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Activist Spotlight: Daniel Amato With The Oʻahu Chapter

Daniel Amato, Oahu Blue Water Task Force

Daniel Amato truly embodies the spirit of the Surfrider Foundation’s mission – to protect and enjoy. As a trained marine biologist and working environmental scientist, the Oahu Chapter is so lucky to have him guiding their Blue Water Task Force water quality monitoring program. Under his leadership this program has grown from a couple of volunteers covering 3 sampling sites to a network of over 30 volunteers regularly testing 24 sites every two weeks. Some of these new sites are the results of good working relationships that Daniel and the Oahu volunteers have nurtured with underserved, rural communities near Kāneʻohe and Pōka’ī Bays that still heavily rely on cesspools. Daniel is also leading a new cutting-edge research project with the Surfrider Foundation in collaboration with the University of Hawaiʻi and PacIOOS to develop a new, inexpensive rapid method for fecal indicator bacteria detection. This study is also assessing the influence of wastewater in coastal waters to inform predictive models for beach water quality and climate change science.

Mahalo Daniel for all the energy you put into protecting clean water for all people!

Why and when did you get involved with the Surfrider Foundation? 

In 2014, I was in the final phase of my Ph.D studies in marine science at the University of Hawaiʻi @ Manoa. My good friend and classmate Rafael Bergstrom had just accepted a position as the Oahu Chapter Coordinator and asked me to get involved. We began meeting regularly with a small group outside of the monthly public meetings to discuss various water quality issues that impact the health of our oceans and community in Hawaiʻi. It was during these discussions that we decided to restart the Blue Water Task Force on Oahu. By June of 2015, we were testing three sites twice a month to get the program off the ground.


What are some issues that affect water quality in your community? 

The quality of ocean water, stream water, and groundwater is closely tied to the health and prosperity of Hawaiʻi. Most locations in the state are within a few miles from the ocean which means that nearly everything that happens on land will impact the nearshore waters in some way or another. After almost two decades of academic and professional work on nearshore water quality, I can say with confidence that stormwater and polluted freshwater input to the nearshore environment is the largest challenge that we face. The discharge of sediments and associated pollutants such as trash, nutrients, heavy metals, human and animal waste, pesticides and other chemicals from streams and rivers puts a huge stress on our endemic and native organisms which can throw off the delicate balance that promotes diversity on a healthy reef. Lesser known but ubiquitous across the state, groundwater, is also a major pathway for large amounts of pollutants to reach the nearshore waters. Nutrients and other wastewater-related chemicals are disposed into coastal aquifers via the > 80,000 cesspools and hundreds of small to large capacity injection wells. In some places, the time between a toilet flush and wastewater discharge to the reef is less than a few hours… that’s pretty gross.

How is your Chapter responding to those issues? 

Water quality and ocean/beach health is definitely a focus of the Oahu Chapter. With the help of many dedicated volunteers, the Blue Water Task Force tests water quality at about 24 sites every two weeks. As the coordinator for this program, I have intentionally chosen sampling locations at sites that will allow us to better understand the relationship between wastewater sources, freshwater discharge, and fecal bacteria on Oahu. Almost more importantly, the Oahu Chapter actively engages our members and community in supporting legislation to better manage these pollutants. We work with state legislators and city council members to write bills that represent the changes we want to see. We participate in legislative working groups to help define the problems and come up with solutions. We partner with other organizations to support their programs. Realizing that legislation is not always the answer, we plant Ocean Friendly Gardens to reduce stormwater runoff to the ocean.


What has been the highlight of your Surfrider experience?

After many years of volunteering as a sampler for the Oahu Blue Water Task Force, I took over as the program coordinator in January of 2020. I really enjoyed the process of fine tuning this program over the last 3 years to get it where it is today – a well-oiled machine. It is such a joy to work with our volunteer samplers and I am constantly in awe of their dedication. We have cut out single use plastics as much as possible and have set up a sample collection/delivery system that minimizes the miles driven to get samples to the lab. The data we generate has helped the State of Hawaiʻi officially register a few of our sample sites as EPA 303(d) impaired water bodies, which enables other regulations and protections for these areas. It has also been extremely rewarding to incorporate Surfrider and the BWTF into my academic research. With assistance from Mara Dias, the Surfrider Foundation Water Quality Manager, we are in the process of developing new DNA-based and fluorescence-based methods for rapid, onsite detection of fecal indicator bacteria in addition to the measuring the impact of extreme events on water quality.

Do you have any personal experiences or issues that you're passionate about where the social justice and environmental movements have intersected? If so, can you tell us about them?

In the summer of 2022, Surfrider was contacted by representatives of an Oahu Community that needed help figuring out why the water quality was poor at a popular beach park, Pōka’ī Bay. This is a complex issue where contaminated water from a channelized stream enters the ocean near a public beach that is partially enclosed by an old break wall. This area of Oahu is a good example of an underrepresented and underserved minority community where nearly half of residents are of native Hawaiian/pacific Islander descent and >20% of individuals live in poverty. There were many reports of residents becoming getting ill and contracting infections after recreating in the relatively calm waters of the bay. Despite repeated calls for help to the Hawaii Department of Health, the University of Hawaii, and the State Legislature, this community was not getting the assistance it needed to get to the bottom of the issue. Working with the local activist non-profit Kingdom Pathways and two State Legislators, I decided to take on three new Blue Water Task Force sites in this area. A few months later, we were awarded a multi-year grant that is supporting a much more in-depth research project that includes local students and community members as citizen scientists and hopefully provides answers to the water quality questions of the Wai`anae community.


Why is being a part of the Surfrider ocean conservation community important to you?

I have come to realize that Surfrider is the vehicle that harnesses all the distinct aspects of my passion for this planet. My passion for science as a method to more deeply understand the natural world. My passion for activism and my innate need to be a steward of Earth. My passion for play and adventure in the ocean. Through Surfrider, I feel as if I can function as my complete self, without reservation in ways that are not typically condoned when wearing my many other hats.

What is the most important thing you tell others about Surfrider?

We actually get stuff done! Surfrider is full of passionate people that want to make a difference and that is what keeps me coming back. It is a team effort, and as a dedicated and super-talented team, we make a difference together. Yes, we do beach clean-ups and some of us surf, but at heart we are grassroots activists with a strong volunteer network that has the resources and stamina to play the long game and win.


Anything else you’d like to add?

Being in the ocean is amazing medicine for me and nearly all humans I know. There is something about being surrounded by this salty womb that is so comforting that it can wash of a bad day with ease. It is such a shame that this ocean is simultaneously treated like the world’s largest resource for exploitation and the world’s largest toilet. I challenge you to consciously do one thing each week that encourages ocean conservation and tell someone about it. Eat sustainably caught fish, or even a vegetable instead. Support a local Ocean Friendly Restaurant. Redirect stormwater to a garden or other infiltration area. Use less water in your home or office. Support a piece of legislation that matters to you. Call your local legislators or other elected officials. Go to a Surfrider meeting or donate to your local chapter. Then go play in the ocean :)