Preserving a Fishpond—and a Food Source, and History

by Tim Ryan

Bordered by a busy boat harbor, sheltered exclusive hilltop residences and exposed to vast Kaneohe Bay, He`eia Fishpond is all but hidden in this niche of windward O`ahu—known as He`eia Uli, Ko`olaupoko. This seclusion may well have both protected the 88-acre cultural treasure from overfishing and contributed to its deterioration, because no one noticed its relentless punishment by wind, waves, neglect and invasive mangrove.

“Even I wasn’t aware of this pond and my `ohana is from this community in Kahalu`u,” said Hi`ilei Kawelo, executive director of Paepae o He`eia since 2007. The organization works in partnership with the landowner, Kamehameha Schools, to manage and maintain He`eia Fishpond for the community. “I was blown away when I was introduced to this place.”

But not completely in a good way.

As important to Kawelo and the group of young Hawaiian friends was “the lack of Hawaiian presence” at such a significant cultural structure. It wasn’t long after that first visit that that the group of idealists created the nonprofit Paepae o He`eia “dedicated to caring for He`eia Fishpond.”

“I was young and full of energy,” she said. “Nothing is impossible when you’re in your early 20s. My closest and best friends were in this with me. It was really an ohana effort.”

Heeia Fishpond fish farmingOn this typical windward cloudy and drippy spring day, a large truck from Nanakuli delivers a load of coral and lava rocks, many weighing more than 100 pounds. The bimonthly deliveries are used to replenish the fishpond’s walls where rocks have tumbled into the shallow pond and are buried by sediment or washed into the ocean only to disappear or, in the case of coral, pounded into sand.

Several beefy men and some not so big separate the coral and lava rocks, stacking them into massive piles. The material will be placed on small flatbed trucks, then driven around the Kailua side of the wall for rebuilding. Where road access is not available, the rocks are delivered on small, floating barges. These are taken to the makai wall where the greatest deterioration has occurred—a 200-foot section of fishpond wall that’s been collapsing for decades.

He`eia Fishpond is a walled-style (kuapā) fishpond enclosing brackish water. The kuapā is built on the fringing reef that extends from the shoreline, surrounding the pond out into Kaneohe Bay.

Built approximately 600 to 800 years ago by the residents of the area, the kuapā is possibly the longest in the island chain, measuring about 1.3 miles (7,000 feet), and forms a complete circle around the pond. This is unique, since most other fishpond walls are either straight lines or half circles connecting one point of shoreline to another, Kawelo said.

“It’s like a kapuna presented us with the biggest challenge,” she said, laughing. “The fishpond with the most amount of wall that needs to be restored.”

In the 12 years since the organization was founded, about 3,000 feet of wall has been restored at a rate of 300 to 400 feet per year. First stage was to remove thousands of invasive and tangled mangroves. The plant not only destroys the walls when its roots entangle in the rocks and coral but also collects sediment around the perimeter.

Removing the mangrove is backbreaking work and all done by hand with the use of the chainsaws and muscle.

According to Kawelo, mangrove was introduced in Hawai`i on Moloka`i around 1900 and then on O`ahu in 1922. The Hawaii Sugar Growers Association brought it here after it saw the effects of large-scale agriculture on the land and ocean from the runoff.

The windward side of O`ahu “gets a lot of rain and anytime you get rain and exposed sediment it all goes straight into the ocean,” said Kawelo. HSGA “planted mangrove to mitigate that.”

The buildup of sediment in the fishpond also diminished the amount of oxygen there.

The pukas in the fishpond walls negated the pond’s purpose as well.

“Tides go in and out and if your pond can’t hold water [within its walls] you also can’t hold fish,” Kawelo explained.

At low tide workers are able to cut the mangrove near its base. Fortunately, the aggressive plant doesn’t grow back. No herbicides are used.

Since He`eia Fishpond is a designated historic site, there are restrictions on the kind of equipment that can be used in the restoration process.

“Paepae o He`eia prides itself in making use of the community with volunteers, which may mean doing things a bit slower but it ensures that we are investing in the community stakeholders of this pond,” Kawelo said. “We are only place holders here for a small window of time. When we’re gone we want to make sure this place is set up so we know the next generation is going to push it forward.”

