Scroll Top
First page of article with large aerial photo of Hawaii Island fishpond and wall

The Return of Kū‘ula
Restoration of Hawaiian Fishponds

by Josh McDaniel

According to Hawaiian moʻolelo (oral traditions), Kūʻula built the first Hawaiian fishpond, or loko iʻa, on the island of Maui. Kūʻula was a fisherman of rare skill who is described as having supernatural powers for directing and controlling fish. He was said to be able to summon fish at will, and is venerated as the Hawaiian god of fishing.

Rosie Alegado, an assistant professor in the University of Hawai‘i School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology’s Department of Oceanography and director of the University of Hawai‘i Sea Grant College Program Center for Integrated Science, Knowledge, and Culture, believes Kūʻula may have been a god but also a real person who had deep knowledge of fish behavior and coastal ecosystems based on observation and experience.

“Kūʻula understood that by building a fishpond where freshwater streams met the ocean, he could capture brackish water and stimulate beneficial eutrophication,” Alegado said. “He constructed the fishpond to attract and capture juvenile fish, such as ʻamaʻama [mullet] and awa [milkfish], which thrive in estuaries where they feed on plankton.”

Fishponds were a key part of the Hawaiian food production system for hundreds of years, but declined in use dramatically after contact with westerners and the subsequent cultural and socioeconomic changes and shifts in land use.

Today, the spirit of Kūʻula is being revived in a growing movement to restore fishponds across the islands. Fishpond practitioners are combining western science with traditional culture and knowledge to develop fishpond practices that are adaptable to today’s sustainability challenges.

A Uniquely Hawaiian Invention
The distinctive, rock-walled fishpond, or loko kuapā, that Kūʻula and his descendants built likely evolved from fish traps early Polynesian settlers brought to Hawaiʻi. These traps took advantage of tidal flows on shallow reefs to capture fish. Subsequent loko kuapā are also constructed on the shallow, nearshore reefs but are much larger and innovative structures, ranging in size from an acre to more than 100 acres. On Oʻahu, the functioning loko kuapā at He‘eia has a 1.3-mile, hand-built seawall that is 12–15 feet wide and encloses 88 acres. Freshwater runoff from irrigated agricultural terraces, or lo‘i, and natural streams and springs brings nutrients which stimulates the growth of plankton and algae, creating a productive nursery for many species of fish.

Loko kuapā have distinctive sluice gates, or mākāhā, which are unique to Hawaiʻi. Mākāhā are made of small tree branches about 1⁄2 inch in diameter lashed together to form a grate within the sluice channels that connect the pond to the sea. The mākāhā allows fingerlings, or juvenile fish, to enter the pond and fatten up on the abundant seaweed and algae, but retains grown fish that are then too large to pass through the grate and return to the open ocean. Mature fish congregate on the pond side of the mākāhā during incoming tide and on the ocean side during outgoing tide. This makes for easy harvest with dip nets.

While loko kuapā are the most common fishponds, there are also other varieties of fishponds in Hawaiʻi. Loko puʻuone are natural ponds located behind a beach or sandbar which hold brackish water. They are turned into active fishponds by digging a channel to connect the pond to the ocean. Loko iʻa kalo are simply a combination of aquaculture with flooded terrace agriculture. Fish are added in with the taro and raised in the flooded terraces. Loko wai are inland freshwater ponds made in natural depressions from diverted streams or natural springs.

Fishponds were part of an integrated food production system that stretched from the mountains to the oceans within the ahupuaʻa (Hawaiian land divisions that are roughly equivalent to a watershed). Ahupuaʻa were controlled by a konohiki, or headman, who among many other duties, controlled fishing rights and led the construction of fishponds. The kiaʻi loko, or caretaker of the fishpond, lived at the pond and was responsible for closely monitoring and protecting the stocks from poachers. At the konohiki’s request, the kiaʻi loko harvested fish from the pond. Beyond the management of the fish stocks, accumulation of silt was a perpetual challenge. When sediment became a problem, the kiaʻi loko would organize members of the ahupuaʻa to rake the pond bottom and move the silt and sediment near the mākāhā where it could be flushed out with outgoing tides. A person had to be immensely knowledgeable about a wide range of important matters to be given the position of kiaʻi loko.

