Stories the Ocean Holds

Ridge hiking with ocean views (credit: Caroline Merner)

When walking by the shore, picking up seashells is only natural. In Hawaii, I collected ocean treasures by the beach. Yet, it was my “Kuleana“, a Hawaiian word to describe one’s shared responsibility, to place them back. What I brought home as souvenirs from Hawaii were stories from some of the best storytellers I’ve ever met. These stories about our collective kuleana are ones I’ll always treasure.

Coming back to Halifax, on the Atlantic Ocean, I’ve shared favourite anecdotes from the IUCN Congress in Hawaii, a Pacific Ocean waves away.

Waves of inspiration were felt between countries at the Congress. Inspired by each other’s stories, a sense of kuleana rippled out into our own communities. While working on common goals for the Hawaii Commitments, words of wisdom came from around the globe.

DSC02570-2 (1).jpgWord of mouth storytelling is a big part of the native Hawaiian culture. Back at the Pre-Congress on Big Island, we met Kainana (on the far left) at the Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry.


Kainana first introduced the notion of shared kuleana in her community in Hilo. On Big Island, the floral leis and grasses were host of an invasive species. As a symbol of colonialism, the introduced species would propagate through the island. Control by fire would resolve the spread. Kainana and other community members in her hula group shared the kuleana to start a new sacred fire ritual. Both culturally and scientifically, ‘Embracing the sacred’ is about connecting people to their roots (read more from the Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry).

Us three Youth Ambassadors heard another story of kuleana, on the Hawaiian canoe named Hikianalia. We met members of the Polynesian Voyaging Society on the canoe that has crossed the world by ocean. On a boat, a crew shares responsibility through collaboration and compromise. From as small scale as a vessel, these ideals of international cooperation and marine protection can be reflected around the world.

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No matter the language of the story, the notion of kuleana is universal for island states. Islands are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. To combat its effect, island states call on the collective global citizenship of all nations. This is why Hawaii was a fitting host nation of the World Conservation Congress.

In the introductory plenary, the President Tommy Remengesau of the island nation of Palau comidically challenged President Obama. He called to the American President’s kuleana to “join the big leagues” and also protect 80% of their ocean waters. This resonated with High Chief Miko Toofa Pouira-Krainer` from Tahiti.  When meeting him, he shared his mission to represent the Polynesian Islands respect for the land and sea.

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Along with plenary speeches and workshops, storytelling happened through conservation. With the local Kakoo Oiwi non-profit organization, Congress attendees and I worked on our kuleana to the Hawaiian marsh ecosystem. During the Heeia Wetland restoration project, the wisdom of ‘E Alu Pu’ (moving forward together) was put into practice. We pulled invasive grasses from the traditional ‘loʻi’ taro fields.

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From the IUCN Congress in Hawaii, I took home the notion of kuleana. I also discovered that some of the best stories are experienced, not only heard!

– Caroline

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