Story by Michael Shapiro
Photos by Monte Costa
With one huge hand, Craig Carvalho points to a water tank perched on the lava high above the shoreline. “See how that telephone pole lines up against the tank?” he says, more than once, to make sure I do see it. “That’s how we find the ko‘a.” He tells me that Hawaiians would often plant coconut trees to use as maka ko‘a, or the landmarks a fisherman uses to find his ko‘a, his fishing grounds. But there aren’t many coconut palms on the scorched terrain, so he triangulates using telephone poles and water tanks instead. With pinpoint accuracy. “Hawaiian GPS!” he grins.
I’m honored that Craig’s telling me this because the location of a ko‘a isn’t often shared with outsiders. For generations the families of this area have nurtured their respective ko‘a and abided by the kapu, the unwritten rules about where one may and may not fish. Not that I could take advantage of such information: The kind of fishing Craig does is practiced by only a few people these days — maybe five, he guesses— using an old if not ancient technique that takes years of practice and a saint’s patience. Craig’s a master at it —he’s been fishing for ‘opelu since he was ten years old. You won’t find this small, meaty fish in Island restaurants, but for as long as anyone can remember, the ‘opelu (mackerel scad) has been a staple for the people of Miloli‘i, and the ingenious method their ancestors developed for catching it works really well if you know what you’re doing. During the season Craig says he can net two or three hundred pounds on a single pull.
In the aft of Craig’s small boat, 13-year-old Keanu Caldwell hunches, looking like he’d rather be anywhere else. Normally Craig’s son Nainoa would be helping him, but this morning Nainoa’s out spearfishing in a tournament. Keanu tries to follow Craig’s instructions on setting up the ‘upena, the net, but ‘opelu fishing’s not really Keanu’s thing. In fact, boats in general aren’t his thing: He gets seasick. Tough break for a kid growing up in a fishing village, but like a lot of the kids down in Miloli‘i, Keanu has no desire to pull net like his family before him. He wants to be a pilot.
The net ready, Craig picks up the “glass box,” a homemade device for looking underwater. Affixed to one end of an oblong wood box is a glass plate; at the other is an open hole for viewing. He puts the glass end in the water and peers into the depths, hoping to spot a single ‘opelu—the one that will lead him back to the “pile,” the main school, which could number in the hundreds of thousands. When I ask how old this way of fishing is, Craig says nobody’s sure but that it goes back to at least the early nineteenth century and probably into pre-contact times. When I point out that ancient Hawaiians wouldn’t have had glass, he smiles. “Kukui oil,” he says, explaining that the Hawaiians would pour the oil of the candlenut tree on the water, creating a sheen through which they could spy fish.
“Come on, buddy,” he implores, speaking into the glass box. “This is your ‘ohana! Come on, you scaly one, where you at?” When and if Craig finds the pile, he’ll have maybe thirty seconds to get his net in and back out of the water before the fish wise up. “You gotta be fast,” he tells me without taking his eye from the glass box. “You cannot mess around. With this guy,” he says, meaning the ‘opelu, “if you’re not fast enough, the school just pass.” Efficient as it is, this way of fishing isn’t as exciting— or as lucrative — as going after ‘ahi, ‘ono, mahimahi: fish that restaurants buy and that support a multimillion-dollar sport fishing industry against which traditional fishermen like Craig must compete.
“That’s why the kids don’t want to get involved,” Craig laments. “You gotta know a lot of different things. You gotta be patient. Me? I love this, doing what my grandparents did, and I hope and pray that the kids keep up the tradition.”
Craig glances at Keanu, who’s white-knuckling the gunwale. “What about you, Keanu?” he teases. “You see yourself doing this in the future?” Keanu says nothing, but his pallor answers for him.