[OPRI Interview Series] Living with the Ocean in Hawaii – Changing Mindsets after the COVID-19 Pandemic

Ms. Aulani Wilhelm
Senior Vice President, Center for Oceans
Conservation International (CI) (
*The interview was held on 30 June 2020

Sunami: Thank you for joining us today from Hawaii. This online interview series was launched to fill the gap in ocean policy dialogues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. We were supposed to receive you at the World Ocean Summit in Tokyo last March, and our office was also supposed to host related meetings. 2020 was supposed to be a “Super Year” for the ocean, but the process has been delayed. Nonetheless, a sustainable ocean remains a priority policy goal. It is also my pleasure to have you as my first interviewee since my appointment as President of The Sasakawa Peace Foundation (SPF), announced last week, while I continue to serve as President of The Ocean Policy Research Institute (OPRI). We count on and look forward to the continuous partnership between our organizations. So once again welcome and thank you for being with us.

Wilhelm: Thank you for inviting me to this interview, and first of all, I would like to extend my heartfelt congratulations to you on your appointment as President of The Sasakawa Peace Foundation. I wish you all the best in your future work. It is very encouraging that the ocean will be a priority for the Foundation.
Thankfully, what you have long known, the world is beginning to recognize how critical it is to have a sustainable ocean if we want to have a sustainable planet. People were not fully aware that climate and the oceans are interlinked and that all living systems of our planet are driven by what happens in the ocean. People talk about climate change, but don’t realize that what we are experiencing on land is the result of the changes that have already happened to the ocean.
As you mentioned, 2020 was supposed to be a “Super Year” for the ocean. Currently, we are not able to meet face-to-face, but that doesn’t mean we have to stop our work. Your initiative in bringing about this interview series is exactly the kind of work we have to carry out to persevere in our commitments.
We have climate change, COVID-19, all overlaid by social injustice. They are all connected as they all relate to equity and access to resources that are indispensable for the healthy existence of both people and nature. I hope that we can address these issues in an integrated way, continue to work on them, and come up with ways in which humans can walk more lightly on the planet so that our children will see a hopeful future come out of this chaotic and disruptive situation. This global pause that we would never have expected is cause for deep reflection. We are only beginning to understand the immediate and severe impacts. Unless we make some serious changes to how we live, we will end up with the same situation, or possibly worse if we go back to the same supply chains of food, health, nature conservation (or lack of it), education, and consumerism. OPRI-SPF has a very important mission to connect peace, humanity and nature, particularly the ocean. This is exactly the area in which leadership needs to emerge. Thank you for the work you do.

Ms. Aulani Wilhelm (Senior Vice President, Conservation International)

Ms. Aulani Wilhelm (Senior Vice President, Conservation International)

< Impact of COVID-19 in Hawaii >

Sunami: Thank you for starting with such encouraging words. We are now making a concentrated effort to search for what we can do for the post-corona world. Before starting on this topic, would you share with us about the current COVID-19 situation in Hawaii? I can imagine, like many tourist destinations around the world, the economy in Hawaii has suffered enormous damage.
Wilhelm: In terms of the pandemic’s impact in Hawaii, there are tremendous impacts not just on health, but on the economy, tourism, dining and recreation. Hawaii has a culture where people take care of each other. That cultural aspect would be one of the factors accounting for the lower and slower spread of the pandemic. As you rightly pointed it out though, the Hawaiian economy depends on tourism, and a quarter of our jobs are directly linked with it. Re-opening to tourism however, if done too quickly or without sufficient health precautions and requirements, could be devastating. A few weeks ago, there was a survey about whether we should remain cautious or should reopen the economy. The results revealed that the vast majority supported the strict pandemic measures. It is probably because many people in Hawaii live in multi-generational families. People in Hawaii care for the elderly and children. Hawaii faced disease from migrants in the past and people know that we have a limited healthcare capacity, so I am proud that we have taken this path, and we have to carefully examine when we can start welcoming tourists again.

