Fishponds were great examples of early ingenuity amongst a native people. Hawaiians studied the tides, moon, and sun and realized that they could harvest fish within a confined area. Similar to fish traps in Polynesia, fishponds use the same idea of taking advantage of natural phenomena to their advantage.
Today, fish are raised and harvested from fabricated fish pens and off-shore enclosures. In ancient Hawai‘i, Hawaiians used a similar method to ensure that fish would be available for the community. Loko i‘a, or fishponds, were used by ancient Hawaiians for food, trade and were symbols of wealth.
Fishponds, found in the sea and some on land, were considered part of the land. Ali‘i (chiefs) who ruled the land were considered wealthy if they had many loko i‘a under their jurisdiction. You see, in order to build a loko i‘a, a large work force was needed. In fact, over 10,000 people were needed to reconstruct Kō‘ie‘ie Fishpond several hundred years ago!
The idea of fishponds are simple. The loko kuapā was made of a kuapā (rock wall) and a mākāhā (sluice gate). The kuapā was built higher than the highest tides of the year. Its rocks were strategically placed so that each rock interlocked with the other. To ensure stability, smaller rocks and pebbles were wedged in gaps.
The outer wall faced the ocean. Hawaiians were ingenious in designing it with a slight slope and not at a 90 degree angle. This slope allowed wave energy to dissipate as it hit the wall and therefore, created less of an impact.
The mākāhā were traditionally made of ‘ōhi‘a or other strong woods. The pieces of wood were lashed together with vertical spaces. When Hawaiians engineered these gates, the gates were stationary. In the early 1900’s, the Chinese modified the design which contained two gates that were movable. This allowed fish to be caught between the gates and improved the catch.
In the early Hawaiian design, the spaces allowed small fish to swim freely in and out of the pond and retained large fish within the pond.
Occasionally, fishponds needed to be maintained. Rocks would be replaced if they had fallen. Algae would be removed if they accumulated. Predatory fish would be fished if they caused a threat to the pond.
Fishponds are masterpieces of Hawaiian engineers. They were a means of bringing the community together and a display of remarkable leadership by the ali‘i (chiefs). In the uplands, the maka‘āinana (commoners) would benefit from the pond’s bounty. Here, the loko i‘a kalo and loko wai, were refrigerators for fish such as ‘o’opu (gobies) and aholehole (Hawaiian flagtail). Towards the ocean, many fishponds were reserved for the ali‘i. People were forbidden to retrieve fish from loko kuapā, such Kō‘ie‘ie. The fish were used for subsistence, ceremonial purposes, and managed carefully to ensure that the resources were not abused.
In the mountains, the loko i‘a kalo utilized water flowing throughout taro patches to raise fish. This type of loko i‘a was mainly used by the maka‘āinana or commoners of the land. ‘O‘opu were the main fish raised in these ponds. Occasionally, young āholehole and ‘awa would be carried from the sea in gourds to the loko i‘a kalo and raised.
Also in the uplands, were loko wai. A loko wai was a natural freshwater pond that was excavated by hand and irrigated through an ‘auwai. ‘Auwai were ditches which diverted water from a river, into a loko, then back into the river. Some loko wai found closer to the ocean contain brackish water as some seawater flows upstream with the tides.
Near the ocean, the loko pu‘uone can be found. This is a fishpond isolated by a pu‘uone (mound of sand) that runs parallel to the sea. It is predominantly salt water with a trickle of freshwater entering through springs or streams. A mākāhā allows the flow of seawater to mix with the freshwater creating a productive area for a large variety of fish.
Along the shorelines, loko kuapā can be found. These fishponds consist of is a kuapā and one or several mākāhā. The rock wall allows water to circulate within the pond and prevents fish from escaping. These walls were built higher than the highest tide of the year. The mākāhā contained vertical slats that allowed small fish to enter the pond and prevented the larger fish from exiting. The water within the pond is brackish as the seawater mixes with fresh water springs or nearby streams. This type of loko i‘a was mainly reserved for the ali‘i class.
Finally, you can occasionally see a fishtrap along Hawai‘i’s shores. These fishtraps or loko ‘umeiki are very similar to the loko kuapā but do not contain mākāhā. Instead, these ponds have rock walls that have a hook design. These hooks were placed where a mākāhā would have been placed for a loko kuapā. This allows currents to gather within these hooked areas and creates a natural trap for fish when currents are running.
“The importance of fishponds in Hawai‘i prior to European contact is illustrated by their numbers and distribution. In 1778, when Captain Cook arrived, about 360 fishponds were identified. In 1990, DHM Planners, Inc., conducted a thorough survey of fishponds and fishtraps in the six major islands and concluded the number to be 488, some distinguished only by remnants of the walls and sluice gates. The large number of ponds and traps on O‘ahu (718) and Hawai‘i (138) reflects the large human populations and the suitability of the landscape with its streams, estuaries, broad plains, and flat coastal reefs for the construction of fishponds. The numbers of fishponds and fishtraps on the other islands were as follows: Moloka‘i (74), Kaua‘i (50), Maui (44), and Lāna‘i (4) with the one pond on Ni‘ihau not included.”
DHM Planners Inc., Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, Applied Research Group, Public Archaeology Section. Hawaiian Fishpond Study: Islands of O‘ahu, Moloka‘i and Hawai‘i. Honolulu: DHM Planners, 1989.
Some of the fishponds represented in
Hui Mālama Loko I‘a.