In the late 1970s, Hala Pa-Kala often gathered limu with her father on the south shore of Molokaʻi. A variety of limu – huluhulu waena, ʻeleʻele, manauea – grew abundantly in the shallow waters near Pa-Kala’s home in the Hawaiian Homestead community of Kamiloloa-One Aliʻi.

“My dad would say, ʻwe going mix fish – go get limu,’” recalled Pa-Kala. “He would just stand on the shoreline and kind of point me in right direction. And when I was where he wanted to me to be, he would tell me ʻlook down’ and there it was! Iʻd take what we needed and bring it in.

“I never thought that there would be a day when I would walk out there and find nothing but silt and gorilla ogo.”

The loss of native varieties of limu, overwhelmed by aggressive invasive species such as gorilla ogo, is not a problem unique to Molokaʻi. However, the Hānai Ā Ulu Native Crops Project, a grassroots initiative by Ahupuaʻa o Molokaʻi (AoM), seeks to address the problem of disappearing native limu – and much more.

Formed in the early 1990s, AoM is a nonprofit that aims to unify Molokaʻi’s Hawaiian Homestead associations. The focus of its Hānai Ā Ulu project is to get as many Native Hawaiian homesteaders as possible to farm – both land and sea crops – and to provide a range of continued, direct, and sustained support to homesteaders participating in the project, based on their individual skill levels and interests.

Pa-Kala, a cultural practitioner, is president of the Kamiloloa-One Aliʻi Homestead Association and a passionate advocate for food security and sustainability. “Basically, we are trying to make our homesteaders a little more subsistent and sustainable and strengthen our community by producing foods and goods for ourselves.”

Within the Hānai Ā Ulu project, there are multiple tracks, including education and training, seed saving, creating nurseries for land and sea plants, growing small plot gardens, and marketing for those who want to pursue a business.

The project started about three years ago, initially with funds from a Department of Hawaiian Home Lands’ Peer to Peer grant, and has continued with the help of a two-year grant from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. Hānai Ā Ulu Native Crops has already established seven gardens and a limu nursery.

Participants are provided with everything they need to start a garden – from training and seeds to supplies and support. They can choose from four different types of garden, depending on their location and interests. In addition to basic meaʻai gardens (kalo, ʻuala, kō and other vegetables), participants can cultivate lāʻau lapaʻau (medicinal) gardens and grow plants like ʻōlena, tī, popolo and noni, or loea hana ʻike (crafters) gardens and grow things like hau, hala and flowering plants for lei.

Homesteaders who reside on the seaside, like Pa-Kala, can also choose to cultivate a shoreline protective garden with plants that help hold the soil and the sand such as pāʻū o Hiʻiaka, hinahina, pōhuehue and naupaka.

Establishing a limu nursery, however, has been one of the project’s most interesting achievements.

The goal is to grow native limu in shoreline tanks and then out-plant the limu back into the ocean. It is not a new idea. Limu nurseries been already been proven successful and there are others on the island – but this is the first one on Molokaʻi with an educational component.

To plan for Hānai Ā Ulu’s inaugural limu nursery, Pa-Kala tapped experts like Limu Hui Coordinator Wally Ito of Kuaʻāina Ulu ʻAuamo, Steve Chaikin of Molokaʻi Sea Farms, ʻĀina Momona’s Kahekili Pa-Kala, and Kalaniua Ritte whose ʻohana has tended Keawanui loko iʻa (fishpond) for more than two decades.

She eventually decided to establish their first limu nursery at Keawanui.

“I chose Keawanui because their fishpond actually has freshwater springs,” explained Pa-Kala. “Fresh water is important for all limu, so accessibility of fresh water year-round was important. During the rainy season we see a lot of limu growth, but during the summertime, when the freshwater feed from the land dissipates, so does the limu.”

Some 45 people are are involved in the gardening program representing about 15 families, while more than 60 are involved in the limu nursery program due, in part, to an innovative collaboration with OLA (ʻOhana Learning Alliance) Molokaʻi co-founder Kilia Purdy-Avelino.

Ten years ago Purdy-Avelino, a resident of Hoʻolehua Hawaiian Homestead, decided to leave the public school system where she worked as a Hawaiian language immersion teacher to homeschool her own keiki.

“I realized I was spending too much time in school – not just me, but even my kids,” said Purdy-Avelino. “There wasn’t enough time for their extra-curricular activities and the chores and homestead kuleana that we were raised with and that grounded us and taught us values. I wanted that for my kids too. That’s really what drove my husband and I to homeschool.”

