The beginning date for the construction of fishponds in ancient Hawaii is unknown. The builder of the first pond is traditionally reputed to be Ku’ula-kai, “who lived in an undated period of heroes and gods”.
Since fishponds were commonplace in legendary literature attributed to the 14th through the 19th centuries, it is conjectured that they were developed sometime prior to AD 1400.
The Hawaiian fishpond was primarily a grazing area in which the fishpond keeper cultivated algae for his fish; much in the way a cattle rancher cultivates grass for his cattle.
A natural food chain can be expected to produce a ratio of 10:1 in terms of the conversion of one link by another. 10,000-kg of algae make 1,000-kg of tiny crustaceans, which in turn make 100-kg of small fish. These 100-kg of small fish then produce 10-kg of large fish, which when eaten by humans make 1-kg of human flesh.
Hawaiian ponds “are closer to the following: 10,000 pounds of algae and detritus make 1,000 pounds of herbivorous fish; 1,000 pounds of herbivorous fish make about 100 pounds of carnivorous fish, or man”. (Hiatt; Kelly)
Thus, herbivorous fish produced in Hawaiian fishponds provided man with protein 100-times more efficiently than the natural food chain.
Patient observation by Hawaiian fishermen of the habits of herbivorous fish (what and where they ate) was undoubtedly part of the great fund of knowledge held by Hawaiians about the sea and the plants and animals, which inhabit it.
‘Ama‘ama (grey mullet) was the most popular fish raised in Hawaiian walled seashore fishponds (awa (milk fish) was another).
Certainly, the Hawaiians recognized the value of walled fishponds and built them wherever conditions permitted. (Kelly) Pond types include:
Loko kuapa whose main characteristic is a seawall as its artificial enclosing feature and which usually contains one or more sluice gates.
Loko puʻuone (sometimes called loko hakuʻone), an isolated shore pond usually formed by a barrier beach building a single elongated sand ridge parallel to the coast.
Loko wai, a freshwater fishpond located inland from the shore.
Loko i’a kalo, another inland fishpond which utilized an irrigated taro plot (fish were grown in the waters flowing among the earth mounds planted with taro corms).
Loko ʻume ʻiki is similar in shape and construction to loko kuapa, however, it is a fishtrap characterized by numerous stone flanked lanes which led fish into netting areas with the ebb and flow of the tide. This last type is also the only pond where women were permitted to net.
The first three types were royal fishponds in the sense they were owned exclusively by the ruling chiefs and managed by a caretaker, or kiaʻi loko, or in some cases by a lesser chief, the konohiki, who served as a managerial overseer of both the pond and the adjacent agricultural lands.
The latter two types of ponds, while technically owned by the ruling chiefs, were the domain of families with makaʻāinana (commoner) access. Commoners’ rights to the harvest, however, were never independent of the chief’s.
The most important of the shore ponds was the loko kuapa which consisted of an arc-shaped wall extending out from the shore onto a reef flat and back again; these ranged in area from one acre to over 500 acres.
The mortar less walls were constructed of basalt cobbles and blocks, and coral fragments. These were usually several yards thick and projected about one yard above the highest tide level. Only a high chief could command the labor necessary to construct such monumental structures.
The spaces in the mortarless masonry walls made them permeable and served to reduce stress from tidal, wave, and current energy. The construction of seaward versus interior pond wall flanks was equally sophisticated.
Seaward flanks were inclined slopes which further permitted the seawall to withstand wave energy and to absorb, per square inch, more energy than a more vertical alignment.
In 1848, when King Kamehameha III pronounced the Great Māhele, or land distribution, Hawaiian fishponds were considered private property by landowners and by the Hawaiian government.
This was confirmed in subsequent Court cases that noted “titles to fishponds are recognized to the same extent and in the same manner as rights recognized in fast land.”
Because of their location in the coastal zone, Hawaiian fishponds are controlled by a regulatory framework where County, State and Federal agencies each exercise some degree of control over activities associated with the pond.
There is a separate chapter in the State laws (Hawaiʻi Revised Statutes – HRS §183B) that deal with fishponds. Under certain circumstances, reconstruction, restoration, repair or use of any Hawaiian fishpond are exempt from the requirements of chapter §343 (environmental review laws.) (Information her is primarily from Kelly and NPS.)