According to archaeologists Tomonari-Tuggle and Welch, changes shown on various maps suggest that the entire coastal area mauka of Kahului Bay was once marsh land, and could have been a natural formation that was only slightly modified by Hawaiians for fish cultivation.
Though their early history and even the actual boundaries of the wetlands to which they belonged are uncertain, we know that the swampy Kahului of old came to an end with the harbor dredging. A network of canals still drains groundwater from beneath the town’s coral-fill foundation.
A pair of fishponds, Kanahā and Mauoni, were located near the coastal area of Kahului Bay (between the present harbor and the airport.) Both Mauoni and Kanahā were naturally occurring, inland freshwater ponds whose shapes were altered by early Hawaiian fishpond builders.
The ponds were used for storing and fattening fish, because Hawaiian kapu prohibited catching or eating fish from the sea during the yearly spawning season. It was permissible, however, to eat fish taken from freshwater ponds.
Mauoni extended to the old County Fairgrounds area, near the present Safeway. Just east of the current harbor facilities is the Kanahā Fishpond, which is said to have been built by Chief Kihapiʻilani, brother-in-law of ‘Umi.
Kihapi‘ilani, a ruling chief of Maui in the early 1700s, was living at Kahului where he “began the transporting of the stones for the walls of the ponds Manoni [Mau‘oni] and Kanahā. He is the one who separated the water of the pond, giving it two names” (Dye).
“The kuapā is still there to this day, but a large portion of it has been lost, covered under the sands flying in the winds.” (Manu in Nupepa Ku Okoa, August 23, 1884, Maly)
According to another tradition, Kapiiohookalani, King of O‘ahu and half of Moloka‘i, “built the banks of kuapa of Kanahā and Mauoni, known as the twin ponds of Kapiioho—for the purpose he used men from Oʻahu and Molokaʻi, as well as those of Maui under his aunt Papaikaniau. “ (Dye)
“Tradition relates that the laborers stood so closely together that they passed the stones from hand to hand … Before the ponds were finished, Kapiioho had been killed by Alapainui of Hawaii at the battle of Kawela, Molokai. He was survived by a daughter Kahamaluihiikeaoihilani and son Kanahāokalani.” (Dye)
During King Kamehameha’s campaign to unify the Hawaiian Islands, the principal military encounter on Maui took place within Kahului Bay, in the area around the pond. For two days, there was constant fighting between the two sides until Kamehameha conquered them with the help of the military expertise and cannons of his western advisors, John Young and Isaac Davis.
It was a bloody battle and by the time it was over, the beach between Kahului and Pāʻia was covered with the canoes and bodies of fallen warriors.
When Kahului Bay was dredged in the early 1900s to deepen the harbor, the material that was removed was dumped on low-lying ground along the shore. In the process, the remains of an ancient fishpond disappeared (like most of the large ponds in the Hawaiian Islands that have been degraded or filled for development.)
Over the years, the Fairgrounds, the Kahului Industrial Area, parts of Dream City and much of commercial Kahului were filled in or dried out – or both – leaving Kanahā Pond just a small patch of a extensive wetland that extended to where Queen Ka’ahumanu Center was built.
Since the turn of the twentieth century, the pond has functioned primarily as a waterfowl and shorebird sanctuary.
Before the Second World War, Kanahā Pond was owned by the Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company. During the War, the HC&S donated the land, which included Kanahā Pond, to the US Navy.
In 1951 the Hawaiian government formally designated the pond as a bird refuge. The pond is home to two endangered species – the Hawaiian Stilt and the Hawaiian Coot, as well as providing sanctuary to many migrant shorebirds and waterfowl.
In 1959 the state legislature appropriated funds to improve the habitat and the Maui County government appointed a Citizens Advisory Committee.
More funding was obtained, and in 1961 the state legislature made long-term plans which included bird-feeding stations, observation areas and a picnic area, as well as an experimental dredging to try to eliminate the offensive odor, which manifested itself during the summer months.
Due to the continued destruction of many of Hawai’i’s wetland areas Kanahā Pond was designated a registered natural landmark in late 1971 by the Department of the Interior, one of only two such sites registered at the time.
Kanahā Pond provides one of the most important waterbird habitat in Hawaiʻi. It is one of the few remaining brackish-water ecosystems, providing refuge for both resident and migratory bird populations.
The pond and surrounding area are within the Kahului Airport jurisdiction. DOT has set the land aside for public recreation and wildlife purposes. Even though it is habitat for local and migratory birds (not the best of neighbors of airports,) since 1973, DOT and FAA have allowed construction of protective moats and nesting places, improvement of observation shelters and occasional dredging.
Today, the pond provides opportunities to see Hawaiian Stilts and Hawaiian Coots and other waterbirds from a small concrete observation area, which is located just off from the parking lot. The refuge is open all year and there are no entrance fees.