Fishpond offers window into old Hawaiian waysBy Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi, Honolulu Star Advertiser
2/17/13: No boardroom, no PowerPoint presentations, no catered lunch. Executives of a Waikiki hotel found their professional development meeting at He’eia Fishpond to be a big change from the norm.
Most of them were recent arrivals to Hawaii who didn't know much about local history and culture. Their agenda for that day in September 2008 included fishing in the pond, gutting their catch and cooking and eating it.
"The looks on their faces as they were cleaning the fish were priceless; they were all pretty squeamish," said Kelii Kotubetey, assistant executive director of Paepae o He’eia, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that cares for the pond. "But the knowledge they gained from the experience was equally priceless. When they left, they said they now understood a lot of time, skill and work are involved to take fish from the pond to the plate."
Kotubetey learned that lesson as a volunteer in the summer of 2000. Armed with handsaws and loppers, he and several friends went to He’eia Fishpond to help remove mangrove whose aerial roots were growing into the pond's rock kuapa (wall) and weakening it. To retain water in the pond, a strong wall is essential.
Mangrove also harms the pond's environment because sediment and decaying organic matter build up on the shrub's roots over time. And large stands of mangrove prevent tradewinds from circulating the surface water. Circulating water creates oxygen, which is essential for fish to survive.
"It didn't take long for us to recognize the serious problems the pond was facing with invasive plants and a rapidly deteriorating wall," Kotubetey said. "We knew clearing mangrove was vital to the pond's health."
Over the next year, he continued to volunteer whenever he could, meeting others who shared his commitment to restore the pond and spread the word about its cultural and historical significance. To develop the network and receive funds to reach these goals, they realized they needed to establish a nonprofit organization.
In September 2001, Kotubetey became one of the founding members of Paepae o He’eia, which means "a support of the ahupuaa (land division) of He’eia." In a vivid dream that he had around that time, he said, "I saw He’eia Fishpond clear of invasive plants and with a fully restored wall. I saw families laughing and playing there — a healthy community thriving around the pond. Twelve years and 40,000-plus visitors later, Paepae o He’eia is still striving to make that dream a reality."
Centuries ago, alii (royalty) built ponds to raise fish for consumption during the winter months when tumultuous ocean conditions made deep-sea fishing dangerous. The ponds' sizes varied, depending on the availability of materials to construct them and the number of people they were intended to feed.
Scholars estimate He’eia Fishpond is 600 to 800 years old. Measuring 88 acres, it is encircled by a 1.3-mile kuapa — the longest of its kind in Hawaii. Passing coral and basalt hand to hand, it took villagers throughout He’eia three years to build the wall, which stands about 5 feet high and 12 to 15 feet wide.
Five of six makaha (sluice gates) are in working condition and control the flow of fresh water from He’eia Stream and salt water from Kaneohe Bay into the pond (depending on the tide, the depth ranges from 2 to 5 feet). Brackish water is ideal for fish cultivation because microscopic algae, the primary food of fish in the pond, thrive in it.
Mirroring what was abundant on nearby reefs, awa (milkfish), amaama (Hawaiian striped mullet), mamo (sergeant fish), manini (surgeonfish) and moi (threadfish) were among the species the Hawaiians cultivated long ago.
"Some ponds were reserved at all times for the alii and their retinue," Kotubetey said. "Commoners used others to supplement the fish they were catching from the ocean. There were more than 400 fishponds throughout the Hawaiian chain, so it's hard to imagine the alii, who represented a small percentage of the population, were the only ones eating fish from the ponds."
In its heyday, He’eia Fishpond produced 100 to 200 pounds of fish per acre per year. Legend says Meheanu — a large moo (lizard) that can also appear as a mullet, a white eel or a woman — is the kiai (guardian) of the pond. Lupe Kiai Nui, a giant stingray, is the kiai that patrols the ocean by the kuapa, keeping poachers away.
"Visiting He’eia Fishpond is an amazing experience because it is so many things," Kotubetey said. "It's a living testament to the ingenuity of the Hawaiian people, a working aquaculture farm, an outdoor classroom with relevance to many disciplines of learning, a place for the practice of Hawaiian traditions, and a refuge for spiritual and mental renewal."
According to him, Hawaiian fishponds are on a par with the pyramids of Egypt, Stonehenge of England and the moai (monolithic human figures) of Rapa Nui in terms of engineering. "To build the ponds' walls, the Hawaiians fit stones tightly together in the ‘dry-stack' method of construction, which uses no mortar," he said. "The ponds might not be as famous as other stonework around the world, but they are just as remarkable and impressive, and they provide something none of the others can: food for their communities."
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based freelance writer whose travel features for the Star-Advertiser have won several Society of American Travel Writers awards.
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PAEPAE O HE’EIA
Address: 46-077 Ipuka St., He’eia Guided one-hour tour: $40 for five to 10 people, $60 for 11-20 people, $100 for 21-40 people. Visits by individuals, couples and smaller groups are allowed, but no guide will be provided. Kamaaina rates are listed; call or email for visitor rates.
Fishpond Experience (kamaaina rates): $150 for one to 20 people, $200 for 21-40 people, $250 for 41-50 people, $300 for 51-60 people. This three-hour visit includes a guided tour and a service project.
Time: Arranged upon booking; reservations are required
Notes: The one-hour tour and the Fishpond Experience are offered Monday through Friday. Participants for these activities must be mobile.
Wear comfortable clothes and footwear (the terrain is rocky, uneven and often muddy). For the Fishpond Experience, participants must wear covered shoes, sunscreen, a hat and clothes that they don't mind getting dirty. It's a good idea to bring bottled water, lunch, a towel, a change of clothes and a plastic bag to hold dirty clothes.
Paepae o He’eia welcomes volunteers to assist in its restoration efforts. Community workdays are scheduled from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on the second and fourth Saturdays of most months. Due to limited parking, the number of participants for each workday is capped; please call to reserve a spot.
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