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Between sky and sea, a fishpond of stories

After 800 years and the restoration of the He'eia fishpond, traditional aquaculture is making a comeback in Hawaii

Chris Bartlett’s painting of a Hawaiian fisherman. Photo: Hawaiian Legacy Archive.
Chris Bartlett’s painting of a Hawaiian fisherman. Photo: Hawaiian Legacy Archive.

The Ko‘olau mountains run like a spine along the eastern coast of O‘ahu, dropping from sky to sea in thick green buttresses. O‘ahu is the third largest of the Hawaiian islands. The light in its eastern valleys changes often; today it ripples down slopes and skids on the water. Half a million years ago, I would have been standing in a caldera—I have to remind myself, again, that even though the Ko‘olaus brush the clouds, they are not a mountain range but the eroded remnants of a shield volcano. The other half lies underwater in Kāne‘ohe Bay. The water is calm today, the wind crinkling its surface, and the tide has just started to come in.

In Kāne‘ohe Bay is the He‘eia fishpond. Eighty-eight acres wide and 600-800 years old, it is one of the last remaining fishponds in what was once a coastline ringed by an extensive network of traditional aquaculture systems. The rocks that make up the walls of this pond were brought down from the Ko‘olaus in long human chains. I peer at the dark basalt and have the sudden sensation of glimpsing another world—this half-submerged, semi-aquatic monument is as old, perhaps, as some of the temples at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The kuapā, or wall, extends 2km into the ocean and forms a complete circle that cuts off a part of the bay. Here ancient Hawaiians would have raised and harvested fish like moi (threadfin), awa (milkfish) and ‘ama‘ama (mullet).

A view of the Ko‘olau mountains from the walls of the He‘eia fishpond. Photo: Shreya Yadav.

I am tagging along with a friend from the University of Hawai‘i who is doing her graduate research here. Today is the community fishing day and Keli‘i Kotubetey, the caretaker of the fishpond and the executive director of Paepae o’ He‘eia, a non-profit caring for the pond, takes us on a quick walk around its boundary. Kotubetey is tall and lean, with an easy laugh and a wicked sense of humour. “Tell your kids a sting ray guards the pond," he announces, looking pointedly at the children in the group, “it pulls you in if you steal any fish." His son, who is circling his legs in the pond, looks up, briefly worried.

We walk to the first of seven mākāhā—sluice gates that connect the pond with the ocean—and watch the water from the bay begin to come in. “The gates only let the small fish in," Kotubetey says, “and the big ones can’t get out." The community fishing days are to help catch the predators that might eat the fish the pond cultivates.

It all seems like this has been happening for decades. The morning is bright and windy and everyone seems to know each other. But it is hard to miss the excitement in Kotubetey’s voice. The fishing days have only just been revived. The wall of the pond has only recently been repaired. Back when the British explorer James Cook landed on these shores in 1778, at least 400 fishponds dotted these coastlines, producing around 350 pounds of fish per acre per year. Today, He‘eia is one of the few remaining fishponds and among a handful that is still functional. From complete self-reliance, the island now imports almost 90% of all its food—and 45% of its seafood. Fishponds, in many ways, bring the reasons for that change into focus, linking the past with the present.

Ancient Hawaii—which is to say, Hawaii before Western contact—was divided into slices of land called ahupua‘a. These were wedge-shaped pieces that ran from the mountains to the sea, with loose boundaries demarcated by valley walls or prominent rocks and stone altars. Ahupua‘as could range from 100 to 100,000 acres in size, depending of their wealth of resources. Each was managed by a landowner or konohiki, who reported to the chief of a larger district containing several ahupua‘as. Within each ahupua‘a, families of planters, fishermen and craftsmen cultivated and traded within and across boundaries.

The ahupua‘a system was a land-sea continuum; the sky extended to the mountains, which extended into the valleys, the sea and the reef. The mountains caught water from the clouds and sent them down to the valley in waterfalls and streams. This water irrigated fields of taro and sweet potato, breadfruit and coconut. Finally, it drained into fishponds, creating a brackish environment where saltwater met freshwater. The juvenile stages of some fish used these habitats as a nursery and, over time, the fishpond grew as these fish were kept enclosed within its walls. A slice of land with several fishponds was considered fat and prosperous.

Hawaiian fishponds were unique in that they integrated ocean farming and harvesting with an entire system of food production further inland. Different gods manifested as plants and animals and served as guardians of the resource, further connecting families living in different parts of the ahupua‘a. Strict kapu (sacred laws) restricted exploitative practices and violation was punishable by death.

People did not own land in early Hawaii, as land belonged to the spirits. But all life was intimately connected to nature and its rhythms. Fishing and planting were done according to the phases of the moon. Places were intricately mapped and named. There is no single term for the environment in Hawaiian, a reflection that it was not seen as something removed. Instead, different strata of the sky, the stars and the ocean were all distinguished from each other, each part given a name and meaning.

Following Western contact, that world view was rapidly eroded. The abolition of the kapu system in 1819 marked that change. Ahupua‘as were dissolved when, in 1848, the Great Māhele or land distribution made land available for anyone to buy, an unknown concept to Hawaiians at the time. A lot of this land was converted into large sugar-cane and pineapple plantations that diverted the water earlier used for farming taro and other local crops. Soon, invasive species outcompeted native life. Diseases brought in by foreigners hit the local population hard. By the time Hawaii was annexed to the US in 1898, centuries-old sustainable management had been replaced by new and unfamiliar concepts of resource exploitation.

