Proposal For a Cultural Take of Honu (Green Sea Turtle, Chelonia mydas) for the benefit of

Proposal For a Cultural Take of Honu (Green Sea Turtle, Chelonia mydas) for the benefit of

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Why this petition matters

Proposal For a Cultural Take of Honu (Green Sea Turtle, Chelonia mydas) for the benefit of Native Hawaiian communities in the Main Hawaiian Islands

Proposed by the Native Hawaiian Gathering Rights Association

Introduction and Background 

The Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas), or Honu, are native to Hawaii and the most common reptile in Hawaiian waters.  The honu has played an important part of Native Hawaiian culture providing a strong cultural connection between humans, the land, and the ocean.  Different legends tell of the creation of the honu and it is mentioned in the Kumulipo (Hawaiian creation chant).  

Hawaii’s Honu have been an important part of Hawaiian culture for hundreds of years. Honu were utilized in traditional ceremonies and some families considered them ʻAumakua (family spirits or spiritual guardians). The honu, while cared for and revered as an ʻAumakua by some families, were also a source of meat, used for ornaments for native practices or religious ceremonies, as a medicine in healing burns and other maladies, and as containers, fish hooks, tools and weapons.  Honu would be captured from the ocean, raised in fishponds, or tied up in rivers.  Harvest, as was abundance, by the Native Hawaiians was widespread in Hawaii prior to Western contact.

In the 1800’s, large commercial and subsistence harvest was started by visiting ships from Europe, North America, and Asia and by the turn of the century were featured in markets and restaurants.  A commercial turtle fishery with permits from the Territory/State of Hawaii was monitored from 1946 to 1974.  During that period, a small-scale artisanal fishery harvested 2,431 turtles with landings concentrated in the nearshore and Maui Nui (Molokai-Maui-Lanai-Kahoolawe) area (Van Houten and Kittinger 2014).  In 1974 honu were designated as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the fishery was subsequently prohibited. 

In an attempt to continue the cultural tradition of honu harvest for food and cultural practice, Native Hawaiians asked to continue taking honu in the 1980s, likening it to the Pacific Island trust territories that continue to harvest unabated.  However, NMFS noted that the trust territories presented information substantiating the need for a subsistence take and that take would not prevent the green sea turtle population from recovering and that the State of Hawaii did not submit anything similar.  In addition, NMFS predicated any potential take on demonstrating historical dependence on sea turtles and that take would not disadvantage affected sea turtle populations.

The State of Hawaii, however, through Governor George R. Ariyoshi, did submit comments to NOAA and USFWS strongly endorsing allowing subsistence fishing in areas of traditional sea turtle fisheries.  The state had already been actively managing the turtle resource that allowed limited and controlled non-commercial harvest for traditional subsistence use and required the collection of harvest data through a permit system.   

With the community having witnessed and increase in the number of honu, especially in areas where honu normally did not feed such as in rivers, organizations looked at a way to once again take honu for cultural purposes.  In 2012, the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to classify the honu as a discrete population segment and delist the population from ESA.  The result of the petition was that NMFS classified the Hawaiian honu population as a discrete population segment, however, its ESA status remains “threatened” due to concerns regarding climate change impacts on their nesting sites in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Proposal Purpose and Goals

The loss of this cultural and traditional practice due to listing Honu as a threatened species has affected our culture and traditions through:

Relying on importing outside resources for food;
Loss of traditional, cultural, and spiritual connections;
Contention between new members of our communities over our culture; and
Overpopulation of honu in some areas of the islands.

The belief that honu were not a part of the traditional Native Hawaiian diet and thus not required for subsistence is a fallacy generated by a non-Hawaiian documenting Hawaiian customs on available literature.  The context of honu harvest was taken out of place and thus the ideas that honu were for the Aliʻi (chiefs) only continue to be perpetrated.  While certain turtles might have been reserved for the aliʻi, commoners were also allowed to harvest and consume turtles and were a basic source of protein for many families.  A direct reliance on a single animal for subsistence would have been folly and to justify that a potential cultural take based on this idea is tantamount to requiring Americans to only eat at McDonald’s.

After western contact, the Native Hawaiian population experienced a 90 percent decrease in population due to the introduction of diseases such as tuberculosis and measles.  The loss of people, connection to the land and ocean, and their sovereignty resulted in Native Hawaiians' health declining as well.  Today, Native Hawaiians have the shortest life expectancy and have higher mortality rates than the rest of the Hawaii population due to heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes.  These health disparities are linked to socioeconomic factors which require more time spent working to pay bills rather than to harvest from the land and sea resulting in cheaper processed foods being consumed. 

