Big Fish in Little Ponds

by Betty Fullard-Leo

Fishponds, loko i'a, encircle the shores of the Hawaiian Islands, their origins shrouded in legend and inconclusive carbon dating. Some, with walls of basalt and coral, rest like necklaces of glistening black pearls against the blue shoulders of the sea, rimming green and golden shorelines. Others, loko pu'uone, natural anchialine ponds, scallop the shore inland, their levels rising and falling with the tide as the water seeps through porous lava or circulates through sluice gates cleverly devised in some ancient time to prevent fattened fish from escaping.

Studies conducted in 1903 and 1989 give vastly differing counts for these salt or brackish water pools in which early Hawaiians once practiced aqua culture. Early estimates total 158 manmade ponds, while a more recent Bishop Museum study lists 370 throughout the chain-a number which includes naturally existing fishponds as well as man-made.

Some ponds are said to have been built in a single night by menehune as early as 1200 AD; the construction of others are verified in chants from as late as the 18th and 19th centuries. For loko kuapa, ponds that wall off semicircles of ocean along the shoreline, entire communities labored together under the command of their ali'i to fashion walls of rock three-to-nine-feet thick on top of a fringing reef.

Historian Samuel Kamakau wrote in 1869, "When the wood ('ohi'a or lama) for the makaha (sluice gate) was ready, and the proper day had arrived for its construction, the kahuna was fetched to set up the first piece of timber. For this important duty, he offered a hog and a dog suitable to this work of inspiring the increase of fish, and appropriate prayers...Then he reached for a timber and set it up for the makaha and offered the closing prayer. Then the men built the makaha, binding it together with 'ie cords. After that they arranged foundation stones with the makaha grating, and poured in pebbles."

A small thatched guard house was erected near the makaha where the "keeper" slept during high tides to guard the fish from being stolen or killed by dogs or pigs.

Small fish entered through the gate's narrow slats to feed in the nutrient-rich pond. Sweet potatoes, taro or breadfruit were fed to the fingerlings so they would return to the same place daily. 'Ama'ama, awa, awa'aua, kaku, aholehole, 'o'opa, 'opae, mullet and puhi soon grew too plump to swim back out through the makaha. The best and the biggest fish were easily harvested in a long net held by men at either end, while others splashed the water to drive the fish into the net.

Along the Big Island's Kohala Coast, major resort hotels have restored some well-preserved ponds and posted interpretive signs along their fringing walkways. The seven ponds of Kalahuipua'a at the Mauna Lani Resort were royal ponds that came under the control of King Kamehameha the Great when he conquered the islands between 1790 and 1810. When the king and his court were in residence at Kamakahonu at Kailua-Kona, fish from these fishponds or from other ponds at 'Anaeho'omalu (in front of the Royal Waikoloan Resort) and on the grounds of Kona Village Hotel kept the king's table well supplied. Fresh fish were caught and wrapped still wriggling in layers of wet, green leaves. A swift runner raced with the fresh catch of the day along the King's Road, or during calm weather, a paddler quickly transported the live fish to the king's cook via outrigger canoe.

Today, kings and commoners alike can enjoy fish harvested from a pond in Hilo. The Nakagawa family has operated 50-acre Loko-Waka fishpond for two generations. Fish served at their Seaside Restaurant (808/935-8825) are caught in Hawaiian-style fish-traps and raised to eating size when they swim in from the ocean via a connecting waterway. It's fun to savor a regal meal of fried ahole, or mullet steamed in ti leaves, or combination dinners of mullet, trout, perch or catfish just as the ancient ali'i might have in days long past.

photo credit: Betty Fullard-Leo

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