Aquatics biologist, well-loved teacher, stream champion Skippy Hau retires
For Wailuku resident Skippy Hau — longtime state aquatics biologist, well-loved teacher and stream stewarding champion — the little things are the big things.
Hau over many years studied tiny native stream animals, linking them to larger topics of Maui’s environmental, ecological and cultural health.
Donning his signature blue state Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Aquatic Resources shirt, Hau’s natural habitat was shin-deep in freshwater, teaching schoolchildren why the hīhīwai (endemic freshwater snails), ‘o‘opu (native freshwater gobies) and ‘ōpae (native freshwater shrimp/prawns) matter. After all, it’s not easy to convey nuanced concepts of water diversion, mauka-to-makai connectivity and land management.
“I don’t think people realize the enormous impact Uncle Skippy had not just in his work to protect and steward native species, but the impact he has had in inspiring thousands of Maui’s students over the years,” said Hōkūao Pellegrino, president of Hui o Nā Wai ‘Ehā, a local nonprofit that advocates for the protection of the streams.
Affectionately called “Uncle Skippy,” the 64-year-old scientist retired recently after nearly a half century with DLNR, where he began as an unpaid college intern on Oʻahu in 1976 and ended as the leading aquatic biologist on Maui.
ʻA hero of our timeʻ
Hau is credited with building Maui’s state aquatics operation and is known for his advocacy work with sea turtles and with freshwater stream animals.
Today, the presence of native stream animals in the upper reaches of ‘Iao Stream is called the “Skippy Effect” because the biologist would collect and record creatures in the stream mouth and return them to higher spots, a DLNR statement said. His studies helped the state aquatics division effectively link the health of both freshwater streams and muliwai to the overall health of marine ecosystems and fisheries.
When turtle nests first started appearing around Maui, Hau partnered with nonprofit organizations and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to address nest threats. He and Hannah Bernard, Hawaiʻi Wildlife Fund executive director and co-founder, set up a volunteer watch program to keep an eye out for signs of new turtle nests. To this day, he remains a key advocate for sea turtles within Maui County, DLNR said.
Bernard, who partnered with Hau for 25 years, said he’s contributed to aquatic life like no other person in Hawaiʻi.
“He is a hero of our time,” she said Friday. “He is a living treasure and deserves all the accolades.”
“I’m going to miss him,” Bernard added. “Who can take his place? Those are some big shoes to fill — or should I say Tabis.”
‘Bring the stream to them’
Sitting in ‘Īao Valley, where Hau would often teach kids, the scientist on Thursday showed pictures of the old days, including newspaper clippings of interesting weather events and archives of aquatic life he’s been tracking. Laminated images of limu, sharks, eels, fresh and saltwater fish, snails and turtles are stacked in a folder.
Hau said schoolchildren often couldn’t enter running rivers or streams due to safety issues, so he would hold up plastic bags filled with live creatures in water and offer presentations with the laminated pictures he brought Thursday.
“I would bring the stream to them,” he said.
Pellegrino, who also works at Kamehameha Schools, said he’s collaborated with Hau in an educational setting and he’s seen students create chants, stories, skits and songs from Hauʻs teachings.
After all, the endearing title of “Uncle Skippy” came from kids who would recognize their kumu out and about.
One student, Luke H. K. Tanaka, memorialized Hau and his work in “Hīhīwai Heroes,” an acrylic on canvas.
In the art description, Tanaka explains that the small freshwater snails are heroes because they have to go up the streams in order to grow up.
“Itʻs not easy for them because they are little and they have to go far and sometimes thereʻs no water in the stream,” he wrote. “Thatʻs when Uncle Skippy goes and helps them and puts them in a bucket with water and takes them up into the valley. Uncle Skippy is a hīhīwai hero too.”
When asked what he hopes will stick with students, Hau said he never intended for them to become biologists.
“Like any teacher, you want them to get excited about learning things and not be afraid to ask,” he said. “Things are changing. They’re not going to see the same things I saw.”
Aquatics in his blood
The love for all aquatic life flowed from Hau at a young age.
He said he knew he wanted to learn more about the subject because he enjoyed fishing with his dad at Kaneohe Bay. He laughs when talking about his mom, who ran a tight ship. Hau had to clean yard, wash windows and other chores Saturday so he could fish Sunday.
“That’s what I tell the kids, ‘I know you like go fish all the time, but not until after everything gets taken care of,’” he said.
Hau attended University of Hawaiʻi at Manoa and joined DLNR in 1976 as an unpaid intern. Four years later, under a contractor position in the Fisheries Development Unit, he worked at the Anuenue Fisheries Research Center helping raise aquaculture bait fish to supplement native species in tuna and bottomfish commercial fisheries.
In 1984, he was hired as an aquatic biologist in DLNR’s Oʻahu office and began work on the Waikiki/Diamond Head Fisheries Management Area, while continuing deep sea bottomfishing efforts. He served several years on the Western Pacific Fishery Council’s bottomfish planning team.
In 1985, Hau accepted a position as the Maui Aquatic Biologist, where he started to build the Maui operation from scratch to create programs that served Maui County’s unique aquatic needs.
“Skippy showed an incredible commitment to kokua or take care of aquatic animals, their ecosystems and the communities that depend on them,” Brian Neilson, Division of Aquatic Resources administrator, said in a statement. “DAR will carry on the incredible work that Skippy pioneered in Maui. I’m sure he will approach his retirement with the same passion and energy that he did throughout his career at DAR.”
Retirement drive-by, future plans
DLNR’s aquatics team on Maui organized a drive-by celebration last Saturday at Keopuolani Park, where people drove from all over to congratulate and mahalo Hau.
Hui members, kids and colleagues attended. Hau was draped in lei and people commented about his aloha shirt — not the typical blue uniform.
When asked if he knew so many people cared for him, Hau instead started talking about the people in his retirement picture and how COVID-19 scuttled plans for a dinner.
“I got to see a lot of people,” he said. “That was nice. I think it was better than the dinner.”
Looking ahead, Hau said he has a couple commitments on the books. But after that, he wonʻt set anything in stone. Many people have asked him to speak or participate in meetings.
“Iʻll call in to the Zoom and I will listen but not participate,” he said, laughing.
Retirement evokes “mixed” feelings and sometimes the stillness at home stands out, Hau said. In an adjacent room, he has hīhīwai, ‘o‘opu and ‘ōpae in buckets with aerators. When the humming turns off, it can get pretty quiet.
The ever-busy Hau, though, quickly shifts subjects. He remembers that he does have specific plans for retirement.
“I gotta go clean my house,” he said, laughing.