An Ancient Fishpond Resurfaces

Lānai’s Waia‘ōpae fishpond once helped feed the island’s people. Today it’s feeding a hunger for culture.

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Waiapoe Restoration Molokai
When the work is complete, volunteers will have rebuilt nearly 2,000 feet of a wall that embraces more than a quarter mile of shoreline and extends 571 feet into the sea. All construction is done by hand, using only the pond’s original rocks. About 10 percent has been reconstructed since June 2015. Once the final stone has been laid and the sediment flow has been altered, the pond will again provide for those who helped raise it from the sea. “You work the pond, you eat the from the pond,” Maly says proudly. Hana ka lima, ‘ai ka waha. Work with your hands and you have food to eat.”

Kepā Maly is senior vice president of culture and historic preservation for Pūlama Lāna‘i, the company that manages business ventures for Lāna‘i’s principal landowner, Oracle founder Larry Ellison.

“In just 100 years,” says Maly, “the ‘normal’ [our youth] grow up with is not the ‘normal’ our island kūpuna [elders] grew up with.” That’s an issue he’s working to change, and one way to do that is rebuilding the fishpond — one silt-covered rock at a time.

At nine acres, Waia‘ōpae is the largest of five fishponds native Hawaiians built on Lāna‘i’s eastern shore prior to Western contact. Together, the ponds once helped feed an island population as high as 6,000 people, and fish were even traded in Lahaina, ten miles across the ‘Au‘au Channel.

Throughout Hawai‘i, fishponds like Waia‘ōpae were vital components of ahupua‘a, or traditional land divisions. Combined with resources found on land such as kalo (taro) ‘ulu (breadfruit) and ‘uala (sweet potato), the fish and shrimp from inside the pond help foster both a healthy ecosystem and healthy residents. Although manmade, they’re considered a natural extension of the land, and as native Hawaiian historian Samuel Kamakau penned in 1869, “O nā loko-i‘a, ‘oia kekāhi mau mea ho‘ohiluhilu o ka ‘āina — fishponds are among the things that beautify the land.”

Had you visited this beach five years ago and gazed where the loko i‘a once stood, the kuapā, or fishpond wall, would be gone, only its submerged foundation and a few rock piles remaining.

Waiapoe Fishpond Restoration
Volunteers pull rocks from the muddy floor and pile them onto the wall. All the motion helps stir up sediment that’s covered the freshwater springs, which, Maly says, is good for the pond. “It’s unclogging the sinuses of the Earth.”

Fortunately, the foundation was intact, and the rocks were there — though the manpower wasn’t. In 2015, Maly started seeking funds to create workday opportunities for volunteers to help gather the rocks and, over time, rebuild the wall. Maly cites, in particular, grants from Pūlama Lāna‘i, the Hawai‘i Community Foundation, the Lāna‘i Culture and Heritage Center, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s B-WET Hawai‘i Program (B-WET stands for Bay Watershed Education and Training, which provides experiential environmental education for youth K–12).

When I joined Maly for one of the workdays and placed my first stone on the wall, the sense of accomplishment was so addicting that I didn’t want to stop, even once the tide started rolling in. There’s an instant pride in helping to turn back the sands of time, and as he stands on the shore, surveying the gradual progress, Maly says, “Instead of feeling apart from this, we can feel that we are a part of it.”

For information on joining a workday at Waia‘ōpae fishpond or other natural and historical sites on Lāna‘i, call 808-565-3301, or visit LaHanaLanai.com.

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