“Besides being stonemasons and expert fisherman, they had to understand tidal flows and oceanography,” Rosie Alegado said. “They understood the concept of watersheds and the role of nutrients in streams and how they fed the downstream growth of macro- and micro-algae in the fishponds. They had a deep connection to the ʻāina [land], to moana [ocean], and to their community.”

A Living Practice
Researchers have estimated there were 488 fishponds across the Hawaiian islands prior to contact with westerners. An inventory in 1901 identified 360 fishponds, only 99 of which were active, with an estimated annual production of about 486,000 pounds of ʻamaʻama and 194,000 pounds of awa. Fishponds disappeared dramatically during the twentieth century. Westernization, development, and changes in land use, especially the spread of invasive mangrove and sediment accumulation from lack of management, were the biggest factors, but fishponds were also lost to lava flows and tsunamis.

There is an expanding movement to restore fishponds as a way to grow food and educate communities about culture and history. In 2012, the permitting process for working on fishponds was somewhat streamlined, reducing some of the regulatory barriers to restoration. Since then, dozens of restoration efforts have developed at fishpond sites across the Hawaiian islands.

“This is a living practice,” Alegado said. “Fishponds represent the perpetuity of our culture, a way to connect with the traditions of our ancestors, but also a way to feed people—it’s a key piece of Hawaiian food sovereignty.”

As communities come together to “move rock” and physically rebuild the stone walls of fishponds, they learn about the knowledge ancient Hawaiians possessed about the natural world and the strong social fabric that tied their communities together.

The organization Kuaʻāina Ulu ʻAuamo (KUA) works with grassroots networks of community groups involved in place-based stewardship. One of the growing networks KUA supports is the Hui Mālama Loko Iʻa (Hui), a network of Hawaiian fishpond practitioners and organizations. KUA helps Hui members with communication and education projects, hosts trainings and workshops on different issues related to fishponds, and organizes an annual meeting that brings practitioners together to share ideas and knowledge.

Brenda Asuncion, the loko iʻa coordinator for KUA, says there are now about 35 different community groups working at 49 different fishponds. Asuncion said the fishpond restoration projects vary from very active to informal. Some have developed formal partnerships with landowners and have made their way through the permitting process to begin physically rebuilding the fishpond. Others are working to engage the surrounding community and spark an interest in the cultural resource they may not have known was in their neighborhood.

“Regardless of whether a fishpond can or will be restored to the point of abundant food production, these projects often reignite a sense of kuleana, or responsibility, to one’s land and community,” Asuncion said. “Fishponds ‘feed’ us, not just physically, but intellectually, spiritually, and holistically as a part of our larger environment.”

Building Connections
The loss of fishponds to land use change is perhaps most dramatic in Pearl Harbor. Known historically as Puʻuloa, Pearl Harbor was once a center of fishpond cultivation, with more than 20 ponds lining the shore. The largest fishpond covered more than 200 acres. Most of the fishponds were filled in the early 1900s for sugarcane cultivation and later for urban development and expansion of military facilities in the bay.

Only three remaining fishponds in the area are relatively intact, and efforts are underway for restoration. Kim Moa, a member of the Aliʻi Pauahi Hawaiian Civic Club and the ʻAiea Community Association, serves as kiaʻi loko (fishpond caretaker) for one of the ponds, Loko Paʻaiau. Currently located on land leased for Navy housing, Moa sees Loko Paʻaiau as a place where local community members, visitors, and military families can come together to build relationships to the land and each other.

“It is inspiring to be connecting with ʻāina in a very urban place,” she said. “It is helping me to become more rooted in my community. My grandfather was a fisherman who passed away when I was very young. Learning about this loko iʻa has connected me to my kupuna (ancestors).”

