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No Ka Oi Magazine: Restoring The Loko I’a

Restoring The Loko I‘a

“Fishponds were things that beautified the land, and a land with many fishponds was called a fat land.” —Samuel Kamakau, 1869

Joana Varawa

As the tide ebbs, big black rocks break the surface of the placid water. They look like huge turtles at rest. As the tide continues to recede, a 1,000-foot-long semicircle of tumbled, wave-washed rocks is revealed. It is the wall of Ko‘ie‘ie, an ancient Hawaiian loko i‘a (fishpond) in front of Kalepolepo County Park in Kïhei.

In the protected water of the loko i‘a a small child balances on a surfboard under the watchful eye of his mother, and a man casts his line into the shallows, hoping for a small papio or aholehole. Do they know that this fishpond once produced over 2,000 pounds of mullet a year for Ka‘ono‘ulu ahupua‘a, the historic land division where they now live?

“It called me. The first time I looked out there, it called me,” says Joylynn Oliveira, Director of ‘Ao‘ao O Na Loko I‘a O Maui, the organization dedicated to restoring Ko‘ie‘ie fishpond as a cultural heritage site. Oliveira works as the Hawaiian cultural educator for the Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.

From her office in the sanctuary’s headquarters overlooking the pond, she gazes out at the reef and envisions the pond restored, and the many visitors, residents and school children who will be able to see and appreciate the history of this place. “Kïhei has grown so fast that a lot of people miss the cultural aspects of the community,” she says. “They live here, but they don’t know about the culture.”

Her mind’s eye sees the flourishing fishpond that for almost 500 years embellished this shore. “Rebuilding this fishpond means more than just restacking rocks,” she says. It means “living the legacy of my kupuna.”

In earlier times, fishponds were the refrigerators of the Hawaiian people. They belonged to the ali‘i (chiefs), who could command the necessary labor. Building a fishpond was an immense effort that could involve human chains 10,000 strong, passing rocks of dense basalt sometimes from far in-land to the ocean. Niho (interlocking) stones used to anchor the pond could weigh as much as 600 pounds.

Once the walls of loko i‘a were raised above the high tide line, a wooden gate called a makaha was installed. During high tide, the bars of the makaha would allow small fish to enter. Some of the fish would then linger in the pond, feeding on the seaweed placed there, and grow too fat to escape.

The fish were normally harvested by first being gathered into a small area with a surround net; then the largest ones were caught by hand or speared. The fish were also trained to come to shore by feeding them taro, breadfruit or sweet potato.

The loko i‘a, was fed by running water from the mountains, which kept the pond at the ideal level of salinity. Streams diverted to irrigate taro fields would also seep into the pond, carrying nutrients. This, combined with the pond’s shallow depth, provided excellent conditions for the growth of seaweeds and plankton that fed the fish. The makaha allowed water to circulate in and out with the tide.

Hawaiian fishpond aquaculture was one component of the ahupua‘a system stretching from the mountains into the sea, which balanced the needs of nature and the community.

Traditionally, “when you looked at a fishpond from the ocean up to the mountains,” says Kimokeo Kapahulehua, president of ‘Ao‘ao O Na Loko I‘a O Maui, “if everything was intact, meaning that the fishpond wall is up, and it’s operational and it’s raising fish for the royal family, that would tell you, behind this fishpond is a village that’s very alive and very healthy.”

Kapahulehua says that this characteristic of the fishpond in Hawaiian culture is why the kaona (the deeper, metaphorical meaning) of the name for this Kïhei fishpond, Ko‘ie‘ie, is “fulfillment.”

In 1778, 360 fishponds across the Hawaiian Islands supplied the needs of thousands of people. By the early 1900s, however, fewer than 100 ponds and traps remained, producing nearly 700,000 pounds of fish yearly. But by 1997, only six ponds survived, yielding only 30,000 pounds of fish a year, and by 2003 there were but four fishponds used for aquaculture in the state.

Several factors contributed to their demise. Warring chiefs destroyed the fishponds of their enemies. The sandalwood trade had denuded the mountains, causing erosion and taking labor from the shoreline. Westerners planted mangroves to contain erosion, but the roots hindered the growth of algae and turned the ponds into mudflats. Add to that natural disasters, disease, land development and the change from a subsistence to a market economy.

Of the remains of fishponds visible along Maui’s coast from Ma‘alaea to Hana, Ko‘ei‘ei is the most accessible and suitable for restoration.

Tradition claims it was built in the 1500s under the great chief Umi, and was renamed “Kalepolepo” (“the dirt”), in the early 1700s because of the huge clouds of dust that formed when long lines of people carried stones from the mountains for its restoration. It was repaired by the command of Kamehameha I in the early 1800s, and again in the 1840s, using labor from the Maui penal colony.

The pond was a royal possession. Its produce belonged to the chiefs to distribute as they wished. Well into the 19th century, Ko‘ie‘ie produced mullet for the flourishing settlement of Kalepolepo. It was one of three ponds in Kula Kai, which, together, totaled an estimated 48 acres. Describing Kamehameha’s repair work, contemporary historian Samuel Kamakau, wrote that, “All the men and women of West Maui worked at Kalepolepo.”

Today, ‘Ao‘ao O Na Loko I‘a O Maui is working to revive fishpond aquaculture. The first step is to teach the children. The organization, in partnership with The Pacific American Foundation, hosts training workshops on native Hawaiian fishponds for Maui teachers.

Kahea Loko (”Call of the Pond”) was developed by the foundation as a curricula that teaches science, social studies and language arts to grades 4 through 12. Last year 25 teachers were trained and over 500 Maui students visited Ko‘ie‘ie.

Kaui Norton, who teaches Hawaiian Immersion classes in Pa‘ia, has adapted the curricula for her third-grade classes, and follows up the lessons with a visit to the pond. “When the kids see the fishpond it makes the stories I tell them real,” she says. “They can see and touch it. ‘Oh! This is what Hawaiians can do.’ That the pond is still here really amazes them. They are impressed by how resourceful their ancestors were. When they hear it’s being restored, they ask, ‘Can we come too?’ They want to help, they want to carry rocks.”

Where once thousands of Hawaiians stood lined up from the mountain to the sea to pass on the heavy stones that made up the fishpond, now the effort is to untangle the red tape that binds up shoreline projects in a multitude of jurisdictions. At least six federal, state, and county permits are required.

In the meantime, Oliveira and Kapahulehua work together to educate the community about the importance of restoring the pond, and to build a base of volunteers for the future, when the heavy work commences.

In the days of its glory the pond covered more than six acres. The rock wall was over six feet high and as much as 30 feet wide at the top and 42 feet wide at the base. To restore such a massive structure will take a massive effort, but given the energy and dedication of Olivera, Kapahulehua and their co-enthusiasts, the stones will move and the walls will rise again.


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