One Fish Two FishWritten By: Emily HauckThe ancient Hawaiian fishponds, or loko i’a, incorporate aspects of natural beauty, with cultural influence, and historic agriculture with archaic engineering practices. Only a few still exist today on Oahu, and one, owned by Kualoa Ranch, is still functioning. While there are 101 things “You Must See” when you visit Oahu, this should be included in the top 5.
There are numerous myths and legends about how fishponds came to exist, and for a long time it was passed down that they were constructed by the mystical Menehune (Hawaiian elves). Menehune are secretive creatures. They appear only after dark and, with great feats of strength, are able to build large structures in a single night. The Hawaiians built fishponds along the shoreline on almost all of the main islands, and they were utilized as a continuous resource of protein for the growing population. Construction of fishponds was done mainly by the families within a community so they could then earn the right to a share of the catch.
Large lava rock or coral walls allowed brackish seawater to flow in at high tide and replenish the ponds with nutrients, oxygen, and minerals for the fish inside. At low tide, the gate would be closed to allow drainage, which acted as self-cleaning mechanism. The rock walls were built at a slope, instead of an angle, to reduce the impact of direct wave force. As juvenile fish swam between the bars of the sluice gates looking for a secure sanctuary they would eat the plants, algae, and grasses that were grown within the walls without fear of predators. When the fish were large enough, they could no longer pass back through the gates into the open ocean and could be harvested by the people.
The chiefs, or ali’i, were often in charge of managing the ponds and could declare a specific species of fish in the pond to be kapu (forbidden) and only for his use. The Hawaiian culture considered fishponds as a sign of wealth and commoners could be put to death if caught stealing from the source. It was known as ‘aina momona (sweet lands) if the chief had flourishing fishponds.
The native people stocked the ponds with milkfish, mullet, bonefish, blenny, and shrimp. They were able to increase the productivity of the fishponds tenfold because they utilized fish that were algae eaters instead of carnivores. To encourage algae growth in the ponds, the average depth was only 2-3 feet so sunlight could easily pass through the water. Hawaiians were able to eliminate layers in the food chain by consuming fish that were consuming plants. Fish could swim into the pond and with minimal effort, feed a whole town.
These fishponds are a great example of the lifestyle that Hawaiians adapted to live harmoniously with the land and sea while being self-sufficient. They were a symbol of cooperation among the people. The fish were harvested sustainably, used in ceremonies, and an excellent example of early Hawaiian ingenuity. We can learn a lot from the environmental-friendly practices of this historic culture. It is vital that these fishponds and other customs are preserved for future generations to enjoy the archeological, recreational, and educational uses for many years to come.