Cultivating the Unseen: Paʻakai and the Role of Practice in Coastal Care

Keywords: Conservation, Coasts, Coastal care, Sea salt, Cultural practice, Indigenous ecology


This piece centers itself in paʻakai (seasalt) practices as providing a critical lens for an ethnoecology of the rural Puna coastline on the island of Hawaiʻi. Grounded by ethnographic engagement with ʻŌiwi (Native Hawaiian) tradition, interweaving moʻolelo (stories) from kūpuna (ancestors, elders) alongside contemporary praxis in Puna, Hawaiʻi Island, we explore the role of paʻakai gathering, limu (seaweed) provisioning, and offshore spring water collection in what we are calling coastal care—the reciprocal relationship of care between communities and coasts. Hawaiian cultural practices around paʻakai are a striking home for biocultural linkages including practitioners’ understandings of human and other-than-human wellbeing that exemplify the diversity of cultural dimensions tangibly present in coastal places. Highlighting the plurality of roles culture plays in the sustainable stewardship and wellbeing of coastal places and communities, this work contributes to ongoing discourses around the role of human dimensions in coastal conservation and management. Here we use water, pa‘akai, and limu to make visible what we call the “unseen realm” within contemporary conservation—the persistent blind spots around Indigenous and local culture(s) within conservation policy, planning, and enactment. Encouraging conservation and island sustainability scientists and practitioners to better engage with their blind spots, we identify the need for collaborative coastal management inclusive of ʻŌiwi practices and understandings of coastal care with implications for coastal studies in Hawai‘i and in other Indigenous contexts across Oceania.

Author Biographies

Gina McGuire, Geography & Environment, University of Hawaiʻi Mānoa, Honolulu, USA.

Gina McGuire is a PhD candidate focused on understanding coastal health and care from paired understandings of Indigenous healing modalities with ecological and geospatial toolkits.

Alexander Mawyer, Pacific Island Studies, University of Hawaiʻi Mānoa, Honolulu, USA.
Alexander Mawyer is Associate Professor and Director of the Center for Pacific Islands Studies, former Editor of The Contemporary Pacific: A Journal of Island Affairs, and co-director of the University of Hawai‘i’s Biocultural Initiative of the Pacific.   


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Mixed media ʻōpaeʻula (brine shrimp) contributed by LOI, a local artist. The artwork depicts a hand-drawn shrimp from a side view, rendered in colors of red, orange, yellow, brown and white.
How to Cite
McGuire, G., & Mawyer, A. (2023). Cultivating the Unseen: Paʻakai and the Role of Practice in Coastal Care. Ethnobiology Letters, 14(2), 22–36.
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