Restoring Traditional Hawaiian Fishpond Systems

 In Hawai‘i, Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary continues to make extraordinary strides in serving its community through facilitating projects that enhance the use of traditional knowledge in coastal resource management. In 2011, in response to recommendations from its Sanctuary Advisory Council and the public, the Sanctuary committed to support local communities in their efforts to increase the use of traditional knowledge in government activities.

img_4479.jpg Photo: Trisha Kehaulani Watson

In an effort to realize this commitment, an aquaculture workshop was co-hosted in June 2011 by the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary (Sanctuary) and the University of Hawai‘i Aquaculture Program, during which traditional fishpond practitioners advocated for an improved permitting process for the restoration of loko i‘a (traditional Hawaiian fishpond systems). The Sanctuary then hosted a meeting in March 2012 to facilitate initial discussions about the potential to streamline the permitting process for fishponds. The State of Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands and State of Hawai‘i Department of Health participated in this meeting, along with fishpond practitioners and other agency representatives with relevant roles in the permitting process for fishpond restoration. A de facto team was formed among the National Marine Fisheries Services Pacific Islands Regional Office, Office of the National Marine Sanctuaries Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, and Department of Land and Natural Resources Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands to continue the coordination effort among agencies.

The team also supported a conference gathering of Hui Mālama Loko I‘a, which is an informal statewide network of fishpond practitioners by securing funding through University of Hawai‘i Sea Grant. Recognizing the need to have additional assistance to complete the necessary documentation and applications, Conservation International (Hawai`i Fish Trust) generously agreed to provide financial support to pay for a consultant to assist in the process. Honua Consulting, owned and led by CEESP member Dr. Trisha Kehaulani Watson, was selected from several competitive proposals to serve as a contractor on the effort.

This effort is critical to the preservation and practice of traditional ecological knowledge throughout Hawai‘i. Hawaiian fishpond systems, loko i`a, are some of Hawai`i’s most significant traditional cultural resources. They are biocultural articulations of Hawaiian innovation in the areas of engineering, education, hydrology, aquaculture and biology. Further, they demonstrate traditional Hawai`i’s excellence in sustainability, food sovereignty and natural resource management.

The history of loko i`a is rich and extensive. According to oral histories, Hinapukui`a, whose name translates to “Hina gathering seafood,” is the goddess of fisherman. She is the wahine (wife or mate) of Kū`ulakai, sister of Hinapuku`ai, Hina gathering vegetative foods, and mother to `Ai`ai. Hinapukui`a’s kane (husband or mate), Kū`ulakai, is the god and kupuna of fisherman and is said to have built the first fishpond at Leho`ula on the island of Maui.

Kū`ula, as he was also known, was said to be kino lua, dual bodied. He was said to be empowered with mana kupua, supernatural powers. He could control all the fish in the sea.

Kū`ulakai and Hinapukui`a lived in Alea-mai on East Maui. They made their residence near Kaiwiopele, the cinder hill names for “the bones of Pele”, named for the place where Pele left some of her iwi after a battle with her sister, Nā-maka-o-Kaha`i. It was near Kaiwiopele that Kū`ulakai built the first traditional Hawaiian fishpond in Hāna. Kū`ulakai would share his knowledge of fishing and fishing practices with maka`āinānā across Hawai`i through his son, `Ai`ai, identified also as a god of fisherman. Written sources and oral traditions tell of `Ai`ai’s extensive travels throughout Hawai`i during which he established fishing alters, called kū`ula after his father, and fishing areas, known as ko`a.

Loko i`a were an important part of Hawai`i’s complex and sustainable natural resource management system.

The full-scale development of loko i‘a (fishponds) from mauka (the mountains) to makai (the ocean) dates back over half a millennium. Cultivation and propagation centered on many different fresh and salt-water plants and animals, with the primary species being the prized ‘ama‘ama (mullet) and ‘awa (milkfish). An inventory in the early 1900s found 360 loko i‘a in the islands and identified 99 active ponds with an estimated annual production total of about 680,000 pounds, including 486,000 pounds of ‘ama‘ama and 194,000 pounds of ‘awa. Loko i‘a were extensive operating systems that produced an average of 400–600 pounds per acre per year, a significant amount considering the minimal amount of fishpond “input” and maintenance effort apparent by that time.

Increasing immigration and western influences during the 19th and 20th centuries, coupled with industrialization and urbanization would have a devastating impact on the traditional Hawaiian resource management systems in Hawai`i. Most of Hawaiian fishponds fell into disrepair.

There is a renewed interest in the repair and operation of traditional Hawaiian fishponds, for their cultural, economic and ecological value. However, community organizations and traditional fishpond practitioners have struggled for decades to maintain and restore fishpond systems due to the abundance of government regulations that control uses within the shoreline area making it difficult to obtain all of the necessary approvals to revitalize these important resources. The difficulty of Hawaiian fishpond revitalization is compounded by the unique, fragile, and sometimes rugged environments in which they exist. Due to their geographic locations, unique ecosystems, engineering and complex biological functioning, Hawaiian fishponds are subject to a myriad of regulations and oversight by a host of different agencies. The end result is that obtaining the necessary permits and approvals to restore, repair, maintain and reconstruction fishponds is both costly and time-consuming. Many restoration efforts have been stymied by this permitting process.

Currently, the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands (OCCL), is currently pursuing a State Programmatic General Permit (SPGP) from the federal government that will allow the State to streamline the permitting process by utilizing a single application process for the restoration activities. The objective of the Proposed Action is the restoration, repair, maintenance and reconstruction of loko iʻa (traditional Hawaiian fishpond systems) across the paeʻāina of Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian archipelago). This action will stimulate traditional Hawaiian cultural activities, the restoration of fishpond systems and their related ecosystem services. Fishpond systems were a vital component of Hawaiʻi’s pre-contact native Hawaiian communities; their degradation was caused by the urbanization and colonization brought and fostered by foreign contact. Fishponds are identified as valuable cultural and ecological resources that positively impact coastal ecosystems and their adjacent communities. The potential impacts on the environment of the Proposed Action, and a range of reasonable alternatives, are discussed and analyzed in this draft programmatic environmental assessment. The direct and indirect impacts of nutrient enrichment, turbidity, and invasive species resulting from the proposed action and alternatives are negligible. The long-term cumulative impacts will be the stimulation of traditional Hawaiian cultural activities, the restoration of fishpond systems and their related ecosystem services.

Dr. Trisha Kehaulani Watson and her team are proud to serve as key contributor to this effort and looks forward to continuing to support this effort. For more information about this project, visit

Work area: 
Social Policy
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