[Note: Since the interview the rate of spread of COVID-19 spiked and Hawaii once again imposed stay-at-home measures on the island of Oahu. Hopefully these values of caring for one another will prevail again and with better government leadership and investment in proper tracing and prevention protocols the rate of infection will once again retract.]

Our leadership is now in dialogues with their Japanese counterparts and others to see if we could create “bubbles” or small groups of countries for whom it would be safe to visit Hawaii, as there is confidence in Japan’s precautionary measures, technology, and discipline. We have to care for others and also take precautionary measures to make sure that we will not bring the virus to others. That is a social norm that we need to rebuild. We welcome people who share such a value. We have been given a chance to think about this and get reconnected across the ocean. If we just go back to where we were before, that would be a real tragedy and loss. Through partnerships with people overseas, I hope that we can demonstrate a better and safer tourism alternative that is also more equitable for people and nature. I also hope that we will never return to the way things were that left our economy and people so vulnerable.

New Normal, New Mindset >

Sunami: When I last met you in Hawaii, I understood you had a lot of field projects in progress. How is the work of CI going under these conditions?
Wilhelm: Our office closed soon after that and remains closed. All the staff are working from home now, so we miss each other very much!
However, now we can focus on our data analysis and our publications, which used to be interrupted by travel and fieldwork. We are looking at COVID-19 impacts and tracking trends across different types of fisheries locally and globally to see what we can make sense of. Also, we are doing things that normally take much longer to do, like developing strategies. We are trying to keep them more tactical, more short-term, and developing them more quickly so that we can have foundational documents. When we are ready to open our doors again, we should really be able to jump back into the type of work that requires face to face interactions, and we are ready to reprioritize our work.
But in many ways, because we are not travelling, our hours are longer than they used to be. We are receiving requests to start very early in the morning by colleagues to the east of us (including the mainland USA), and must stay up until very late for colleagues to the west of us. That makes for difficulty in managing home life, because there is no separation between office hours and private life. Work hours seem to last forever. We need personal discipline so as not to disrupt our family lives too much.
Sunami: From Japan, we always have this kind of difficulty in international online events. We have to stay awake until 3am to make a speech.
Wilhelm: That might be okay because our sleep is offset by not having to spend 16 hours in the air (laugh). In these times, we have to rethink if we really have to meet in person, and what are the thresholds for interacting that really make the risk and cost worthwhile, not to mention the carbon impacts. We also have to keep our eyes on how to utilize our scarce resources even more carefully. I think we will have a “new normal” later, though I don’t know how it will be. Increasingly I think more people are beginning to feel this way and we have to stop hoping for things to be like they were before. We have to get out of that mindset and be ready for a different future.
To me, perhaps we can learn from other times in history, like how our lives changed after the horrible tragedy of 9.11 in 2001. After that day, air travel has never been the same. Before 9.11, we likely would never have imagined a world where global travel would require such strict protocols and identification measures. When they went into place, perhaps many of us did not think they would last forever. But nearly 20 years later, the restrictions have only increased. Some of the practices in Japan, like wearing masks, sanitizing, and distancing, are going to become normal everywhere else. That does not mean we are distant as people, as we can still have deep and enduring relationships. But it may mean a cultural shift for many in the interest of health. I do not know what things are going to be like, but we have to be open to the possibility that things will never be like they were before.
During my last international flight prior to COVID I was returning back from Indonesia via Narita, before any lock-downs began. The multiple temperature scanners, walking through disinfectants, and everyone already wearing face masks was surprising to me. Now it is everywhere, but Japan was right on it immediately. That made a very deep impression on me, and I felt quite safe. Japan’s response was swift. We have to learn from your example and maintain that attitude elsewhere.

