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Fishpond Basics

Before Westerners arrived in Hawai`i, the native people lived a life of self-subsistance and harmony with the land and sea. Early Hawaiians understood that by caring for the land and sea, they too, would be cared for by the land and sea. A great example of this is a native Hawaiian fishpond.

Fishponds were great examples of early ingenuity amongst a native people. Hawaiians studied the tides, moon, and sun and realized that they could harvest fish within a confined area. Similar to fishtraps in other areas of Polynesia, fishponds used the same idea of taking advantage of natural phenomenons to their advantage.

Basically, a fishpond consists of a wall and a sluice gate. For a loko kuapa type of fishpond, the wall was made of boulders and stones of all sizes and was known as the kuapa. A sluice gate or makaha was placed at precise locations where currents occurred.

By studying nature, Hawaiians understood that fish would gather in areas of current. Going with the ebb and flow of the fishpond’s water, Hawaiians were able to lure fish near the makaha. Small fish were able to enter the small slats of the makaha while larger fish were prevented from escaping. The design is ingenious!

What is a fishpond?

What is a loko i`a?

Today, fish are raised and harvested from fabricated fish pens and off-shore enclosures. In ancient Hawai`i, the people used a similar method to ensure that fish would be available for the community. Loko i`a, or fishponds, were used by the Hawaiian people for food, trade and wealth.

Fishponds, found in the sea and some on land, were considered part of the land. Ali`i (chiefs) who ruled the land were considered wealthy if they had many loko i`a under their jurisdiction. You see, in order to build a loko i`a, a large work force was needed. In fact, over 10,000 people were needed to reconstruct Ko`ie`ie Loko I`a several hundred years ago!

How does it work?

The idea of fishponds are simple. The loko kuapa was made of a kuapa (rock wall) and a makaha (sluice gate). The kuapa was built higher than the highest tides of the year. Its rocks were strategically placed so that each rock interlocked with the other. To ensure stability, smaller rocks and pebbles were wedged in gaps. The outer wall faced the ocean. Hawaiians were ingenious in designing it with a slight slope and not at a 90 degree angle. This slope allowed wave energy to dissipate as it hit the wall and therefore, created less of an impact.

The makaha were made of `ohi`a or other strong woods. The pieces of wood were lashed together with vertical spaces. When Hawaiians engineered these gates, they were kept stationary. In the early 1900′s, the Chinese modified the design which contained 2 gates that were movable. This allowed fish to be caught between the gates and improved the catch.

In the early Hawaiian design, the spaces allowed small fish to swim freely in and out of the pond and retained large fish within the pond.

Occasionally, fishponds needed to be maintained. Rocks would be replaced if they had fallen. Algae would be removed if they accumulated. Predatory fish would be fished if they caused a threat to the pond.

Why were they made?

Fishponds are masterpieces of Hawaiian engineers. They were a means of bringing the community together and a display of remarkable leadership by the ali`i (chiefs). In the uplands, the maka`ainana (commoners) would benefit from the pond’s bounty. Here, the loko i`a kalo and loko wai, were refrigerators for fish such as `o`opu (gobies) and aholehole. Towards the ocean, many fishponds were reserved for the ali`i. People were forbidden to retrieve fish from loko kuapa, such Ko`ie`ie. The fish were used for subsistence, ceremonial purposes, and managed carefully to ensure that the resources were not abused.

How many types?

Hawai`i has four types of fishponds and one type of fishtrap. These fishponds and traps were found from the mountains to the sea. The mountainous fishponds contained fresh water and a select variety of fish. Whereas fishponds and fishtraps found toward the sea were mixed with saltwater, creating a greater diversity of life.

1 In the mountains, the loko i`a kalo utilizes water flowing throughout taro patches to raise fish. This type of loko i`a was mainly used by the maka`ainana or commoners of the land. `O`opu (gobies) were the main fish raised in these ponds. Occasionally, young aholehole and `awa would be carried from the sea in gourds to the loko i`a kalo and raised.

Also in the uplands, were loko wai. A loko wai is a natural freshwater pond that was excavated by hand and irrigated through an `auwai. `Auwai were ditches which diverted water from a river, into a loko, then back into the river. Some loko wai found closer to the ocean contain brackish water as some seawater flows upstream with the tides.

Near the ocean, the loko pu`uone can be found. This is a fishpond isolated by a pu`uone (mound of sand) that runs parallel to the sea. It is predominantly salt water with a trickle of freshwater entering through springs or streams. A makaha allows the flow of seawater to mix with the freshwater creating a productive area for a large variety of fish.

Along the shorelines, loko kuapa can be found. These fishponds consist of is a a kuapa (rock wall) and one or several makaha (sluice gates). The rock wall allows water to circulate within the pond and prevents fish from escaping. These walls were built higher than the highest tide of the year. The makaha contained vertical slats that allowed small fish to enter the pond and prevented the larger fish from exiting. The water within the pond is brackish as the seawater mixes with fresh water springs or nearby streams. This type of loko i`a was mainly reserved for the ali`i class.

Finallly, you can occasionally see a fishtrap along Hawai`’s shores. These fishtraps or loko `umeiki are very similar to the loko kuapa but do not contain makaha. Instead, these ponds have rock walls that have a hook design. These hooks were placed where a makaha would have been placed for a loko kuapa. This allows currents to gather within these hooked areas and creates a natural trap for fish when currents are running.

How many are there?

“The importance of fishponds in Hawai`i prior to European contact is illustrated by their numbers and distribution. In 1778, when Captain Cook arrived, about 360 fishponds were identified. In 1990, DHM Planners, Inc., conducted a thorough survey of fishponds and fishtraps in the six major islands and concluded the number to be 488, some distinguished only by remnants of the walls and sluice gates. The large number of ponds and traps on O‘ahu (718) and Hawai‘i (138) reflects the large human populations and the suitability of the landscape with its streams, estuaries, broad plains, and flat coastal reefs for the construction of fishponds. The numbers of fishponds and fishtraps on the other islands were as follows: Moloka‘i (74), Kaua‘i (50), Maui (44), and Lana‘i (4) with the one pond on Ni‘ihau not included.”

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