The Miracle of Fish

Images by John Hook & Jonas Maon

Neglected for centuries, overrun by development and burdened by a labyrinth of laws, the humble fishponds of Hawai‘i raise fish, the middle finger, and awareness of a cultural revolution.

He‘eia fishpond is invisible from the highway. A 20th century American neighborhood and an eight-story mangrove forest hide the lower rock wall and the scrams of He‘eia Stream, which feeds the loko i‘a (traditional Hawaiian fishpond). Under the management of the nonprofit Paepae o He‘eia, the pond has been the focus of innumerable volunteer hours over the last 15 years. The fishpond was fully enclosed in 1965, before a series of storms inundated Kāne‘ohe Bay and the simple negligence of closed gates burst the ancient walls. Those walls will be closed again just before December 2015 on the 50th anniversary of the disaster.

He‘eia is one of nearly 500 identified fishponds across the islands, developed over hundreds of years in a variety of styles defined by their respective geographies. A 19th century collapse by way of Western disease killed nearly half of the estimated one million people who once tended the ponds and the terraced upland fields that fed them. Two centuries later, an entirely new Pacific upheaval has appeared offshore: entire islands being lost to a rising and acidifying sea, invasive organisms altering ecosystems, massive storms occuring with increased ferocity and regularity. On shore, an entire generation is being excluded from land ownership and is questioning modern agriculture’s capacity to maintain healthy communities, bodies, and interactions with the ecosystem.

Ask anyone working at He‘eia or at any of the numerous ponds being rebuilt across the islands, and they will tell you that their mission goes beyond growing fish. What is happening now in Hawai‘i has happened within the world’s living memory for generations. It is seen in the way community organizers used bus stops in the American civil rights movement as the place to deconstruct an American apartheid, or a decade before that, when Indian nationalists marched to the sea to collect salt and dethroned the British foreign power. Humble quiet places, not the halls of power, are often the sites of peaceful, non-violent revolution.


The tide is dropping to zero and a plume of smoke is rising on the northern crest of He‘eia fishpond. The smell of balmy woodsmoke fills the air as Keli‘i Kotubetey, assistant executive director of Paepae o He‘eia, the non-profit tasked to manage the pond’s brackish 88 acres, asks me to join him on a wooden dinghy for the weekly testing that will take us on a circuit around the pond’s perimeter. I accompany Mikela Branco, a microbiology student at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, and Dr. Kiana Frank, a researcher at the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (CMORE) based out of the university. “You came on a good day,” Kotubetey says while starting the outboard engine. “Normally I’d just do the basic stuff, but today we’re going a few levels deeper.” A few meters out, he cuts the engine and drops a sensor resembling an unlit light saber attached to a digital display the size of an iPad. “P-1,” Frank points out, as Branco gently drops a plastic bottle tethered to a small buoy into the water. “These filter water and capture microbes, and are part of our expansive data set,” Frank explains. A week from now, the bottles will be retrieved, replaced, and the DNA of their contents analyzed.

Buoy P-3 floats adjacent to the largest stand of mangrove in Hawai‘i, near the center of the pond, where a boisterous gaggle of cattle egrets congregate on its canopy. Introduced in the 1920s to control erosion, the aggressively invasive red mangrove has taken over much of Kāne‘ohe Bay, as well as the rest of the archipelago. He‘eia has essentially become a Floridian forest, with acres of sediment trapped in a thick mat of mangrove roots. The mangrove, cattle egrets, gorilla ogo (a type of seaweed), and the 21st century watershed feeding into the fishpond complicate the traditional practice of creating a field of limu (indigenous seaweed) used to feed the fish. “These stands take up a lot of the pond. We know what this place used to look like, and it’s overrun,” Kotubetey says while noting pH levels on his sensor. On a detour into a branch of He‘eia Stream, the smoke thickens. Two men are slashing and burning the mangrove, the sounds of their chainsaws drowning out our voices. In an hour, a large group of middle school-aged kids and their parents will spend their spring break on a service trip here, hauling branches over to a controlled blaze and adding themselves among the hundreds of volunteers of all ages, educations, and backgrounds who have assisted with the pond’s rebuilding. “We’re seven years into a 25-year timeline. I heard this story about how there’s this invasive plant all along the shoreline in Florida and in its estuaries. You know what’s giving them all this trouble? Naupaka. Our Hawaiian naupaka. I guess it goes both ways.” As Kotubetey speaks, I realize that a full mile of the 88-acre pond is mangrove forest. “It’s job security, brah,” he says with a laugh.

