimes simply can’t diversify. “Maybe their birth was done strictly through government grants,” he says. That, of course, leaves them at the mercy of each new administration. If, as now seems likely, the economy requires cuts up to 20 percent in government spending, how does a small nonprofit survive?

“When that 20 percent happens to be 80 percent of your funding, you get swept away,” Nakada says.

For many Hawaii nonprofits, contributions from AUW add up to a big chunk of their organizational support. In fact, AUW gives unrestricted grants to over 60 local nonprofits. As a percentage of their overall budgets, these AUW grants are often quite small — typically less than four percent, according to Baker — but, because those dollars aren’t tied to any particular program, they’re a much more significant part of the budget than the numbers would suggest. “They’re worth 10 times the regular dollar,” Baker says. “Because they’re flexible.”

This year, though, the AUW begins a long-planned shift in focus to five core service areas that will inevitably mean a loss of unrestricted funding for many long-time grantees whose work does not fit into one of those five areas.

One of the agencies losing its AUW funding is the Hawaii Association of Nonprofit Organizations (HANO), an intermediary organization that provides workshops and professional training for the nonprofit sector. “We’ve been a grant recipient since the beginning,” says its executive director, Lisa Maruyama. In fact, HANO long served as a kind of adjunct to AUW. But, because they offer no direct services, intermediaries like HANO are particularly vulnerable to a shortage of unrestricted funds. The loss of those unrestricted AUW dollars — nearly 40 percent of the organization’s budget — will pose a real challenge to Maruyama and her board. “For us, it’s about rethinking our model of sustainability,” she says.

Of course, HANO is uniquely qualified to face this challenge. For example, as a membership organization, it has a built-in revenue stream, all of which is unrestricted. HANO may also be able to offer fee-for-service programs, charging for consulting and management services. In addition, as it downsizes, HANO may be able to sublease part of its office space. In the end, though, HANO may have to rely on foundation grants to carry it through these hard times, and foundations are notoriously averse to providing operational support.

Hawaii’s certainly not unique is this regard. Last year, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO), a national research group, conducted a survey of 800 foundations and other private funders around the country. Its report notes that only 22 percent of foundations nationally reported increasing the amounts they gave for general operating expenses, and the majority provided fewer than 20 percent of their grantees with operating support. Curiously, this trend continues despite considerable theoretical support for operational grants among foundation leaders and professional philanthropic organizations like GEO. As Sharon King, president of the H.B. Heron Foundation, puts it, “In the long run, you can’t have strong programs in weak organizations.”

Yet, few Hawaii foundations support general operating expenses. It’s true that many program grants include overhead costs, such as salaries and benefits. But here’s the irony: Even the most generous program grant may have a negative impact on the overall health of the agency.

In the GEO report, Clara Miller, president and CEO of the Nonprofit Alliance Fund, puts it bluntly: “Anything but unrestricted grants generally increases the costs in the grantee’s operation.” Nevertheless, foundations usually balk at this type of funding.

One problem is that the work-a-day costs of doing business simply don’t appeal to funders. Schatz gives an example from Helping Hands: “Our sewer runs slightly uphill,” he says. “But we’re just not confident that a private foundation will find it in their hearts to pay to fix a sewer.” Instead, sewer repairs likely will absorb some of the organization’s precious unrestricted funds. Yet, as Schatz notes, “Without a functional building, none of these programs work.”

One reason foundations are more comfortable funding programs or projects than operations, quite simply, is that with programs, it is easier to measure success. Many also worry that funding basic operations may make the nonprofit too dependent. Others are wary of handing out money with no strings attached. Alfred Castle, treasurer and executive director of the Samuel N. and Mary Castle Foundation, takes a slightly different view. “To me, the lack of operating funds is more a symptom of something else that’s going on. I think there’s a lack of trust.”

The Samuel N. and Mary Castle Foundation is one of a handful of local foundations that do provide unrestricted funds — albeit with a very narrow focus. “We actually do more today than ever before,” says Castle. “In particular, we put a lot of operating support into the Good Beginnings Alliance (GBA).” GBA, like HANO, is an intermediary organization. It provides no direct services, acting instead as a statewide coordinator and advocate for early childhood education. In short, its mission is nearly identical to that of the foundation, which has a long history promoting preschools and kindergartens in Hawaii. To Castle, finding that synergy is the key to overcoming a foundation’s reticence about unrestricted funds.

The shortage of unrestricted funds is a chronic one, long predating the problems associated with the current economic crisis. While the evolving views of people like Castle may offer a glimmer of hope, nonprofit professionals tend to be pragmatists. They scrounge and hustle and make-do. The problem of organizational support, after all, is as old as charity. The only answer is just to keep trying. As Jan Harada puts it, “Be sad. Lose some sleep. And then figure out how we’re going to solve it.”

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‘Ohana Style 

story by Dennis Hollier
photo by Brad Goda

 

“No more fried chicken,” 78-year-old Nadine Tokuzato tells the fourth customer in a row at Waikane Store. “Got sushi, though.”

She gestures through mosquito netting into what appears to be the family kitchen. There, her sister, Makiko Gishi, sits at the kitchen table laconically rolling out makizushi. She smiles back into the store, where several customers obligingly await the next batch.

The sign out front says, “Since 1898.” But there’s hardly anything for sale at Waikane Store: soft drinks, crack seed and a few sundries like toilet paper and soap. Unlike some of the other country stores on O‘ahu, Waikane Store doesn’t sell booze or cater to the tourist trade. It’s not hard, though, to see how this family operation stays in business. Hulking in the corner is an enormous stainless steel freezer full of chicken parts and shrimp.

All day long, customers shuffle into Waikane Store for the home cooking. They come for the little tubs of fried chicken or shrimp fritters, for the sushi (including the popular hot-dog maki with Coleman mustard) and for the homemade cookies and boiled peanuts. Makiko and Nadine cook it all in small batches—sometimes while customers wait—so it’s always fresh.

It’s an old-fashioned store that’s been in the same family since the 1940s. “Mama-san,” Haruko Tsutsui, took over the operation in 1959. Her daughter, Nadine, has run it for the last thirty-four years. Three generations of the family still live in the rooms behind the store.

Most of their customers are regulars: A young man with “Kahalu‘u Boy” tattooed on his chest wanders in and asks Nadine, “How da shrimp?”

“Here, I give you a taste,” she says, handing him a small tub to sample.

He takes a bite. “Oh wow,” he says, “da bugga’s ‘ono. I’ll take two.”

Like most customers, he ends up buying a little of everything, walking out with some sushi and a bag of boiled peanuts to go with his shrimp. Nadine bags up his purchase with a little twinkle in her eye. At Waikane Store you sample at your own risk.

Waikane Store
(808) 239-8522

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