Priorities for Coastal Communities Threatened by Sea Level Rise

Image of Kaʻaʻawa showing the beach park embankment where the sandy beach has disappeared. (Photo credit: study authors)

Amid the growing threat of sea level rise and coastal erosion to shoreline communities around the world, the University of Hawaii in Mānoa, researchers delved into the response of coastal communities to Oʻahu. A recent stakeholder survey revealed that what most respondents felt was currently important was not always what they felt should be prioritized.

people lounging on the beach near the ocean
Image of Sunset Beach showing the beach during the calmer summer months, which is popular for recreational swimming and sunbathing. (Photo credit: study authors)

Researchers from uh Manoa’s College of Social Sciences, Institute for Sustainability and Resilience and Water Resources Research Center interviewed 42 representatives of civil society (non-profit organizations interested in coastal activities and grassroots organizations), government, and the private sector involved in coastal decision-making in the state. The researchers focused on three Oʻahu coastal communities: Kāhala, Kaʻaʻawa and Sunset Beach.

Respondents, on average, rated the value of real estate as what they currently perceive to be most important to Kāhala, subsistence ashore (throwing poles on the shore, casting nets, hukilau, and gathering limu ) for Kaʻaʻawa and coastal recreation (surfing, swimming, and snorkeling) for Sunset Beach. However, when it comes to what respondents think should ideally be prioritized in decision-making, respondents, on average, value the ecological functions, habitat, spiritual and cultural values ​​of all sites . Subsistence ashore for Kaʻaʻawa and coastal recreation for Sunset Beach also remained a priority. In contrast, real estate value received the lowest priority across all sites, including Kāhala.

shore with sand, water and a house
Image of Kāhala Beach showing a person on a pocket beach surrounded by seawalls on both sides. (Photo credit: Shellie Habel, uh Sea Grant)

Respondents noted links between the ecological value of beaches and community and economic health, and between ecological value and livelihood.

“If our ʻāina not prosper, we are not going to prosper as a community and as people,” said one private sector interviewee. “If we don’t do those two things first, we’re not an attractive destination for visitors.”

A civil society representative added: “We need to understand, and again this is part of how I was raised, that our oceans are a refrigerator first. And our ability to access it, to feed ourselves and to support ourselves is quite up to par. And ecology is obviously linked to that.

Another important theme, according to the researchers, concerns not only “what” values, but “whose” values. There was a strong feeling among many interviewees that Native Hawaiian families with ancestral knowledge and ties to place need to be more deeply included in the decision-making process.

The search results were published in Ocean & Coastal Management in June 2022.

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