The Miracle of Fish

The mangrove, though, isn’t nearly as challenging as the paperwork. Fishponds are amongst the most regulated places in Hawai‘i. At the P-5 buoy facing the puka (hole) in the pond’s wall, a string of plastic floaters draped across the opening are tugged from below by the ebbing tide. It’s a turbidity curtain, a plastic silk-like barrier meant to contain the sediment that escapes from the pond in order to protect the outside ocean, a preventative measure mandated by the state in places of onshore construction. It seems unnecessary. “The rules are okay for concrete sea walls and retainers, but when restoring a fishpond by hand, you’re not creating nearly that same kind of discharge,” Kotubetey says. “The rules weren’t written with this place in mind.” An entire legal treatise was written on the subject in the late 1990s. There are manuals available. The He‘eia staff uses these instructive tools and their wits to navigate overlapping regulations from the Army Corps of Engineers, the State’s Department of Land and Natural Resources, the federal government via the Environmental Protection Act, and their funders. A turbidity curtain is but one symbol of these requirements.

There are several ways to run a pond. While bobbing along between buoys, I’m told of Moli‘i just up the road at Kāne‘ohe Ranch, where a different system is in place. At the massive 125-acre pond, predatory ulua (giant trevally) enter as papio, their juvenile form, and are joined by barracuda, crustaceans, cephalopods, and mollusks. Smaller fish are picked off by the predators, which grow until they die or are caught. “How big do they get?” I ask, and Branco responds with centuries-old Hawaiian measurements for the size of mullet: pua‘ama‘ama is the size of an index finger, kahaha when it reaches the size of a hand; ‘ama‘ama at two shakas long; and ‘anae at longer than an arm. At He‘eia, predators must be fished out before eating all the pua‘ama‘ama-sized fish, and as the closing of the wall impends, a series of $10 family fishing days will be scheduled to assist with the task. None of these efforts are without the possibility of mishap. In 2010, an experiment to grow moi in pens ended in disaster: During an El Niño summer, the oxygen dropped to low levels and the Kona winds didn’t allow for the pond to be aerated, killing the fish.

“Of course it’s both a science and a cultural experiment, a site of cultural recovery,” says Frank. The young Frank, who earned her doctorate in molecular biology from Harvard after being at the top of her class at Kamehameha Schools, spent the last few years off the coast of Washington State, where tectonic plates open to vent superheated, dissolved minerals. “They say it resembles other planets down there. It’s an interesting place to study microbes—about how they cycle nutrients. Those same question can be answered here.” She and the other researchers at CMORE are presently answering questions about the elemental relationships of life in the pond with regards to sulphur trading, iron oxidation, the cycling of arsenic and nitrates. “It’s a mesocosm of the coastal environment,” she says as the science flies over my head, directing me to the research website. “This fishpond is where we can evaluate questions about coastal processes.” Kotubetey adds, “It’s one big, necessary experiment. … But it’s for the purpose of feeding people, that’s why this matters.”


If the pond at He‘eia on crowded O‘ahu represents the hard sciences of cultural recovery, Keawanui fishpond, just past mile marker 11 on Moloka‘i’s south shore, represents the other end of the rainbow. It’s said that sleepy Moloka‘i once supported a population of 35,000 Hawaiians with its abundant shores and valleys. The island now supports 7,000 residents, with a comparatively small tourist and agribusiness economy. Here, statewide battles regarding genetically modified crops, and the chemicals used to grow them, have become pitched as multinational corporations have become the latest usurpers to a traditional way of island life. At sea, a massive study published in 2013 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration supported what fishermen have known for decades: that the waters surrounding the “friendly island” are healthy, abundant, and ideal for a model oceanic fishery. However, there remains scant data regarding the capacity of near-shore aquaculture husbandry in Hawai‘i, which prior to Western contact, was amongst the most advanced in the world.

Keawanui fishpond was once one of more than 60 vibrant fishponds on Moloka‘i’s south shore, most of which have crumbled to the sea. In the late 1990s, with federal EPA assistance, the State of Hawai‘i started a fishpond restoration project known as Project Loko I’a. Famous Hawaiian activist and nationalist Walter Ritte and his son Kalaniua, “Ua” for short, created the Hawaiian Learning Center at Keawanui and the non-profit Hui o Kuapā, which is working to determine how mauka development on land affects makai, or at shore, capacity to produce fish. Ua and Guy Hanohano Naehu (“Hano” for short) are the guardians of the pond and have worked at the site since the late 1990s, at times laboring with dozens of volunteers but more often alone.

