The Hawai'i Voices of Science episodes tell natural resource stories on Hawai'i Island.
Native Hawaiians were some of the first fish-farmers in history. 800 years ago, they built large fishponds where they’d raise fish for the whole community. And nature provided, too. Naturally-formed fishponds dotted the coast of the Big Island of Hawaii. Today, Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park works hard to maintain these symbols of the past, to preserve them for our future.
Voices of Science: Fishponds at Kaloko-Honokōhau
At Kaloko-Honokōhau, there is an effort to restore traditional fishponds that preserve both nature and culture.
Narrator: For the National Park Service, I’m Brittni Connell and you’re listening to Voices of Science.
Narrator: Native Hawaiians were some of the first fish-farmers in history. 800 years ago, they built large fishponds where they’d raise fish for the whole community. And the way they worked was really ingenious. People would build a wall around a lagoon or inlet where there were springs. This created a nutrient-rich pond with a mix of both fresh and saltwater. Fish love it. There would be a small opening in the wall — a kind of gate, really — where small fish could enter the fishpond. The fishpond keepers would cultivate algae for the fish to eat. So, the fish would grow and get too big to swim out of the gate. Perfect, right? Fully stocked fishpond. This went on for hundreds of years.
After Western contact in the late 1700s, aspects of Native Hawaiian culture declined. With time and neglect, the fishponds deteriorated. But there’s a movement to reclaim traditional culture and reestablish fully-functioning fishponds. Fishponds that preserve both nature and culture. And serve the people in the community by producing food. At Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park there are two fishponds where these restoration efforts are underway.
We’ll start at the Aimakapa fishpond.
Jackson Letchworth: You guys can feel this Kona heat. You're kind of lucky we got a little breeze today. This is not the norm. It's usually pretty stagnant air here at Aimakapa and it's just hot. It's really hot.
Narrator: Jackson Letchworth is a biologist at Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park. He’s the lead for the Aimakapa Fishpond restoration project. The Aimakapa fishpond is actually a naturally-formed pond. There’s a long, sandy berm that separates it from the sea. And it’s connected to both freshwater springs and the ocean underground.
Over the years, the fishpond has been totally choked out by invasive plants. The natural food sources for the fish and birds that once thrived here are gone. So, Jackson and his team are working to remove those plants. Beads of sweat are cutting little channels through the sunscreen on his nose.
Jackson: More or less it's all done manually. So, a lot of the work is done in full waders, which don't breathe very well. (laughs) Full waders out there in the pond, in the mud using shovels and saws to remove these clumps of paspalum grass.
Narrator: Each clump of paspalum grass they remove weighs about 50 pounds. Crew members have to lift and haul each one of these three or four times before it’s all said and done.
Jackson: It's really backbreaking work. Anybody that can do it for several months should definitely be applauded. We have a pretty amazing crew with us. We hit the two acre mark and it's all because of the crew. So yeah, big mahalo to them.
It's an incredibly difficult task that is actually really hard to describe. It's really difficult to describe how tough it is.
Narrator: But for Jackson, getting down in the muck to clear out the invasive plants is totally worth it. Invasive plant removal at Aimakapa has allowed insects and other organisms to return to the estuary. And now, Aimakapa is becoming prime real estate for different kinds of shorebirds.
Jackson shades his eyes and points to a slender and graceful-looking bird across the pond.
Jackson: Just on the edge there, the white and black bird with the really long, red legs, that's the ae'o, which is the Hawaiian stilt.
Narrator: Stilts are water birds named for their long legs. Seriously. If this bird was a mammal, it would be a giraffe. The Hawaiian subspecies, the ae’o, is endangered. A big decline in their preferred habitat is one of the things Hawaiian stilts are up against. Ae’o like wetlands with nice, open mudflats. And here at Aimakapa, that’s exactly the kind of habitat that Jackson and his team are trying to bring back.
Jackson: Typically, the last few years, our bird counts here, our bird surveys for the stilt has been about five to eight, so a couple pairs that have called this place home. That's been pretty consistent. Just in the last two months, we've really seen that number jump up.
We were out here one day and we counted. I believe it was 17 birds, and then the next day we counted 18. I was thinking, "Oh wow, that's pretty amazing. Maybe they're just visiting us." The next day we had 21, and then 23. It happened several days in a row all the way up to 67. And the really neat thing, or the rewarding part of that, is they're staying with us and they're really spending most of their time in the area that we've actually worked to restore.
