Ancient Hawaiian Fishponds

Image: Fish ponds along Moloka’i Island



Over the last couple days, the team was surveying the reefs along Moloka’i Island. Along this coast, we noticed several low rock wall structures made from lava rock adjacent to the coral reefs. Our skipper pointed out these structures, explaining that the Hawaiians built them about 800 years ago to rear fish to feed the villages.



Fish ponds


The early Hawaiians observed that marine fish were attracted to the sheltered brackish waters, using these habitats for grazing and as nurseries. They decided to reinforce these habitats near to the shore by building structures to create loko kuapa (ponds) that would attract and protect fish. The porous lava rocks allowed water to flow in and out of the ponds and varied in sizes among the Hawaiian Islands; some are as large as three or four square kilometres.


The relationship with the coral reefs is obvious. The Hawaiians regarded the coral reefs as the source of diverse fish species, and worked with the natural ecosystem to ensure food security for their communities.



Ancient aquaculturists


These clever early fish farmers designed ponds to maintain wave movements and connections to the open ocean. They also managed pond biology and the harvesting of the fish following the kapu (traditional rules). The fishponds were regulated for water circulation, nutrients, and observed for the size and abundances of fish species that entered the enclosures. The work of these ancient aquaculturists was key to sustaining the productivity of these ponds for hundreds of years, feeding thousands of Hawaiians daily. They studied the life history of these fish; they controlled harvesting of different fish species. This is akin to the techniques of rotating fish harvesting habitats in other countries.





After these fishponds were successfully used for hundreds of years, they went through a period of misuse when management practices waned. Today, restoration projects are underway to rebuild and revive the fishponds and rekindle the ancient connections to the ecosystems. The communities are learning again to rely on ancient aquaculture practices. The younger generation is being reconnected to their traditional culture, and the invaluable art of sustainable management of resources.



Ecosystem-based management


The connection between the fishponds with the mountains above and the sea is known as ahupua’a. Communities that currently manage fishponds are acutely aware of how upstream influences, such as agriculture runoff and deforestation can upset the balance of their ponds and coral reefs. This is the premise on which the new management plan of the Hawaii Humpback Whale Sanctuary is centered. Ecosystem based management, where healthy land-sea connections result in productive ecosystems that can give back to the Hawaiian communities.


In time, it is hoped that the traditional way of Aloha ’Aina (love of the land) will instill respect for the source of the ocean’s diversity, its coral reef systems; as it restores the wealth of the islands through the food fisheries and the art and science of the ancient aquaculture.