Mōkapu Peninsula was divided into three ahupua‘a – Kailua, Kāne‘ohe and He‘eia – these were extensions of the ahupua‘a across the large basin of Kāne‘ohe Bay.
The original name of the peninsula “Moku-Kapu” was derived from two Hawaiian words: “moku” (island) and “kapu” (sacred or restricted.) “Mokapu” is the contraction of “Moku Kapu” which means “Sacred or Forbidden Island.”
In ancient times, three ponds separated Mōkapu Peninsula from the rest of Kaneohe: Nuʻupia, Halekou and Kalupuhi Fishponds, they date to between 1300-1600 AD.
Prior to Polynesian settlement, the ponds were thought to be either a shallow open channel between Kāneʻohe and Kailua Bays, making Mōkapu an island, or an embayment off Kāneʻohe Bay with Mōkapu connected to Oʻahu by a thin coastal barrier dune.
In either case, the Hawaiian settlers used this shallow open water area by subdividing it into several fishponds and a salt-making area, separated by hand-built coral and rock walls.
The ponds were later subdivided by Chinese fishermen who leased the ponds to raise mullet and milkfish; over the years there were up to 18 ponds.
Some of the old dividing walls still remain their shape, but now there are eight ponds: Nuʻupia Ekahi, Nuʻupia Elua, Nuʻupia Ekolu, Nuʻupia Eha, Halekou, Heleloa, Paʻakai and Kaluapuhi.
Late-19th and early 20th-century cattle grazing over most of the Mōkapu Peninsula contributed to erosion and sedimentation, and creation of extensive mudflats.
The ponds are generally referred as Nuʻupia Ponds and are an important site for native and migratory waterfowl, shorebirds and seabirds.
Night heron, koloa, coots, stilts, moorhen, pacific golden plovers, black noddies, great frigatebirds and a large variety of migratory shorebirds, waterbirds and seabirds all utilize the wetland area. Wedge-tailed Shearwaters use the dune areas adjacent to the wetland.
Under military use since World War II, Nuʻupia Ponds became critical stilt habitat that aided their recovery from near extinction. Habitat loss and hunting throughout Hawai’i reduced stilt numbers to about 200 birds statewide by the early-1940s.
A ban on hunting prior to World War II permitted the partial recovery of the population and a high of 128 stilts was recorded in 1948 at Nuʻupia Ponds. There was also a period in late-1957 and early-1958 when, for unknown reasons, no birds were found.
Stilt populations on Oʻahu, including those at Nuʻupia Ponds, have shown a steady increase coincident with active habitat management since the 1980s. About 10 percent of the approximately 1,500 Hawaiian stilts native to the state are found here.
Red mangrove seeds first entered in the area in the early-1970s through culverts connecting the pond complex to adjoining bays. By 1974, the mangrove trees had become a pest species. Mangroves cover intertidal soft substrate in most of the tropics, but are not native to Hawaiʻi.
Red mangroves were first introduced to Hawaiʻi from Florida in 1902 to mitigate erosion after the destruction of coastal vegetation on the island of Molokai by humans and livestock.
In response to that, the Marines turned a nuisance into a training operation.
The 30-year-long Mud Ops exercise has Marine vehicles plowing a checkerboard mosaic of mud mounds surrounded by protective moats of water, providing cover from predators, controlling invasive plant growth and providing birds better access to nesting and feeding grounds.
Today, the ponds are part of the 482-acre Nuʻupia Ponds Wildlife Management Area within the Marine Corps Base Hawaiʻi.