UH Research Team Launches Oceans and Human Health Initiative to Spotlight Under-Researched Connections to the Pacific

The Oceans and Human Health (OHH) Initiative starts with an Indigenous perspective to understand Hawaiʻi island inhabitants’ relationships with the ocean and its effects on human health.

The Office of Public Health Studies, under the Thompson School of Social Work and Public Health at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, launched a strategic initiative in July 2021 on Oceans and Human Health (OHH), with a goal to develop a research agenda that aligns with the Pacific communities who closely rely on the ocean for their well being.

Dr. Catherine Pirkle, an associate professor at the Office of Public Health Studies (OPHS) and Dr. Lorinda Riley, an assistant professor at OPHS within the Native Hawaiian and Indigenous Health Specialization, presented on the topic in December (2022)  as part of the virtual celebration of the new Chin Sik & Hyun Sook Chung Endowed Chair in Public Health Studies.

Much of the existing academic health research that considers our oceans identifies what is going wrong, such as pollution, and the research often lacks the involvement of indigenous people. Surprisingly, there is relatively little Pacific-based research when compared to other regions like the Gulf of Mexico or even the Great Lakes.! The OHH team at UH seeks to take a different approach by exploring and publishing research about the many benefits that people derive from interacting with the ocean and balancing these against the many challenges people are also facing.

The OHH Initiative has already been working directly in the community, conducting group interviews with academics, community-based organizations, government employees, non-profit employees, Indigenous leaders, kūpuna, and students to discuss the reciprocal relationships between people and the ocean.
"As we begin this new initiative, we wanted to ground our work within community, reflect ʻike kūpuna, and ensure that our research agenda acknowledged the priorities of our communities,” said Riley.

Ultimately, their voices will culminate in an official “systems map” that will be a resource for policy-making, advocacy, and other community use.

“We’re moving beyond simply cataloging the long list of stressors and challenges facing our oceans and seeking to map out priority research and action areas by building on the strong Indigenous knowledge-bases of Pacific peoples,” said Pirkle.

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