Commentary in Response to Syd Singer Mangrove Lawsuit

Commentary by Larry O’Brien from

Ours is not “a time of rapid evolution,” as claimed by Syd Singer in his misguided commentary recently posted at It is the opposite — a time of extinction and the passing of great things.

It saddens and shocks me that anyone who lives on these islands can dismiss extinction so lightly. You will never see or hear an ‘o’u, a a koa finch, a mamo, a nukupu’u, an ‘akialoa, a Kona grosbeak. You may see an ‘alala — there are some left in captivity. You might have seen a po’ouli but the last one died in captivity in 2004.

Kona Grospeak

I don’t know if it’s misguided hope or willful blindness that can claim that, because preserving nature is a struggle, we ought not “weed for the past.” Wouldn’t you have liked to go for a walk and caught a glimpse of some of these “weeds”.

Singer likes to say that the displacement of native species by non-native species shows that native species are “weak and unhealthy.” That’s nonsense. Any High School biology student (or anyone with the eyes to see our Hawaiian reefs and native forests) knows that islands create species that are specialists — the longnose butterflyfish that can snip away at individual coral polyps, the parrotfish that grind away at more solid corals and excrete the sand that, over thousands of years, become the beaches where the turtles lay their eggs. Just because lauwiliwili don’t expect to be eaten by roi (introduced in 1956), they are “weak and unhealthy”? Because the native birds aren’t immune to avian malaria (brought in the early 1800s) they are unworthy to live anywhere that mosquitos live?

Just as the native species are not “weak and unhealthy,” the ability of a species to invade is not proof of some moral superiority. The coqui frog is controlled in Puerto Rico by populations of specific species of tarantulas, whip scorpions, crabs, and lizards; we don’t have any of those species here. (And if Singer is such a fan of “winner takes all” conservation, does he think we should introduce whip scorpions to see if the coquis are really so wonderful?) One reason we have so many roi is because they can be ciguateric, so no one fishes for them (except for speardivers, who have begun conducting “roi roundups” — which Singer undoubtedly opposes).

It’s true that environmentalists sometimes overemphasize the drabness of invasive species — the mats of invasive algae that clog the once-colorful bays of Oahu, sparrows and pigeons as opposed to honeycreepers. But it’s not a matter of what’s prettiest — who’s to say that a java or saffron finch is not more attractive than an apapane or amakihi? It’s a matter of preservation. Just because there are plenty of sparrows in the world, is it okay if the i’iwi goes away? Just because there are plenty of cockroaches in the world, is it okay if the wekiu bug goes away?

The Hawaiian Islands have been changed by human activity ever since the first voyagers landed here bringing taro, pigs, and chickens. That the slopes above Kohala were covered with sandalwood trees when Kamehameha the Great built Pu’ukohola heiau and allowed cattle to begin roaming. Conservationists don’t deny that and aren’t motivated by a vision of a world that never was. Conservationists look at the world we have and see the passing of great things. I once saw a 1,000-pound bluefin tuna — you never will. I’ve dived on reefs that are gone now. My nieces and nephews have never seen an i’iwi or a blue whale. My 14-year-old nephew who lives in Pennsylvania has never seen the Milky Way. The world becomes a lesser place when uniqueness is lost.

If Hawaii is overgrown with the same vegetation that grows in Florida and the same birds that live in Hong Kong, what unique stories will our grand-children hear from the land? If the coral is gone and the reefs are covered by the same algae that lives in the Mediterranean and, without the reefs, the honu and the mano and the billfish go away, what stories will our grand-children hear from the ocean? If the sky above Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa is painted over with the same glaring lights that blanket the mainland, what will our grand-children learn by looking to the sky? That what came before was “weak and unfit,” nothing but “weeds,” and that you preferred to “surf the wave of change”?

Or are you going to tell them that you once saw great things, and you fought to preserve them?