Drone Technology Enhances Restoration and Resilience of Hawaiian Fishponds

Innovative research from the University of Hawai‘i is leveraging drone technology to restore and preserve native Hawaiian fishponds, providing crucial insights into combating the impacts of climate change on these cultural heritage sites.

Scientists and fishpond stewards in Hawai‘i have discovered a groundbreaking use for drone technology, providing new hope for the restoration and resilience of traditional Native Hawaiian fishponds, known as loko iʻa. These efforts, led by researchers from the University of Hawai‘i (UH), were recently published in the Journal of Remote Sensing and offer promising advancements for coastal and cultural heritage management.

“We discovered that drones are effective and cost-efficient tools for mapping loko i‘a at the community level, providing kia‘i loko i‘a with better insights into the timing and locations of flooding and future sea level rise impacts on their fishponds,” Kainalu Steward, the study’s lead author and a doctoral student at UH Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST), said in a news release.

Loko iʻa have historically been vital sources of sustainable seafood for Native Hawaiian communities. However, these culturally significant sites are increasingly threatened by climate change impacts, notably sea level rise. The latest research presents a new strategy using uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) to monitor and mitigate these threats.

Assessing Future Sea Levels With ‘King Tides’

The study focused on understanding how future sea levels could affect loko iʻa by examining extreme tidal events, known as “king tides.” Kainalu Steward and Brianna Ninomoto, a master’s student at UH Hilo, orchestrated fieldwork during the summer of 2023, capturing real-time drone imagery and utilizing water level sensors during these extreme tides.

Their surveys indicated that by 2060, average sea levels along the Keaukaha coastline in Hilo might resemble the high tides experienced during the summer of 2023. By comparing flooding predictions from drone-derived topography models with more traditional Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) models, the researchers found that drone surveys were significantly more accurate, though traditional LiDAR data provided a more conservative estimate.

Supporting Community and Scientific Growth

The research gained support from NASA’s Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP), highlighting a focus on aiding underrepresented communities and fostering academic growth.

“One of the goals of this project is to increase the capacity of Native Hawaiian students in assessing and evaluating impacts of sea level rise upon cultural resource sites,” Haunani Kane, an SOEST assistant professor and co-author of the study, said in the news release.

“This project supports five undergraduate students and three local Native Hawaiian students as they work towards obtaining their Master’s and Doctorate degrees in science at the University of Hawai‘i,” she added.

Engaging the Community

In addition to the scientific research, the project emphasizes community engagement through storytelling and outreach. John Burns, UH Hilo associate professor and MEGA Lab director, has spearheaded initiatives such as using virtual reality and short films to communicate climate change impacts at the Mokupāpapa Discovery Center in Downtown Hilo.

The research team plans to continue collaborating with the key fishpond stewards in Keaukaha, ensuring the provision of updated aerial imagery to support ongoing restoration efforts.

“Loko i‘a are examples of how our kūpuna have adapted to changes in climate for generations, and we want to contribute towards their resilience and perpetuation by integrating modern technology,” Steward explained.

As the effects of climate change become more pronounced, the integration of cutting-edge technology with traditional practices offers a beacon of hope for preserving essential cultural and natural resources in Hawai‘i.