Changing Economy in Hawaii >

Sunami: Now you are experiencing Hawaii without tourism. Every time I go to Hawaii and Waikiki, there are always new fancy restaurants opening up. That kind of fast-paced change used to be the normal but now it is different. Some people would say it will be great for nature and great for the earth. What are your thoughts on that, and how much change is going on there?
Wilhelm: Thank you for being sensitive to it. It reminds me of when I was a child, when life was slower, beaches were uncrowded, roads were clearer, and people drove with aloha. The kind of mass tourism that we attracted to our islands is gone now. As a result, the pressure is off our communities and our natural resources. We do not see big buses filled with tourists stopping at our most famous places, offloading people at our local beaches. Nor the rapid growth in neighbourhood tourism spurred by Airbnb’s.
One thing social media changed in Hawaii was that people were going to places which before had been really for local people. Lots of our cultural sites became selfie sites. Places that are sacred to us have become places people are determined to explore, climb, and even leave their own marks on, with little regard for their cultural meaning and importance. Once special and sacred places are revealed through social media, everyone wants to do the same thing. Protected places, such as drinking water sources, were being accessed illegally for fun and extreme experiences, for climbing or swimming. This situation and the pause in tourism reminds us how much we had almost given up on. Your observation of fancy restaurants is really interesting because we do not know if it is the chicken or the egg: is it tourists who demanded fancy restaurants, or fancy restaurants who caused people to want these things and therefore visit. Those things have made Hawaii like any other tourism place. What authentic experiences do we want tourists to have: the same kind of fancy restaurants as in Manhattan? Or do we want to share our music, our relationships that are often centered around food and the joy of connecting our culture with everyday life? I am hopeful we can reflect on questions like these and ask ourselves what kind of tourism do we want, that is good for Hawaii and our visitors as we rebuild after COVID instead of continuing on a path of unbridled growth.
Sunami: Thinking about the economy, if tourism continues to stagnate, many people may have to look for alternative employment. I was wondering if there is potential for a shifting of people from the land to the sea.
Wilhelm: We are starting to collect that information, and really trying to understand it. We see more monk seals on the beach, more turtles basking and nesting, which is wonderful. Nature is rebounding in that way.
We also know more people are fishing nearshore. Some people have changed their routines, putting in more time on their boats and doing more fishing for sale not only for their families. Others are fishing from the shore. Doing more reef fishing, spear fishing, pole and line fishing. That is not bad because people need sources of protein for their family. It’s completely understandable. We don’t know if this increase in nearshore pressure will remain and if it does whether the resources will be able to renew themselves over the longer term.
Given that Hawaii has a diversity of communities – urban, suburban and rural, we can learn a lot about various COVID impacts. On Oahu, the situation I just described applies. On other islands however, with less people and more intact nearshore reefs, communities will likely be able to continue fishing and provide their families with even more fish because nature has not yet been overexploited. But where there are islands close together, like Molokai and Oahu, where on one island the population is small and communities are very protective of their resources, if the economic impacts from COVID last for a long time there could be conflict. Overuse of resources on one island drives people go over to another island, which upsets the people living there. I think we have to watch that closely.
We have already seen more demand for local agriculture. In Hawaii, >90% of all food is imported. At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, our supply chain was seriously impacted and food was quickly wiped out in stores so people turned to local farmers and producers. Now people want to know where their food is coming from. At the same time, they want to be able to trust the supply chain. News about COVID impacts to meat packing plants, high costs due to limited supply, and potential contamination concerns have increased consumer reluctance. In this context, demand on local farms has increased substantially because people are changing and wanting to get food directly from farmers, rather than from long-distance supply chains. This is a good thing.
The question is, can we keep those farmers employed over the long run? Or will we return to buying cheaper products imported from California once tourism recovers? I don’t know. That is an open question that I think is really important.
In the longer term, I think COVID impacts to tourism will hit the real estate market. I’m no expert in this areas but it seems to me that there are many businesses and restaurants tailored to the tourist market that will likely be unable to reopen because they will not be able to keep the same profit margins given the sharp decline. It may be cheaper to close then try to rebuild along with tourism. While this is not unexpected, will commercial real estate be able to recover with empty stores, restaurants and offices? How vulnerable will Hawaii be to vulture capitalism? If we see a change of ownership of vast tracts of commercial real estate, will it also change the demographics and culture of our islands in the long term? I’m really concerned about that, not just for Hawaii but every island and coastal community that is dependent on tourism. We have seen that a couple of times already on a smaller scale where the impacts didn’t come right away but we saw it one or two years later. And the impacts continue to leave their mark. What will it look like this time?
In terms of jobs, I do think they are going to shift, in some ways they are already shifting. Diversifying Hawaii’s economy is something that gets talked about a lot but hasn’t been sufficiently invested in or acted upon. Perhaps COVID will prompt us to take this more seriously. We need to create other industries that are appropriate for Hawaii and do not further diminish our natural resources. Carrying capacity and limits are considerations that are not emphasized enough in my opinion.

