Sustainability Summit explores ecological issues on Big Island

  • Bonnie Irwin

  • Mitch Roth

Hawaii County officials and private experts weighed in Thursday about how the county can improve the island’s ecological future.

The discussion was part of two-day Sustainability Summit hosted by the Office of the Mayor. The event covers a range of topics from climate change to waste management to food security and more.

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Mayor Mitch Roth described the summit in a statement as a way to explore “how Hawaii can become more self-sustainable, and provide opportunities for residents to think globally, and act locally to reduce climate change.”

Among the keynote speakers and panelists are University of Hawaii Chancellor Bonnie Irwin and County Councilwomen Sue Lee Loy and Heather Kimball.

Ross Birch, executive director of the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau, was a panelist during a session Thursday about sustainable tourism.

Birch said the bureau and Hawaii Tourism Authority have worked extensively, particularly during the lull in tourism caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, to change marketing messaging for the island to encourage a more conscientious class of visitor, such as the Pono Pledge campaign in 2018.

“Eventually, we want visitors to come here with intentionality,” Birch said, explaining that visitors should be aware of the environmental impacts of their visit from the beginning of their trip.

Cynthia Punihaole Kennedy, director of the Kahalu‘u Bay Education Center, said the absence of tourists has led to a resurgence in natural vibrancy around Kahalu‘u Bay — fish have returned, corals are thriving and limu are bountiful, she said.

Kennedy added that the center has considered some pilot programs during the pandemic that could serve as models to reduce visitor impacts on the environment, including implementing “rest days” at popular snorkeling sites to mitigate the impact to corals and local water-life, or a “snorkel trail” that takes snorkelers on a guided tour through a reef without damaging the site.

Meanwhile, Sanjiv Hulugelle, general manager of the Mauna Lani resort, said several hotels and resorts have started policies such as eliminating disposable plastics or switching to LED lights.

The summit will continue from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. today, covering topics such as sustainable agriculture, transportation, affordable housing and more.

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Members of the public can register to view any of the panels or keynote speakers via Zoom at hawaiicounty.gov/our-county/sustainability-summit-2021, or on Na Leo TV.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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