Yeah, it's pretty amazing and I'm honored just to be able to be a part of it...and I would be okay with helping get dirty in the mud at Aimakapa for the rest of my life.
Narrator: On the other side of the park, Benson Chong stands on the massive rock structure he works to maintain. The Kaloko Fishpond wall. It's huge. 30-40 feet wide, 6 1/2 feet high, and stretching 250 yards, it's made up of stones that he and his crew move and stack. One-by-one in the traditional way.
Benson Chong: 800 years ago, we didn’t have stores back then. All we had was this, this was our icebox. This meant something, this is how we lived…
Narrator: Today, the Kaloko fishpond still means something. The fishpond stands as an example of Native Hawaiian ingenuity, of living in close connection with nature.
As the master mason for the park, it’s Benson’s job to maintain this enormous stone wall that shelters the fishpond from the powerful waves just beyond.
Benson: The cap stones, which is the papale, is for the top. The long, flat stones. Nice, flat faces...
Narrator: Nice, flat faces that are good for walking or standing on the top of the fishpond wall.
Benson: The niho stones is the big, round stones, which we use for the bottom to help brace the waves. And the hakahaka is just small fills, medium size, that doesn't have no face, no purpose for the visual sense, and we just use that to fill in the back.
Narrator: Determining what’s a papale stone, a niho stone or a hakahaka stone takes some practice, but figuring out where each stone goes and how to orient it? Well that’s where we get into the real art and spirit of this kind of traditional architecture.
Benson: And touching the stones, it's not just a stone but it has meaning you kind of feel like a purpose for it. And sometimes you're trying to set it, but it won't set, but when you kind of roll it, sometimes the stones kind of sets itself. It kind of speaks for itself when you're actually working on it.
You know, some of these stones, they say that even King Kamehameha came to help build this wall. So I mean stones we touching is from ancestors 800 years ago, so you can kind of feel the energy when you help repair this wall.
Narrator: The repairs are perpetual, because really, all walls against nature are temporary.
As strong waves come in from the sea, they inevitably take out sections of wall from time to time.
Benson: I mean people see this …... And it goes down and the whole front is gone on both sides. And you gotta come back and fix them. And they're like, "Are you not tired of doing this? Doesn't this make you feel sad that the wave destroyed it?" And I tell them, it's Mother Nature, can't do anything about it, but if you love your job, and you love what you do, I mean there's nothing that will hold you back in continuing your job…
Narrator: While Benson is talking, I can’t help but think of all the people I know who might think his job of moving huge stones by hand is just too hard. And yet, here he is talking about how important this work is to him and how gratified he is by his responsibility. Hawaiians have a word for this.
Benson: Yeah, this is my kuleana, my responsibility.
Narrator: It’s a responsibility that was passed down to Benson from Master Mason Peter Keka.
Benson: Uncle Peter Keka passed away. And when he passed away my foreman above me was his nephew, Jay Keka. And I've learned from Jay and I've learned from Uncle Peter. Now it's me, passing it on. And as the lead, I mean not only as a federal employee, but just as a native or someone living here. It feels pretty awesome. So the purpose is just perpetuate this culture, of this historical place, this significance, and to pass it on...
Narrator: Back at Aimakapa, Jackson says he feels this way, too. In fact, he used another Hawaiian word. “Malama.” Which means to care for, or protect.
Jackson: What makes Aimakapa even more special and the whole park as a whole is that it's not just the natural environment, equally so, it's the cultural resources.
And because of that I think people should experience these places and feel the energy here. It’s kind of hard to describe the significance of not just this place, but places like it. Especially in the world we live in today. If you look, we're surrounded by development and commercialism. We know that's not going to stop. Because of that, I think it's even more important to preserve places like this. They should be preserved and maintained forever.
Narrator: Voices of Science is produced by the National Park Service in cooperation with the Acoustic Atlas at Montana State University. Our staff includes Jennifer Jerrett, David Restivo, Sara Melena, and me, Brittni Connell.
Special thanks to Jon Jokiel, Tyler Paikuli-Campbell, Benson Chong, and Jackson Letchworth at Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park.
To learn more about the park, visit their webiste at nps.gov/kaho. Find more episodes of Voices of Science at go. nps.gov/vos. Thanks for listening.