Native Hawai’ians restore centuries-old fish 'refrigerators'

Native Hawai’ians are reclaiming a major part of their food chain by restoring its traditional aquaculture loko i’a

Debra Utacia Krol

Special to Indian Country Today

Native Hawai’ians are reclaiming a major part of their food chain by restoring or maintaining its traditional aquaculture —the Hawai’ian loko i’a, or fishponds. In the process, they are also nurturing their culture.

In pre-contact days, fish was a major source of protein for Native Hawai’ians, supplementing the proteins found in poi, a potato-like root, the staple of their diet. Hawai’i lacks endemic land animals to provide meat, and pork and chicken brought with the first Polynesians was reserved for special occasions, making fish a vital ingredient in island diets. Some fish were reserved only for royalty, ceremonial uses or for the ali’i, the chiefs, while fish in freshwater ponds could be eaten by commoners.

At one time hundreds of fishponds existed, some up to 100 acres in size, and were components in a self-sustaining food system that fed 1 million Hawai’ians inhabiting the island chain before British explorer Captain James Cook arrived in 1778. Contrast that with today, where about 1.1 million residents must import some 90 percent of their food supply.

Over the decades, some fishponds fell into the hands of wealthy owners who barred Native Hawai’ians from accessing one of their most important food sources. Few received the regular care and maintenance that kept them vibrant, and many became foul and stagnant.

Now, a small but growing community of Native Hawai’ians, non-Hawai’ian residents and nonprofit organizations are restoring old fishponds and sustaining existing ones in most islands in the state, and planning for climate change’s impacts on these structures, some of which are more than 1,000 years old.

They’re hauling off trash left by transients and partiers, clearing out weeds and overgrown plants, and dredging sediments. “The water was stagnant but now it’s crystal clear,” says Chris Daniels of the seven-year restoration it took for the Kānewai Fishpond on O’ahu after gaining access from the landowners, a Japanese firm. “We can hear it rushing out through the mākāhā (wooden slate gates).”

The Kānewai Spring, which feeds this loko wa’a, a freshwater fishpond, through a network of lava tubes, was dying. The black, murky water contaminated its downstream drainage, including the fishpond near the bay.

The project in East Honolulu by the Maunalua Fishpond Heritage Center, a nonprofit that continues pond maintenance, had several roadblocks before restoration, including a lawsuit from nearby residents. But in 2017, thanks to a partnership with the Trust for Public Land, the city of Honolulu and the state of Hawai’i, the group purchased the land, preserving the spring and ponds. “We have families coming here. We also see endangered birds and marine life returning,” Daniels says, adding that the ‘ae’o bird, an endangered Hawai’ian stilt, has come back. “Traditions are being practiced again.”

Native Hawai’ians say the first fishpond was built in East Maui by a master fisherman who was a semi deity. The ponds nurture both seawater and freshwater fish populations, which were easily gathered with nets as required. Both types acted as natural refrigerators, keeping fish healthy and thriving until harvested to feed hungry people.

The seawater fishponds were sited and built to take advantage of estuaries—sites where seawater and freshwater meet as a stream or river flows out to the ocean. These intriguing structures were constructed by as many as 10,000 workers from lava rock. One of the most well-known versions, the loko kuapa, consists of a semicircular rock wall enclosing coastal waters and an estuary. Mākāhā are strategically placed where currents flow in and out of the pond, allowing juvenile fish to enter the enclosure. The wooden slats keep mature fish inside, allowing them to grow until they’re large enough to harvest. Limu, or seaweed, phytoplankton, many varieties of algae and other marine plants grow readily in the fishpond’s brackish water.



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“It’s a way to optimize an environment that provides food for fish as well as recruit juvenile fish,” says Brenda Ascension, loko i’a coordinator for Kua Hawai’i, a nonprofit supporting community-based natural resources management to address the impacts of colonization on the land and water.

The ponds also support rare pipiwai and hapawai—freshwater snails—and native shrimps like ‘opae ‘oeha‘a and ‘opae huna, that have become rare as their habitats shrink. They also support fish like the ‘ama’ama, a mullet, and āholehole or Hawai’ian flagtail, all of which feed on ‘ele’ele, native seaweeds.

In pre-contact days, fishponds were overseen by the konohiki, or headmen, of the ahupua’a, pie-shaped land divisions that extended from an island’s uplands down to the ocean. The konohiki’s duties included ensuring that resources were distributed to all the community and carefully supervising both land and water resources. “If the uplands weren’t well-managed, the waters that reached the fishponds might not sustain the estuaries,” or the fishponds, Ascension says.

European colonization spelled doom for many fishponds. Families lost title to their coastal lands and were evicted, leaving their ponds behind. Many were demolished to make room for development. Several small family-owned fishponds had continued to be maintained, however, providing subsistence and income to Native Hawai’ian families.

Nonprofits like Kau Hawai’i support fishpond projects through the Hui Mālama Loko Iʻa network, which works with more than 38 ponds and volunteers who are dedicated to rebuilding, repairing or maintaining them. The Hui, as it’s known, also provides fishpond groups with resources to address issues such as licensing and fish stock declines. Fishponds can also help remediate the decline in wild fish populations as they come back online to provide safe homes for juvenile fish, Asuncion says.

The fishpond caretakers are also preparing for the future, such as the effects of climate change. “Plans are underway to build walls higher to deal with sea level change,” Asuncion says, as well as dealing with an increase in king tides, which could damage fishponds. Fortunately, the recent eruptions of Kilauea Volcano on the Big Island and the historic flooding on Kaua’i didn’t damage any working ponds.

Though it may take up to 10 years, depending on the state of the fishpond, restoring Hawai’ian fishponds has an additional benefit—restoring Native Hawai’ians’ traditional role as land and water managers. If the efforts were to cease, many of the surviving ponds would again fall into disrepair and even become cesspool-like swamps that the Maunalua group found back in 2010, and one of Hawai’i’s best hopes for regaining self-sufficiency would fade into the past.

“Because of the immense amount of work to build them, the fishponds were the result of effective leadership,” says Asuncion. “Those stories of how they were constructed reflect strong, effective, peaceful leadership.

“They are indicative of the health of the community.”

This story was funded by the Gather Film and Documentary project, an exploration in Native food sovereignty across the U.S. The film is directed by the Illumine Group in partnership with First Nations Development Institute.

Photos (Cover)Traditional fishpond managed by the Maunalua Fishpond Heritage Center. (Second) Waianae High Students examine crabs at Kalauhaʻihaʻi Fishpond, one of two fishponds that Maunalua Fishpond Heritage Center maintains and protects. Photo credits: The Maunalua Fishpond Heritage Center

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No. 1-1
Debra Krol
Debra Krol

Thanks for helping spread the word about Indigenous food sovereignty!