Fishing for the Future
A series of articles on the island’s fishponds.
Uncle Leimana teaches local keiki about marine life at Kahinapohaku. Photo by Petra Wegmann.
By Jennifer Smith
For centuries, ancient Hawaiians looked to loko i`a, fishponds, for nourishment and livelihood; today, groups throughout the islands are turning to past knowledge in the hopes of reviving this rich cultural resource.
Molokai alone hosts over 60 fishponds, which are amongst Hawaii’s greatest engineering achievements. The semi-circular walls of the ponds are meant to keep fish in, while allowing seawater to circulate.
Unfortunately a lack of fresh water, an abundance of invasive mangrove and sea life, sedimentation from eroding uplands, and a lack community involvement have caused Molokai’s fishponds to fall into a state of disrepair.
Luckily, dedicated konohiki also known as caretakers, and volunteers throughout the Friendly Isle believe in the future of the fishponds and continue to put in the time and hard work to revive what was once one of the island’s most thriving resources.
Today’s konohiki are working to do more than repair walls. The restoration effort involves such things as educating the island’s youth, creating culture-based experiences, supporting responsible tourism, and promoting sustainability.
While the ponds may never produce the abundance of fish they once did, community support is redefining Molokai’s loko i`a as epicenters for education, culture, and fellowship.
An ongoing series of stories in The Dispatch will re-introduce some of the island’s caretakers, and provide updates on the future of fishponds on Molokai.
While not the biggest fishpond on the island, Kahinapohaku is certainly one of the most visible. The four-acre fishpond is located at the 19-and-a-half mile marker on the East End of Molokai. Most drivers could recognize the pond from the highway by its outrigger canoe, surrounding coconut shacks, and breathtaking view of Maui.
Literally translated, Kahinapohaku means Hina’s Rock; in Hawaiian culture Hina is regarded as the mother of Molokai. But caretaker Leimana Raymond Naki said the fishpond has a deeper physical and spiritual meaning.
“It is a place where the rocks support each other,” under the water and above the water, Naki said.
And if anyone would know the true meaning of Kahinapohaku it would be Naki, who has been involved with the fishpond for nearly a decade, including the last three years which he has dedicated to living there full-time. According to Naki, he and his `ohana gave up the comforts of electricity and running water to care-take the area and ensure its revitalization.
A Mighty Task
Naki said revitalization and restoration are understatements to describe what needs to be done for the fishpond, explaining that it is not just a “project.”
“By having Kahinapohaku it gives pride in our culture,” he said. “Our ancestors, our enemies, our neighbors ate from here.”
However, today Naki said the fishpond is hurting. Contrary to what some may think, the Naki `ohana does not fish from Kahinapohaku. “Right now no one should be taking fish from the pond.”
Kahinapohaku’s broken walls have prevented her from healing and replenishing the fish communities, according to Naki.
“When the walls go up, the fish goes in,” he said. And it is with this belief that he continues trying to find the means to get the walls back up.
It would take several months for a dedicated group of hard workers to get the wall back up, Naki said. He is looking for grants that would allow him to pay workers to come to the pond, but continues to thank the efforts of local volunteers.
“You need the community support to take care of a fishpond this big,” he said. “For the past 10 years the community has come time and time again … my heart goes to those who come and work.”
Fishponds and Island Youth
While getting the walls back up is Plan A for Naki, he has also worked very hard to support the pond and his culture through Plan B: education. He regularly holds workshops at Kahinapohaku for local children, clubs, and the occasional island visitors.
“Education is the key,” Naki said. He provides workshops on everything from traditional ways of laying net, to hula, music, and mo`olelo.
While his services are open to anyone on the island, the kids keep him going. “They give me the strength,” he said.
And for the past two and a half years Naki has also enjoyed the help of a dedicated German transplant, Petra Gabriela Wegmann.
While attending a workshop in Munich given by Maori and Hawaiian women, Wegmann was told by one of the lecturers, “It is time for you to come home to Hawaii.” A few years later she found herself regularly commuting back and forth, and today she said she knows more Hawaiian songs than German.
Helping Naki to run workshops, and teach the importance of revitalizing Kahinapohaku Wegmann said, “I see the purpose of this place.” She said her friend and mentor’s purpose is not to get paid and then do his work; his purpose is to perpetuate the culture.
Feeling passionate about the fishponds ability to educate children in ways that traditional classrooms cannot, the teaching duo encourages teachers to bring their students to the pond.
"My classroom is round and it is an open space, they are not confined here," Naki said. “Some children don't belong in a box, in the classroom."
Having never seen kids “so happy,” Wegmann said many don’t want to leave at the end of the day. “They can’t believe it’s really a school class.”
This is perhaps why youth groups continue to visit Kahinapohaku to learn. In June, several groups including Ho`olana from Kamehameha Schools, Summer Pals, Keiki Steps, Te Ihi Connections performers, and Alu Like attended workshops about traditional fishing techniques and practices.
"It's good because it's about our culture," said Elano Naki, Leimana’s wife and the main coordinator for youth groups at the pond.
“I’m glad we have something like this for our kids,” Naki said. "This is our island, our resources."
However, even when Naki is teaching about the fish in the fishpond he said he makes sure to get the fish from elsewhere. “I fish outside because I respect the inside of this fishpond.”
Naki found his way back to his cultural roots after enrolling his daughter in Punanaleo Hawaiian Immersion Preschool nearly 15 years ago. Born in territorial Hawaii, and having witnessed decades of change on Molokai, he is grateful for the opportunity to support the island’s cultural heritage.
"To me we struggled as a Hawaiian people," Naki said. He described how the kanaka maoli suffered a great loss when they became a state. He said they lost their hula, music, `olelo, and were forbidden to speak their native language.
Today Naki sees his continued hard work in the fishpond as a type of therapy, a reminder of his struggles as a youth. He said whether it is a fishpond or a taro patch, it is a way for the people to connect back to their culture.
"This is the path I needed to take to understand my people," he said, looking out at the cool water and warm stones of the breathtaking fishpond. “It is like starting over … it’s going to be hard, but we gonna’ make it.”
“There will be fish … fish to provide for community and our families,” Naki said. “What we have here is real … the resources are real.”
For more information on Kahinapohaku call 808-450-7834 and leave a message for Leimana.
In order to help malama Molokai’s fishponds it is important that visitors to the ponds follow proper protocol.
The following are some basic dos and don’ts for following protocol at Kahinapohaku.
• Many of Molokai’s fishponds have konohiki or caretakers: the ponds that are being actively cared for generally welcome volunteers and usually offer classes and other types of opportunities to get involved. Find out more from the pond’s caretaker.
• Pond work is always better with a group. School fields trips, church groups, non-profit and for-profit organizations usually welcome volunteer groups. Plan ahead of time when scheduling your visit.
• Be respectful: always ask to enter a pond area or to take pictures.
• It’s better to give than to take. Whether you’re Hawaiian or not, know your kuleana or responsibility toward fishponds.
• Take fish from fishponds; all of Molokai’s ponds are in a state of disrepair or rehabilitation. Instead, see how you can help repair a pond.
• Consider a pond public property. Just because a pond is in the ocean, doesn’t mean it’s public property.
• Walk on the wall, because you could hurt yourself, as well as damage the walls of the pond.
• Kayak in fishponds unless you are actively involved in its repair.
• Attempt to repair a pond unsupervised. There are more than sixty ponds on Molokai – if you’re interested in repairing a pond, get the help of a cultural specialist.