Most days, La‘a PoePoe rides his bike a quarter of a mile from his home in Moloka‘i, Hawai‘i, to the nearby Kupeke loko i‘a, or fishpond in English, where he’s the kia‘i loko, the guardian. Fishponds are created by an ancient Hawaiian ecological and food production practice that involves fostering a healthy and safe carve-out within the ocean. However, fishponds have faced years of neglect and disrepair, evidencing how decades of colonialism and forced assimilation by the U.S. government have separated Hawaiians from their culture.
In recent years, Hawaiians have been leading an effort to honor and reimplement land practices and foodways that kept the Hawaiian islands healthy and Hawaiian peoples fed. And in the years since the pandemic began, developing a food system that’s independent from colonial and mainland U.S. imports and adaptive to the impacts of climate change has proved even more important. Those who care for fishponds and lead their restoration efforts insist that while colonial history can’t be undone, its impacts can be healed if the land is healed.
Restoring fishponds and traditional foodways
PoePoe was raised in the traditional style of Hawaiian fishing: when he was young, older men brought him to the ocean to observe their practices. There was no talking, just careful observation and development of his own intuition, both of which are vital parts of caring for and restoring the Kupeke loko i‘a. In Hawaiian language, observation is called “kilo,” a skill that needs to be honed over years of working directly with the land. It’s so second nature that PoePoe can’t exactly describe what goes into it, but he can say what he’s looking for.
He’s looking for invasive species like algae, gaps in the rock wall, and native fish swimming around. There are different types of loko i‘a, most of them built 800-1,000 years ago, but most have the same main features: a rock wall made of pieces of lava or other found rock, a gate in the wall that allows small and mid-sized fish to come and go but prevents larger fish from swimming out into the ocean, and a bountiful ecology of algae, phytoplankton, and coral—anything the fish might want to feed off of.
In 2018, PoePoe and his wife, Mahina PoePoe, founded a nonprofit organization to formalize the restoration of the Kupeke loko i‘a, one of many efforts across the Hawaiian islands to return the loko i‘a to working order. It was also a response, PoePoe said, to the growing grip of tourism on the islands, changes that climate change was bringing to the land, and lack of action in response to those pressures.
“The politics of the island seemed like we have to provide more examples on Moloka‘i that we mean business when we’re saying that we don’t want more tourism. We don’t want development,” PoePoe said. “We need more dirt on our fingers.”
Now, PoePoe leads the restoration of the loko i‘a. Volunteers help repair the rock wall, which is “always floating away, so you got to put them back up,” he said. Day to day, the work changes, between clearing pollution, doing kilo, and following up kilo with water monitoring that can offer an empirical data point about water health and quality. There are plant pollutants, like invasive algae and mangrove, which prevent fish from swimming into the loko i‘a and disrupt the pH balance of the water, and there are other pollutants, like sediment runoff and oil from the highway when there’s a heavy rain.
The Hawaiian islands sit in the Pacific ocean gyre, which spits out pollution and plastic from thousands of miles away. PoePoe said that he’s found plastic baskets, fishing nets, toothbrushes, and mylar balloons caught in the loko i‘a. But even then, these are the kinds of pollution that PoePoe and volunteers can remove easily, even if the work is tedious. What’s less easily navigable are the changes that worsening climate change is bringing, like rising sea levels and a loss of shoreline.
“We are more sensitive to changes in the environment [and] the climate,” PoePoe said. It’s a question of “if we’re going to be able to beat the clock, between now and 3.2 millimeters,” PoePoe said, referring to the predicted sea level rise per year. “There’s a height where the fishpond will cease to exist.”
Getting off the system of imports
The counts of loko i‘a differ depending on who you ask. Some studies say there are 255 across the Hawaiian islands now, while others point to 500 different fishponds. Peleke Flores, the Kū Hou Kuapā Coordinator at Alakoko fishpond in Kaua‘i, estimates there might have been over 1,000 at some point, but many of them were either washed away by tsunamis and never restored or intentionally destroyed by plantation owners and colonists in the 18th-20th centuries.
Until the contact with colonialists in the late 1700s, Hawai‘i had a robust and self-sustaining food system. From the land and small farms, Hawaiians ate a variety of fish, root vegetables like taro, and fruits. Over the next 100 years, colonizers would introduce pigs, cattle, and goats, which tore at the landscape and decimated forested areas. The overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom by the U.S. military in 1893 gave way to the plantation era, which razed thousands of acres of land to create sugarcane and pineapple plantations.
After WWII, the tourism industry ballooned, and as more non-Hawaiians started to frequent and settle in the islands, food imports increased to meet their dietary demands. In the 1960s, over 6,000 farms were operational in Hawai‘i, with locally grown foods seeing a rapid decline over the next 10 years. Now, Hawai‘i imports more than 80% of its food at a cost of $3 billion annually, and nearly 90% of the small farms on the islands earn less than $50,000 annually.
This method of food production, or rather, food procurement, is expensive. A family of four is expected to spend an average of $14,000 annually on food; while imports are plentiful, a third of it goes bad before it reaches actual customers, and the high price of food helps to absorb the losses. The land is rich enough to feed all Hawaiians and people who live on Hawai‘i, but nearly half of Hawai‘i’s families with children say that they don’t have enough food. A survey from the University of Hawai‘i found that 27% of Native Hawaiians are food insecure.