In partnership with the Navy, local community groups involved in the restoration of Loko Paʻaiau have focused their efforts on bringing people together to raise cultural awareness of the fishponds and connect people to the history and culture of the area. Navy archaeologist Jeff Pantaleo has been instrumental in providing access to the site for members of the extended community. He also spearheaded a massive mangrove removal project funded by the Navy in 2015. Other restoration efforts have focused on bank stabilization with native plant species.

Moa said one of the long-term goals for Loko Paʻaiau is to complete sediment removal and wall restoration, but in the short term, project volunteers are focused on education and community engagement. They hope to build a traditional thatched-roof hale as a gathering space for practitioners, cultural programs, and meetings.

Education programs are the focus of many of the loko iʻa groups, within a broader movement for ʻāina-based education. Blake McNaughton is an educator at the Kumuola Science Education Center for Kamehameha Schools on the island of Hawaiʻi and a caretaker for the Waiāhole Fishpond, which is located on the schools’ lands outside of Hilo. The Center has set up a standards-based fishpond education program that involves students as real practitioners in restoration.

“We wanted to build a program that was more than just a field trip,” McNaughton said. “We wanted it to be multiple field trips, with real involvement from the kids in the work we’re doing.” So far, students have been helping to dredge the ponds and remove invasive weeds. A group of third graders even designed a trap to remove invasive Mexican molly fish from the ponds. “It’s super fun for the students,” McNaughton said. “But it’s also serious work—we wouldn’t be able to get everything done without the help of the learners.”

Blake is working with other fishpond caretakers to develop a consistent and effective education curriculum across the different fishpond groups.
“If you look at the numbers of ponds under restoration and the number of kids and schools that are visiting, we really have the opportunity to positively affect our communities,” he said.

Fishpond practitioners are also using restoration projects to bring attention to water systems and mauka/makai (mountain/ocean) connections. Chris Cramer is president of the Maunalua Fishpond Heritage Center, a community group that is working to restore two loko wai, or spring-fed fishponds, along the shore of Maunalua Bay in East Honolulu. Kānewai Spring and Kalauhaʻihaʻi Fishpond are two of the few remaining freshwater springs on Oʻahu. “These springs are windows into the underground water table,” Cramer said.

The springs were part of productive fishpond systems earlier in the twentieth century. Fish were grown in Kalauhaʻihaʻi until the mid-1990s when a road construction project damaged a lava tube that brought the spring water to the pond. The pond went dry and the nearshore ecosystem crashed.

The millions of gallons of freshwater flowing from the springs into the ocean were vital for nearshore ecosystems. The mixing of fresh and saltwater created a fertile estuary for limu, or seaweed, to grow. This in turn was a thriving place for schools of fish and shrimp to feed. Rare limpets like pipiwai (freshwater limpets), and hapawai (brackish mollusks) were attracted to the freshwater. At Kalauhaʻihaʻi, the organization is now working with the landowner, the Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources, to lease the pond for community benefit and to restore the freshwater connection.

Maunalua Fishpond Heritage Center has already been able to successfully restore the natural flow at Kānewai Spring. The group worked with The Trust for Public Land to purchase the property, and have begun restoration using volunteer workdays to remove invasive plants and rebuild rock walls. Cramer said when they first started the pond was just black and stagnant. Now, the water has turned blue and flows again.

“Everything is tied to the flow of water—that is the basis of the food chain,” said Cramer. “Our message is, you have to protect the mountain-to-ocean flow of freshwater.”

To adapt to the many serious conservation and sustainability issues society currently faces, it may help to look to the practices of the past. For Hawaiians, sustainability was a lifestyle built of necessity. As the current generation of fishpond practitioners relearns the traditions and skills on which these systems are based, they are helping reignite the spark of invention and adaptation embodied in Kūʻula’s first fishpond. And that may be just the inspiration needed to plot a new path to modern sustainability.

Browse Ka Pili Kai issues HERE