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Traditional Hawaiian Salt Makers Combat Climate Change

Ku?uwehi Hiraishi

A community of traditional salt makers on Kaua?i is navigating the impacts of climate change on the generations-old practice. HPR’s Ku?uwehi Hiraishi reports.

Summer time means salt making in Hanap?p? on Kaua?i’s west coast.

Credit Kuuwehi Hiraishi
Hanap?p?'s clay salt beds and salt shelf help produce high-quality sea salt.

"In a really good summer for our ‘ohana, in one harvest we would be able to do 20 to 25, 5-gallon buckets," says Hanap?p? salt maker, Malia Nobrega-Olivera. "If the elements are working with us, sometimes we would do 4 to 5 harvests. So you know that would be a very productive year."

Credit Kuuwehi Hiraishi
Malia Nobrega-Olivera shows us an old picture of a salt mound or pu?u pa?akai that was once the norm in Hanap?p?. Her grandparents can be seen beside the pu?u pa?akai.

Malia Nobrega-Olivera is a third-generation practitioner of the traditional Hawaiian art of salt making also known as hana pa?akai. 

Credit Kuuwehi Hiraishi
Aerial view of Hanap?p? salt ponds where the tradition of salt making is perpetuated by 22 families.

Her family is one of 22 who continue this Hanap?p? tradition. There are three main steps to the hana pa?akai process.

"Every ?ohana has a puna, which is the main well," says Nobrega-Olivera.

Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi
A typical Hanap?p? salt maker's set-up. The puna is the main well of sea water without a fortified wall. The wai k? or secondary well is right above it with a fortified wall. The lo?i or drying beds are the clay beds with the salty slush evaporating under the sun.

Underground sea water seeps up through the bottom of the puna and is transferred to a secondary well or wai ku. Once salt crystals begin to form, the brine is transferred to a drying bed or lo?i.

"And in the lo?i is where you will see the salt crystals actually appearing. That’s where that magic is happening," says Nobrega-Olivera.

For the last five summers, however, Nobrega-Olivera’s family has not seen any magic - not a single harvest.

Credit Juan Hernandez
Malia Nobrega-Olivera's family's salt beds are almost entirely submerged in sea water. Tops of the lo?i can be seen.

"As we can see in front of us a total flooding of this area," says Nobrega-Olivera, "I didn’t see this when I was younger. Maybe during the winter season. This whole place would be flooded."

We found Leila Fu bailing salt water that ruptured through the bottom of one of her salt beds.

"I just bailed it the other day, and I’m bailing it again," says Fu.

Fu has been working her family’s salt beds for 20 years now, and she says in recent years, harvests have not been good.

Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi
Malia Nobrega-Olivera points out her flooded salt beds to the right as well as the evaporated salt from the sea water that came over the sand dunes during high tides (to the left).

"Weather. Lots to do with the weather. These guys got affected up there. King Tides. When we had two in a row, that didn’t help them at all. But a lot has to do with the weather," says Fu, "Rain two years ago, really bad. Barely could even get in here. So once this place floods out, it’s pretty much done."

Credit Ku?uwehi Hiraishi
A newly-prepared clay salt bed.

Hanap?p? salt is harvested from clay salt beds. Raising the level of these beds and fortifying the walls of the well to prevent flooding are just some of the things Nobrega-Olivera is doing to adapt to rising sea levels and erratic weather patterns.

"It’s been interesting to have conversation with scientist who will say, ?Why don’t you just move your practice to another place? There must be another place on Kaua?i that can do this,?" says Nobrega-Olivera.

Nobrega-Olivera’s response is an adamant no.

"We know that a lot of our cultural practices are very place-based and particular to this ‘?ina. There are certain elements that make this place special to allow this production," says Nobrega-Olivera, "And you don’t see that anywhere else."

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at khiraishi@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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