Flores said that on the Kaua‘i, where he lives, residents have two days worth of supplies to sustain themselves if imports don’t arrive. “Once we start feeding ourselves we [can] get off the system,” Flores said. “That’s what the system is really relying on—that everybody zombie out.”
Flores hopes that when the fishpond is fully restored in four years, Hawaiians won’t be dependent on the shipping containers that get unloaded in Kaua‘i’s ports each day. Flores and others with the nonprofit Malama Huleia are working quickly to heal the fishpond along the Huleia River on the island, which is overgrown with invasive red mangrove, harmful algae, and layers of sediment. The team is working in phases to address each of the contaminants, and Flores is hopeful that in the long run, the fishpond can be a self-sustaining system that feeds people and supports the ocean’s fish populations.
“We were on the brink of being able to tell our next generation that, oh yeah, we’ve seen this pond die in our generation,” Flores said. According to the organization’s calculations, the mangroves would have enclosed the whole fishpond in two more decades and blocked all water flow.
Even in this beginning phase of clearing mangroves, baby fish are starting to return to the fishpond, which he said is an indicator of freshwaters becoming a healthy habitat, full of phytoplankton and good minerals.
“A healthy fish pond can be considered an indicator of a healthy system,” Flores said. Planting native plants like taro in the more mountainous parts of the island can heal the soil, which in turn creates a healthy river for the fish to return to. When the fish come back, the birds come back, and the cycle continues.”
Though the fishpond isn’t a working farm yet, Flores said that working with young Hawaiians has brought to the forefront the other importance of restoring an ancestral food system. “I see restoring these kinds of systems a little more than just a fishpond,” Flores said. “Learn the system, and from the system learn our culture, and from the culture learn about politics and slowly get people to be more confident and relearning history that hasn’t been taught to us in school.”
“We are Kanaka. We are of this place. We are Hawai‘i.”
Other farming adaptations that combine ancestral foodways with modern technologies are emerging to meet the food security needs of Hawaiian families and the challenges brought by a changing climate.
“Aquaponics is a really unique opportunity to utilize ancestral technologies,” said Josh Mori, the executive director of Iwikua, an educational and cultural organization that sells direct to consumer via farm stands, maintains contracts with 11 restaurants on the island and teaches young people aquaponic farming. He said that this summer has presented challenges he hasn’t seen before, particularly with hotter water temperatures.
The farm produces lettuces, arugula, watermelon, and other fruits. Manure from fish, typically tilapia, is later used as fertilizer. The system is holistic, and Mori said it mimics how fishponds are a part of the continuous water cycle that flows from the mountain to the ocean to the sky and back again.
Because of the heat this summer, water temperature hovered around 84 degrees, which Mori said makes it difficult for plant roots to absorb any nutrients. Water diversions from rivers on the west side of Kaua‘i by contractors and private companies for later use by the U.S. military also pose a long-term threat to sustainability of the island’s ecosystems.
For now, Mori is hopeful that Iwikua is demonstrating that food production can be regenerative and offer healthy food that has a low carbon footprint, as Hawaiians “continue to reclaim traditional farming and traditional farming practices.”
Other efforts are working to bring regenerative aquaculture systems directly into Hawaiians’ backyards. Ilima Ho-Lastimosa, a third-generation Native Hawaiian resident of Waimānalo, Hawai‘i, and co-founder of the Waimānalo Pono Research Hui, piloted a project in 2018 to install aquaponic tanks in residents’ backyards so that they could grow their own food and raise their own fish. In the four years since, she said that they’ve installed hundreds of aquaponic systems, which mimic the workings of a traditional loko i‘a.
What she’s noticed more in the past years, though, isn’t just a desire to wrest control of food systems away from the Matson containers, but a drive to heal community and the ocean, together. Tourist slow-downs brought by the pandemic allowed the beaches to rest for a few months, and Ho-Lastimosa said that gave way to a big limu—or algae—bloom. Her father, who’s 77, didn’t think he would see something like that in his lifetime. She and others are still seeing positive growth and the return of native fish populations.
“The abundance of life in the ocean is beautiful. It’s amazing. It’s transformative,” Ho-Lastimosa said.
It’s also allowed for the newest generations of Hawiians to know the ocean and their Hawaiian heritage from a young age. Ho-Lastimosa said that she, and many of her generation, wasn’t raised knowing the Hawaiian language, just one of many of the ways ongoing colonization has spliced Hawaiian culture from its people.
“There was a time that people were ashamed of being Hawaiian,” Ho-Lastimosa said. There’s a movement now, she said, to take back what it means to be Hawaiian by learning language, history, culture, and traditions. In other words, there’s a movement to resist the Americanization that the tourist industry and system of food imports are implicitly advocating for.
Now, Ho-Lastimosa said, “All of the practices come alive again. That generation are now in their 30s, and they are raising their children from birth in all of our practices. We’re just closing the gap.” She added, “We are Kanaka. We are of this place. We are Hawai‘i.”