The listed health benefits of honu, according to the Health Benefit Times, includes immunity support, bone health, skin health, eye health, repairs cells, Regulates temperature, carries oxygen, gum health, and other facts.  A request to return to traditional and cultural practices would provide health equity for Native Hawaiians as well as the entire people of Hawaiʻi.  President Joe Biden, in 2021, issued Executive Orders 14008 and 14031 to advance equity for underserved communities (14008) and equity for Native Hawaiians in particular (14031).  The Native Hawaiian continues to face barriers to equity and justice regarding being able to practice its traditions and culture, including regulations against the take of honu.

The purpose of this proposal is to request a cultural take of the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas) or honu, and provide a Native Hawaiian-based mechanism for management of this take.  Our proposal is to request a legal take of the honu to:

Return the traditional and familial practice of honu harvesting to ensure the survivability of the Native Hawaiian culture;
Maintain the education on historical/traditional practices and stories of harvesting turtle for all residents of Hawaiʻi;
Provide for a healthy subsistence lifestyle for Native Hawaiians in Hawaiʻi; and
Allow for the Native Hawaiian culture to exist and thrive without the threat of loss due to federal regulations 

Allowing the take would provide relief to the aforementioned impacts and:

Return the traditional and familial practice of honu harvesting;
Restore cultural and traditional practices to families and communities in Hawaiʻi; and
Educate the generations who have lost the understanding of honu harvesting. 

We, NHGRA, affirm that honu are a precious resource to Hawaiʻi and that the cultural practice of harvesting was an important tradition to many families. Before the honu was listed as endangered some Native Hawaiian and Local families in Hawai’i used honu as a resource and managed it to feed their families and communities.  

Cultural Take Process 

 Due to the nature of the honu still being listed under the ESA as a threatened species (along with other issues including international and state prohibitions), the ability to get a cultural take is a long process and consists of many steps.  Before we can get a take, there needs to be a mechanism to allow the take.  This can be provided by the National Marine Fisheries Service, but we must first ask them to develop that mechanism.  Once that mechanism is approved and in place, we can then work on a harvesting program that does not affect the overall population.

 The NHGRA is working with the appropriate agencies to determine the exact process.  In the meantime, NHGRA is collecting information on cultural honu use and dependence as well as potential interest for a cultural take from the community.  This will help inform any needed petition in the process as well as a future management program.

Potential Honu Management Framework

When a cultural take is allowed, a proposal will be needed to determine how a cultural take is managed and monitored.  The NHGRA proposes a Honu Community Harvesting Program (HCHP) that would include, but is not limited to:

Harvest of honu for subsistence consumption;
Monitoring and management through data collection, permits, and tagging;
Specific, community-based management restrictions on gears, temporal and spatial harvesting, size limits, etc.;
Culturally-informed, science-based harvest take limits; and
Documentation and education for sustainable, pono practices

The NHGRA will work with the communities across the state to determine the details regarding the HCHP.  For the HCHP to be successful, it will need to have community support and inclusion of the community in the development of plan details is essential.  The community will discuss and propose the best methods for harvest, disposition, and documentation.

 Traditionally, a variety of gears and methods were used to harvest honu but not all of that knowledge of how to use certain gears still exists within today’s generation.  Modern materials have also replaced traditional gears, especially in light of the absence of some of the previously common plants used in making those gears.  It is important that the activities are not limited to strictly traditional gears and methods as cultures have and do evolve over time and given the opportunity, so should honu harvest.  

The NHGRA will hold meetings (virtual if needed) to Nānā I ke Kumu, or look to the past/source in order to inform the HCHP.  How honu harvest was traditionally done will help to inform how it should be done in the HCHP and considerations by the community on what is and is no longer appropriate will be made, such as the disposition of shells, location of harvest, etc.  These meetings will provide the basis for the HCHP which will be provided for public comment prior to implementation.

How You Can Support This Effort

The NHGRA is taking the lead on this proposal but we welcome all those that are interested in participating and supporting these efforts.  You can provide support in the following ways:

Attending NHGRA meetings and providing your opinions and concerns;
Filling out our survey on the cultural take of honu  
( );

Providing letters of support to the NHGRA in support of a cultural take;
Signing-on with us in our efforts and collaborating on making the request for a take;
Letting people know about our efforts and asking them to provide feedback.

This proposal is for the community, not just the NHGRA, so we would appreciate the support and feedback from the community in this endeavor.  If you have any questions or would like to know more, please contact us at:


President of Association: Godfrey Akaka 808-213-1013


88 have signed. Let’s get to 100!