“We made this to demonstrate how it works out there,” says Hano as he slaps a wide palm on the fitted stone of a mākāhā, a fishpond gate, on the grassy shore fronting Keawanui fishpond. The loko kuapā (porous rock wall) lets in nutrients and small fish from the sea, the waters are circulated by wind and current, limu and other flora are grown and managed, predatory fish are caught at the sluice gate, and herbivorous fish like mullet grow and multiply. As is the case with many other fishponds, at Keawanui, two men can do the majority of the work.

In March of 2011, sirens forebode a disaster. The Japanese Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami sent a squat, powerful wave that wreaked havoc on the rebuilt fishpond, designed to withstand only the tides. When Ua and Hano arrived at first light, much of the wall had fallen, leaving large patches of submerged boulders piled in disarray where the jagged wall had once stood. Fish escaped to the sea. It took the men and their friends a year to rebuild. They ferried stones to the wall, or muscled them back into place with their feet in the slippery silt. Only a 10-yard patch of mangrove-entwined wall required no mending.
The experience engendered a sort of reverence for the invading plant. “It’s an oxygen-producing saltwater tree with roots for small fish to hide in and the ability to hold together the shoreline. It withstands climate change. We even made a hale (house) out of its timber. What’s not to like about it?” Hano asks. “Like anything else, it needs to be managed. This fishpond is like everywhere else: Everything get one purpose, one role to play.” Hano’s appreciation of the mangrove is countered by his hatred of egrets, which he shotguns with glee. “But it’s our decision on how to adapt,” he says, before abruptly ending the discussion to introduce me to Walter Ritte, the Hawaiian Learning Center’s official coordinator.

Ritte needs no introduction. Whatever is written or said of him here or in future will not affect his posterity in deeply shaping the course of Hawai‘i’s modern history. His legacy was fixed in 1976, when he was one of the “Kaho‘olawe Nine,” a group of activists who occupied the island to end the Navy’s bombardment. He also fought expansion on Moloka‘i, was briefly imprisoned, was in and out of politics, and now, he attacks the giant agribusinesses on the island. As telegenic as he is charismatic, Ritte remains in high demand as a community organizer and Hawaiian rights and environmental advocate. In person, like the pugilistic Frankie Dunn character played by Clint Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby, he’s similarly aged without carrying a spare ounce on his body. There’s no padding in his discussion of politics, either. “Before all the work, this was a typical fishpond, a dead fishpond,” he says, barely over a whisper. “We’re going on five years of partnership with Kamehameha Schools, using this place as a classroom. But this place can’t be run like a corporation, that’s not what this is about. We are reviving the genius of our kūpuna.”

We board a small boat and Ua motors us out past the plastic pens that house an experimental mullet research project, continuing onward for a quick check of the oysters being grown in plastic boxes (Japanese Kumamoto oysters, specially developed for Hawaiian waters, which could take the demand off local ‘opihi at graduation). We end at the mākāhā, where everything happens. Here, fish can be taken with a scoop net, a box, or your bare hands.

I ask Ritte about the various legal requirements of the pond, about the turbidity curtain at He‘eia. “I heard about that. The state wanted us to put floaters in our barrier, too. We told them, ‘Fuck you, no.’ And if they ask again? ‘Eh, you know what, another big fuck you.’ Those things do more damage than good.” Hano responds with an affirmative, “That’s right,” and I get the sense that I’m privy to a call and response that’s been going on for years. “These are the feet of sovereignty, in these silt waters, I’m not going to ask the colonizer for help with this one. This is a fertile island. There’s a reason the GMO guys want to grow here. It’s not just for fishermen, we know how alive this reef is,” Hano says. Ritte continues, “If you’re not gonna help, then don’t bother us, leave us to learn what our kūpuna knew. Until we get used to telling them, ‘Fuck you,’ we won’t be able to move forward. The law says a fishpond is a conservation district. But we don’t live in museums. We are here, working. Until that gets sorted out, leave us alone.”

Heading back to shore, where the whole ahupua‘a of Ka‘amola is laid out like a diorama, it’s easy to imagine fish multiplying by the basketful, a miracle of sorts, enough to feed the staff, its volunteers—the entire valley. As we disembark, Hano repeats to me, “Our future looks more like our past than it does our present.”

This story is part of our Apocalypse Issue.

My Cart Close (×)

Your cart is empty
Browse Shop