Fishponds, too, did not function in the same way any more. They were polluted by urban development or filled to create more land. Mangroves, invasive here, weakened the walls of ponds, creating holes for fish to swim through. Still, He‘eia remained a dominant feature on the shoreline until the Keapuka flood of 1965 swept off a chunk of its wall and opened it to the rest of the bay.

There is no single term for the environment in Hawaiian, a reflection that it was not seen as something removed.-

After decades of being defunct, the 200ft hole was closed as recently as December 2015 in a huge volunteer effort. But the generations born after the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown continue to contend with the links that were severed in their past and the wealth of knowledge that was forgotten as these islands globalized. Kotubetey tells me how one of the challenges of managing the fishpond has been relearning old practices. “Our ancestral memories are there," he says, “it’s in our DNA. But there is no one there to actually tell us: Yes, you are on the right path and yes, you are doing it correctly. Some of the links are gone." This reminds me of the work a colleague has been doing documenting traditional fishing practices in the Lakshadweep islands. There too, he has been finding that traditional practices, especially those passed down orally, are quickly forgotten if they’re not used.

Today, as the fishpond slowly restores itself, research efforts to better understand its ecology are under way. I am curious about the role that Western science can play in this process. I ask Kotubetey if some of the more academic projects on the fishpond have been useful to them. He tells me of a time in 2010 when there was a big fish kill in the pond. “During that time we had five-six days of really hot weather because the southern winds didn’t blow. There was a lot of vog—haze that contains volcanic dust—in the air. The air temperature went up, the water became really stratified and eventually, all the fish died because they ran out of oxygen."

Five years later, they collaborated on a project with scientists at the university. They correlated the records they had kept during that time with other environmental data that had been collected at weather stations in Kāne‘ohe Bay. It turned out that the fish kill corresponded exactly with the El Niño event of the time, when sea surface temperatures rose beyond normal levels. “That was a nice blend of on-the-ground science, seeing and observing, and Western science," he says. “That kind of work helps us design our future management—what can we do if those conditions appear again? We know what indicators to look for."

As the He‘eia fishpond transitions from structural restoration to a phase of food production, there is also an increasing interest in the dynamics of fish in the pond. Anela Akiona, the friend I’m with, is working with the managers of the pond to better understand the population of predatory fish inside its walls. She uses modern techniques like genetic barcoding and mark-recapture tags to assess how many predators are in the pond, whether they’re eating the herbivores, and if the community fishing days are actually working. “Too often researchers just come in and do work that is not useful to the managers. My research evolved from a series of conversations with the people at the fishpond to ensure that my work is beneficial to them," she says.

On O‘ahu, He‘eia is the closest to commercial food production, and the results of Akiona’s research will be useful to other fishponds as they work towards the same goal of sustainability. The fishing today is slow, but a few fish are tagged and gently returned to the water. “We’re writing a new chapter in fishpond history," Kotubetey says. “It wasn’t like this a hundred years ago and it won’t be the same a hundred years from now."

A fish being measured and tagged before being returned to the pond. Photo: Shreya Yadav.

Later, I hike up the Pu‘u Ma‘eli‘eli, a hill nearby, to see this slice of land slightly removed. The gods Kāne and Kanaloa once raced to the summit, dreamy Kanaloa forgetting halfway through that they were even in a contest. It is a steep climb.

At the top, the impossible colours of Kāne‘ohe Bay mix in surreal blues and greens. Boats of tourists are out on the water and the whitewashed glare of houses and condos reflects down the valley. Invasive cherry guavas, delicious as they are, have overrun this hillside. Perhaps nothing looks the way it did a few hundred years ago. But at one corner of the bay is He‘eia and its ancient walls draw a dark line in the blue.

—By Shreya Yadav


DIY destination

There is, obviously, more to O’ahu than fishponds. If you want to explore the island, keep this list in your pocket

Pearl Harbour

O’ahu is home to the Hawaiian capital of Honolulu and so to its infamous place in world history. There are a number of city tours that are centred around Pearl Harbour, and most will take you to the wreckage of the battleship ‘USS Arizona’, which was destroyed by the Japanese air force. The tours include a visit aboard other battleships as well.

Farmers’ Markets

Farmers’ markets are always a good bet and O‘ahu has some nice ones. The KCC (Kapi‘olani Community College) Farmers’ Market is the biggest and a gem of a place to spend a morning in.

‘Iolani Palace

The only “royal palace" on US soil, the ‘Iolani was the royal residence of the last Hawaiian kingdom, and is today listed as a national historic landmark by the National Register of Historic Places. The monarchy was overthrown in 1893 but the opulent heritage of the Kalākaua dynasty has been impeccably restored. For details, visit

North Shore

Like with Goa, while it is O‘ahu’s South Shore that draws all the beach crowds, it is the North Shore that is full of rugged charm. The drive—about 50 minutes from the bustle of Waikīkī beach—itself is worth the time but for tall waves and peaceful beaches, head to the Hale‘iwa, ‘Ehukai and Sunset beaches, known as the “triple crown of surfing". The Turtle Bay Resort is a luxurious stay option. For details, visit

Whale-Watching Cruises

From December-May, O‘ahu’s southern seas welcome the majestic humpback whales as they come to these Pacific waters to mate and give birth. There are several whale-watching tours off O‘ahu, many of them with naturalists and marine conservationists on board, like at Sail Hawaii. For details, visit

Hawaii’s Plantation Village

Hawaii’s plantation history may now be lost for all practical purposes, and for that reason it is worth visiting the plantation village, an outdoor museum which recreates that piece of cultural history when sugar was king. For details, visit

—By Abhijit Dutta

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