The Fishpond

Hawaiian fishponds are unique and advanced forms of aquaculture found nowhere else in the world.  The techniques of herding or 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 pua, baby fish, to maturity.  Their invention was a result of the Hawaiians deep understanding of the environmental processes specific to our islands as well as their connection and observation of the food resources on the `āina and in the kai.

Ocean fishing is dependent, to a great extent, upon conditions of the ocean and weather.  High surf, storms, and other associated weather phenomenon influence and interrupt most fishing practices.  Therefore, fishponds provided Hawaiians with a regular supply of fish when ocean fishing was not possible or did not yield sufficient supply (Kelly, 1976).

Located in He’eia Uli on the island of Oahu, He’eia Fishpond is a walled (kuapā) style fishpond enclosing 88 acres of brackish water.  The kuapā is built on the Malauka`a fringing reef that extends from the shoreline surrounding the pond out into Kāne`ohe Bay.  Built approximately 600-800 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) long and forms a complete circle around the pond.  This is unique as most other fishpond walls are either straight lines or half circles connecting one point of shoreline to another.

Not only is the kuapā of He’eia Fishpond extremely long, it is 12 – 15 feet wide and “compact”.  The wall is composed of two separate volcanic rock walls parallel to one another on the outer edges and the ~8 foot area between them is 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 mākāhā or sluice gates.  He’eia Fishpond has six mākāhā – three along the seaward edge that regulate salt water input and three along He`eia stream that regulate fresh water input.

By allowing both fresh and salt water to enter the pond, the pond environment is brackish and therefore conducive to certain types of limu.  By cultivating limu, much like a rancher grows grass, the kia’i (guardian/caretaker) could easily raise herbivorous fish and not have to feed them.  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 different species of papa’i, ‘ōpae, puhi, and pipi.

It is unknown who commissioned He’eia Fishpond to be built but it likely required hundreds, if not thousands, of committed residents to pass and stack rocks and coral for approximately 2-3 years to complete the massive wall.  The first recorded owner of the pond is High Chief Abner Paki who was the konohiki of the ahupua`a of He`eia.  He received all the lands of He’eia at the time of the Great Māhele of 1848.  His wife was High Chiefess Laura Konia and after their passing their daughter, Princess Bernice Pauahi, received the lands of He’eia.  Princess Pauahi married Charles Reed Bishop who, after her passing, managed her lands in the Bishop Estate.  Today the fishpond is still owned by Kamehameha School, formerly Bishop Estate.

circa 1880
Copyright: Bishop Museum

Several of the oldest pictures (circa 1880-1910) we have of He’eia Fishpond and the surrounding areas show a well-formed and maintained kuapā, several adjacent smaller ponds, and a large amount of agriculture (kalo, sugarcane, banana, pineapple, rice) nearby.

circa 1910
Copyright: Bishop Museum

 Even as development encroached on the fishpond between the 1930′s and 1960′s, He’eia Fishpond was still a dominant feature along the shoreline.  The Keapuka Flood of 1965 destroyed a 200+ foot portion of the kuapā and the fishpond went mostly unused for almost 25 years.  Although invasive mangrove was introduced into the He’eia area in 1922, it really took a foothold and grew unchecked and unmanaged in the fishpond after the 1965 flood.

circa 1928

circa 1959

Between 1988 and 1990, the damaged portion of kuapā was temporarily fixed by Mark Brooks and many volunteers.  Brooks leased the pond and was successful at raising ‘ama’ama, moi, tilapia, ogo, and experimented with other aquaculture ventures.  In 1998, Brooks partnered with Univ. of Hawaii at Mānoa for the first “Mālama Loko I’a” class which helped to plant the seeds for the pond’s current restoration and Paepae o He`eia. E ola ka ‘āina o He`eia!

Circa 2011
Copyright: Kalei Nuuhiwa

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