In ancient Hawai‘i, fishponds were an integral part of the ahupua‘a. Hawaiians built rock-walled enclosures in near shore waters to raise fish for their communities and families. It is believed these were first built around the fifteenth century.
Only in Hawai’i was there such an intensive effort to utilize practically every body of water, from seashore to upland forests, as a source of food, for either agriculture or aquaculture.
The ancient Hawaiian coastal fishpond is a sophisticated land and ocean resource management technique. Utilizing raw materials such as rocks, corals, vines and woods, the Hawaiians created great walls (kuapā) and gates (mākāhā) for these fishponds.
A fish was kapu to the Hawaiians during its spawning season, to allow a variety of fish to reproduce. Although the chief or commoners were unable to catch fish in the sea at specific time spans, they were available in the fishponds because fishponds were considered a part of the land.
The general term for a fishpond is loko (pond), or more specifically, loko iʻa (fishpond). Loko iʻa were used for the fattening and storing of fish for food and also as a source for kapu (forbidden) fish.
The two major categories of loko were shore ponds and inland ponds. Hawaiians recognized five main types of fishponds and fishtraps. The primary ocean-based ponds were:
- loko kuapā – what we consider the typical coastal fishpond, artificially enclosed by an arc-shaped seawall and containing at least one sluice gate (mākāhā)
- loko pu‘uone, an isolated shore fishpond containing either brackish or a mixture of brackish and fresh water, formed by development of a barrier beach paralleling the coast, and connected to the ocean by a channel or ditch
- loko ‘ume‘iki, a shore pond with numerous lanes leading in and out, was actually a very large fishtrap, whose walls were submerged at high tide, enabling fish to enter, and slightly above sea level at low tide. Fish were not continually raised or stored inside these structures, but were trapped and used immediately after capture.
Two forms of inland ponds were used to store fish, as well:
- loko wai, a natural freshwater inland pond
- loko i‘a kalo, small inland irrigated taro plot ponds
In ancient times, control of one or more fishponds was a symbol of chiefly status and power. Fishponds after the Great Mahele became private property and part of the adjoining land.
Fishponds are unique in Hawai‘i in that they are considered submerged lands, yet they are real property that can be brought, sold and leased.
The commoner had no absolute right to fish in the ponds, nor in the sector of ocean adjacent to the chief’s land – all of such rights were vested in the chiefs and ultimately in the King.
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.)
When I was a kid, there were a couple abandoned and derelict fishponds down the channel near our house on Kāneʻohe Bay, but I never thought of them as ponds. My first real exposure to fishponds was the pond fronting the Nottage’s grandmother’s house on Molokaʻi.
While at DLNR, I remember the fishpond restoration on Maui with Kimokeo Kapahulehua (I still proudly wear the T-shirt from their program “‘Ao‘ao O Na Loko I‘a O Maui – Revitalizing a wall Revitalizing a culture”;) likewise, Colette Machado and Walter Ritte showed me fishponds on Moloka‘i and the work school groups were involved in there.