The wall is composed of two separate volcanic rock walls parallel to one another on the outer edges, with the eight-foot area between them filled up with mostly coral and in some places rock and dirt. This compact style of wall slows water flow, allows the pond to maintain a base water level even at the lowest tides, and forces more water to the six mākāhā or sluice gates. Three of the mākāhā are along the seaward edge to regulate saltwater input; three more along He`eia Stream regulate fresh water input.

On this day about a dozen Nanakuli High School students are moving dozens of mangrove branches from a just-cleared makai section of the pond to be used for a Hawaiian structure on the leeward campus.

Covered in dirt and mud and noticeably tired but smiling, some walk atop the wall itself while others trek through the pond which on an average tide is about two and a half feet deep.

Hawaiian fishponds are unique and sophisticated forms of aquaculture found nowhere else in the world, Kawelo said.

The techniques of trapping adult fish with rocks in shallow tidal areas is found elsewhere but the six styles of Hawaiian fishponds, especially large walled ponds, were technologically advanced and efficient as their purpose was to cultivate baby fish to maturity.

This invention resulted from Hawaiians’ understanding of the environmental processes specific to the islands as well as their connection and observation of the food resources on the āina and in the ocean.

In Hawaiian literature, fishponds were associated with events during the 14th through 19th centuries. So it is possible that fishponds appeared in the Hawaiian Islands prior to the 14th century.

“Ocean fishing is dependent largely on weather and ocean conditions,” Kawelo said.

Since big surf, storms and other weather conditions influence and can interrupt fishing practices, fishponds provided Hawaiians with a regular supply of fish when ocean fishing was not possible or did not yield sufficient numbers.

At one time there were about 400 fishponds in Hawai`i with O`ahu having the most—about 96—the largest being the 500-plus acres in what is now Koko Marina.

By allowing both fresh and salt water to enter a pond, the environment is brackish and conducive to certain types of limu. By cultivating limu, like a rancher growing grass, the pond caretaker could easily raise herbivorous fish and not have to feed them, Kawelo said.

The fish that live in He`eia Fishpond include `ama`ama, awa, pualu, palani, aholehole, moi, kokala, kākū and papio. The fishpond is also home to a different species of papa`i, `ōpae, puhi and pipi. There also are predatory fish here such as barracuda and crabs such as Samoan crab.

“People’s tastes have become accustomed to eating predator fish like ahi, ono and mahimahi that really are rather bland, but we’re hoping we can alter that a bit to the more flavorful herbivorous varieties,” she said.

(To produce one pound of herbivore fish takes much less energy than a pound of carnivorous fish, which constantly need to consume other fish so there’s a lot of energy loss.)

Kawelo is concerned that a state surrounded by water has to import more than 60% of its fish.

“Hawai`i is the largest consumer of seafood per capita in the United States,” she said. “Our ancestors created and made very good use of traditional aquaculture.”

There isn’t an accurate method at this point to calculate how many fish are in He`eia Fishpond since a section of wall is open to the ocean.

“Historically, the lower estimate was 200 pounds of fish per acre per year; the higher estimate was 500 pounds multiplied by He`eia’s 88 acres,” she said.

Paepae o He`eia recognizes that He`eia Pond will never “feed the state of Hawai`i.”

“The pond had been created to feed a very specific small geographic community that housed the ahupua`a of He`eia, about 2,000 people,” Kawelo said. “It wasn’t the sole source of protein but more of a supplement and they would stockpile fish in the pond, creating a reserve.”

The organization’s annual budget is $500,000 to $600,000, most of which pays 10 employees, including six full time. All monies come from fundraising.

“We’re really cheap when it comes to materials,” she said. “All we need is rock and coral.”

Kawelo estimates He`eia Fishpond’s remaining 4,000 feet of damaged wall will be restored within 15 years, including three to five years to repair the wall along He`eia Stream.

“We hope the Field of Dreams phenomena occurs,” she said. “We build it and the fish will come.”

Heeia Fishponds gate 2