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The history and future of limu with longtime gatherers

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi
Wally Ito scours the shoreline for limu at Oneʻula Beach in ‘Ewa.

Limu is not just seaweed, it's the foundation of the marine life food chain. It's also a crucial part of Hawaiʻi's future — and its past.

Our partners at the Center for Oral History at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa introduce limu gatherers Wally Ito, Vivian Lehua Ainoa and Alyson Napua Barrows. Ethnic studies professor Ty Kāwika Tengan is our guide.

Wally Kyoshi Ito was born in 1953 in Honolulu and raised in Kapālama. He helped found the Limu Hui in 2014 to have the aging traditional limu practitioners share their knowledge with the next generation. He describes the dramatic decline of limu in ‘Ewa on O’ahu.

ITO: Small kid time, was so much limu in the water, the high tide would bring it up and, as the tide recedes, all this limu be left on the shoreline. And all the way from the mouth of Pearl Harbor, all the way to Barbers Point that’s what the shoreline looked like. And there was so much limu in the water, you didn’t want to go swim in there, you know so thick with limu. Humbug for fishermen cause it would just foul up the line. But, we would catch fish. We would catch o’io, we would catch moi, we would catch papio, once in a while a big ulua. And within a 10-year period, like early '80s to early '90s, the limu in that short 10-year period went from high abundance to almost no limu. It was easy for fishermen you know, no more the humbug your line anymore, but no more fish. So, memories like that made me realize that — how important limu is to the fishery. Limu is the base of the marine food chain. So, you want to bring back our fish, you, we need to bring back the limu.

The Conversation continued the limu discussion live with Ito, the limu hui coordinator at KUA — Kua’āina Ulu ‘Auamo.

Vivian Lehua Ainoa was born in 1937 in ʻUalapuʻe, Molokaʻi and raised in Kamalō. She learned how to find and gather limu along the south shore of the island of Molokaʻi from her mother.

AINOA: I would plan my day, what kind of limu I would gather, you know. Like if I’m go gonna pick up manauea, I would say, “Oh, I’ll just go do it later on” because I know I don’t have to really go look — I knew just where to go get it. But now, because we have so many invasive limu growing in between our other limu, our good limu, now you have to really go and hunt for it. So it’s not as easy as you think it’s gonna be.

INTERVIEWER: So what makes you decide what you’re gonna get on a given day?

AINOA: Season. Now that I have too many invasive limu, I used to have, when certain way the sun is, my limu ʻeleʻele would grow more at my area. Now that when I do things, I’m gonna document it. Because it’s so important to share it with our youngsters that coming up. Because then they know what, what need to be done at certain season.

Alyson Napua Barrows was born in Honolulu in 1955. Raised in Kaimukī, ʻOʻahu, she grew up gathering limu with her mother and sisters in the nearshore waters from ʻĀina Haina to Maunalua. Now living in Waiheʻe, Maui, she is the founder and director of the Waiheʻe Limu Restoration Group.

BARROWS: I started to learn the different names and started to learn the different limu that they had, and then I started to learn the kūpuna stories that they were — they knew that it was decreasing already, way before. Because one of the big issues was the sugar cane ʻōpala was being washed into the ocean, and so it was covering up the reef, the mud and silt and stuff. And so, talking to some of the kūpunas I realized I’ve seen it, but they were seeing it way before I was seeing it. And so that just started snowballing. And I just — questions started coming up, and I was trying to look for answers for these things. And so eventually, I found that one little answer of replanting. Take the pōhaku and with the limu cover we’ll put it back out there. So I realized that the practice wasn’t something new.

This oral history project is supported by the SHARP initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities through the American Council of Learned Societies.

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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