Traditional Hawaiian Salt Makers Combat Climate Change

Jul 17, 2017

Hanapēpē Salt Ponds on Kauaʻi.
Credit Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi

A community of traditional salt makers on Kauaʻi is navigating the impacts of climate change on the generations-old practice. HPR’s Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi reports.

Summer time means salt making in Hanapēpē on Kauaʻi’s west coast.

Hanapēpē's clay salt beds and salt shelf help produce high-quality sea salt.
Credit Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi

"In a really good summer for our ‘ohana, in one harvest we would be able to do 20 to 25, 5-gallon buckets," says Hanapēpē salt maker, Malia Nobrega-Olivera. "If the elements are working with us, sometimes we would do 4 to 5 harvests. So you know that would be a very productive year."

Malia Nobrega-Olivera shows us an old picture of a salt mound or puʻu paʻakai that was once the norm in Hanapēpē. Her grandparents can be seen beside the puʻu paʻakai.
Credit Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi

Malia Nobrega-Olivera is a third-generation practitioner of the traditional Hawaiian art of salt making also known as hana paʻakai. 

Aerial view of Hanapēpē salt ponds where the tradition of salt making is perpetuated by 22 families.
Credit Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi

Her family is one of 22 who continue this Hanapēpē tradition. There are three main steps to the hana paʻakai process.

"Every ʻohana has a puna, which is the main well," says Nobrega-Olivera.

A typical Hanapēpē salt maker's set-up. The puna is the main well of sea water without a fortified wall. The wai kū or secondary well is right above it with a fortified wall. The loʻi or drying beds are the clay beds with the salty slush evaporating under the sun.
Credit Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi

Underground sea water seeps up through the bottom of the puna and is transferred to a secondary well or wai ku. Once salt crystals begin to form, the brine is transferred to a drying bed or loʻi.

"And in the loʻi is where you will see the salt crystals actually appearing. That’s where that magic is happening," says Nobrega-Olivera.

For the last five summers, however, Nobrega-Olivera’s family has not seen any magic - not a single harvest.

Malia Nobrega-Olivera's family's salt beds are almost entirely submerged in sea water. Tops of the loʻi can be seen.
Credit Juan Hernandez

"As we can see in front of us a total flooding of this area," says Nobrega-Olivera, "I didn’t see this when I was younger. Maybe during the winter season. This whole place would be flooded."

We found Leila Fu bailing salt water that ruptured through the bottom of one of her salt beds.

"I just bailed it the other day, and I’m bailing it again," says Fu.

Fu has been working her family’s salt beds for 20 years now, and she says in recent years, harvests have not been good.

Malia Nobrega-Olivera points out her flooded salt beds to the right as well as the evaporated salt from the sea water that came over the sand dunes during high tides (to the left).
Credit Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi

"Weather. Lots to do with the weather. These guys got affected up there. King Tides. When we had two in a row, that didn’t help them at all. But a lot has to do with the weather," says Fu, "Rain two years ago, really bad. Barely could even get in here. So once this place floods out, it’s pretty much done."

A newly-prepared clay salt bed.
Credit Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi

Hanapēpē salt is harvested from clay salt beds. Raising the level of these beds and fortifying the walls of the well to prevent flooding are just some of the things Nobrega-Olivera is doing to adapt to rising sea levels and erratic weather patterns.

"It’s been interesting to have conversation with scientist who will say, ʻWhy don’t you just move your practice to another place? There must be another place on Kauaʻi that can do this,ʻ" says Nobrega-Olivera.

Nobrega-Olivera’s response is an adamant no.

"We know that a lot of our cultural practices are very place-based and particular to this ‘āina. There are certain elements that make this place special to allow this production," says Nobrega-Olivera, "And you don’t see that anywhere else."