OLA Molokaʻi, an educational co-op, was formed when Purdy-Avelino and other homeschooling parents banded together to share kuleana for teaching their keiki. OLA leverages the ʻike of the parents involved, as well as the ʻike of experts in various fields within their community.

As lead volunteer coordinator, Purdy-Avelino actively seeks opportunities to enrich the children’s educations through existing programs – so involving OLA haumāna in the limu nursery project, which merges ʻike Hawaiʻi with Western science, made perfect sense.

“We are using this project as a catalyst to teach the kids science through their own culture,” explained Purdy-Avelino. “Limu is what our fish eat – and some fish only eat certain kids of limu. So if there isn’t any of that limu, you’re not going to have those fish. Hala and I want to help our kids make those observations and have those realizations. It’s not just about growing limu – it’s also about how limu affects the whole.”

Adds Pa-Kala, “We are trying to educate our youth about what limu is – the importance of it – not just as a food source, not just as a medicine, not just as a cultural practice. The majority of the earth’s surface is covered by water and 90% of the oxygen we breathe is produced by the algae that lives in our oceans. Limu is algae.”

The limu nursery at Keawanui currently consists of three 350-gallon tanks that utilize solar-powered pumps. The tanks are used to propagate and grow the limu – currently, limu ʻeleʻele.

“We are attempting to mimic the natural environment within our tanks,” said Pa-Kala. “We have the kids learning to do water quality testing using both manual and digital devices provided by The Molokaʻi Digital Bus. They are learning about things like salinity and turbidity and both the Hawaiian and Latin names of the limu.

“And most importantly, we are teaching them about kilo (observation). Science revolves around observation – watching for changes and then trying to figure out what caused those changes to occur.”

“We are intentional with our programs,” said Purdy-Avelino. “We can start to connect the dots for them between cultural knowledge and science. Hala and I are not scientists, but we know people who are, and who can share their resources.”

In addition to monitoring, tending, and observing the growth of the limu in the nursery, the haumāna are actively engaged in efforts to remove the invasive gorilla ogo from Molokaʻi’s southern shoreline. The gorilla ogo is then recycled as a natural fertilizer for the project’s native crop gardens.

The project is currently in the process of setting up a second limu nursery – this one to cultivate limu manauea (ogo). They just need to identify the best location for the nursery – ideally, a location where manauea was once plentiful.

“Our thought was to set up several nurseries along the coast and grow limu that is, or was, present in those particular areas,” Pa-Kala explained. “I wouldn’t want to take limu from a nursery located miles away and put it in the ocean in front of where I live because the environment is very different.”

Pa-Kala notes that many varieties of limu are diminishing in Molokaʻi’s coastal areas, so the more nurseries they can establish, the better it will ultimately be for their shoreline. The plan is to not just clear out as much invasive limu as possible, but to out-plant the native limu they grow in the nursery into habitats where they will naturally thrive and become reestablished.

“We will probably never get rid of all the invasives, but hopefully we can manage it. It will take a community effort, but we want to be able to show people that it can be done, and then take that example, reproduce it, and have a sustainable system across our southern shoreline. When we can manage those invasives and find places to out-plant our natives, we can also bring back our native fish,” said Pa-Kala.

Both Pa-Kala and Purdy-Avelino agree that education and food security are the project’s most important objectives, particularly in light of food shortages brought on by the pandemic. Producing food to earn an income is a good thing, but it’s a longer-term goal.

“If we can get to the point where we can sustain ourselves and our communities, and get our environment thriving again with limu, then great. But that’s really not our first thought. First and foremost its education and food security – and embedded in everything is the culture,” reflected Purdy-Avelino.

“The ability to produce food and take care of your community – that is wealth,” noted Pa-Kala. “If all else fails, you will still be able to eat, and you’ll be able to live. You can have all the money in the world, but if the system shuts down again, what can you do with that money?”

Driven by their long-term vision of sustainability for Molokaʻi, they are applying for additional grants to continue their work, primarily to purchase the supplies they need to continue establishing land gardens and limu nurseries, as well as things like digital readers and water testing kits for the haumāna. They are also partnering with Molokaʻi GO Limu Hui to get more people involved in the removal of invasive limu species.

“We plan to keep moving forward – with or without money we’re going to do it – because it’s important for the future of our island,” said Pa-Kala.

E ola Molokaʻi!