The Way Forward to Protect the Pacific Ocean >

Sunami: Since the US, Japan and the Pacific island countries share a large part of the Pacific, do you have any idea how we can work together to better manage it?
Wilhelm: I agree with you that the role of Japan in the Pacific is huge in terms of science, the economy, and international policy and it is important that we work together recognizing the global importance of the Pacific to the world. Your Foundation and the Institute bring considerable strengths, expertise, and assets that can help Hawaii and the Pacific through these unprecedented times and beyond. CI’s priorities in the Pacific are consistent with our organizational priority areas: the role of nature in addressing climate change, sustainable landscapes and seascapes and ocean conservation at-scale. For the ocean, we have two primary goals. One is to support the global need to protect at least 30% of world’s oceans as proposed by IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) and currently being discussed at the CBD (Convention on Biological Diversity) by 2030. There is growing scientific evidence that stabilizing oceans contributes to climate resilience and that should be linked to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals and Nationally Determined Commitments to the Paris Agreement. To do our part CI launched a new partnership with Pew Charitable Trust and other core partners called “Blue Nature Alliance,” to establish new or measurably increase the effectiveness of existing marine conservation areas totalling 5% of the ocean or 18,000,000km2, by 2025. We are also focused on supporting the global ambition to ensure 75% of seafood globally is produced using socially responsible and environmentally sustainable methods by 2030. Toward this, CI is working to measurably improve management in at least 20 fisheries and aquaculture areas by 2025. Our work integrates policy, best practice, social responsibility, and supply chain interventions. We would welcome working with you to find ways to best support Pacific island nations and communities fulfill their ambitions and commitments.
Sunami: I also think it is an important topic, especially as the CBD-COP in China has been postponed, and we have lost a chance to have face-to-face international dialogues. As you mentioned, when governments have two agencies working in different directions, I think OPRI, as an NGO, is in a position to coordinate between them. In Japan, we have a fishery law recently amended for the first time in 70 years that needs to be implemented. Moreover, COVID-19 is affecting fisheries in Japan as well. We need a new strategy and there is lots of work to be done. Our friends in the Pacific also need to be engaged. We have common interests on which to work with the Pacific island states. The Nippon Foundation and SPF are supporting the “Our Ocean Conference (OOC)” (, and this conference has to be for all the Pacific. Next year Japan will host the “Pacific Islands Leaders Meeting (PALM)” in Shima City. If the situation allows, I hope you will join us, so we can talk more about the oceans.
Wilhelm: That’s fantastic. I am glad President Remengesau in Palau is still holding OOC this December. I think you are right, the value is not only for Palau but for all of the Pacific.
Sunami: Thank you for today. Please stay safe and keep in touch.

Prof. Atsushi Sunami (President, The Sasakawa Peace Foundation President, The Ocean Policy Research Institute)

Prof. Atsushi Sunami (President, The Sasakawa Peace Foundation President, The Ocean Policy Research Institute)

Aulani Wilhelm
Senior Vice President, Center for Oceans, Conservation International (CI)
Aulani Wilhelm has more than 20 years of experience in natural resource management, primarily ocean conservation. Previously, she served as Director of Ocean Initiatives for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and was a 2014-15 Social innovation Fellow at Stanford University. She founded Island Water, a social venture to provide clean water and reduce plastic pollution on islands, and Big Ocean, a global network of marine protected areas spanning 10.5 million km2 of ocean. She is Chair of the IUCN-WCPA Large-Scale Marine Protected Area Task Force; and served as an advisor to UNESCO’s Marine World Heritage Programme. She holds an MS from Stanford University and a BA from the University of Southern California.

(Harumi Ishijima, OPRI)

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