Issue 10.2: April / May 2007

Healing He‘eia

story by Catharine Lo
photos by Brad Goda

 

Some places are best characterized by the sounds associated with them: The energetic Afro-Cuban beat of the conga drums on the cobbled streets of Havana, say, or the clinking waterfalls of coins dropping from slot machines inside the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. At the He‘eia fishpond, there are only nature’s gentle interruptions of silence: a fish breaking the calm surface of the water, the occasional squawk from a passing bird, small ripples lapping the edge of the stone retaining wall as the tide rises and falls.

Seen from above, He‘eia’s 1.3-mile-long wall of basalt and coral appears to be a living lei, enclosing an eighty-eight-acre pocket of windward O‘ahu’s Kane‘ohe Bay. A sliver of a subdivision borders one quarter of the ring, built on the bluffs overlooking the bay. The lush vegetation of He‘eia State Park borders another quarter, surrounding also the freshwater stream that empties into the pond. On the seaward half of the pond, fingers of the fringing reef reach out beyond the wall and into the great turquoise-blue Pacific.

But what isn’t seen or heard on the surface at He‘eia is the reason for its existence: pualu, moi, awa, kaku, papio, ‘ama‘ama—surgeonfish, threadfin, milkfish, barracuda, juvenile jack, mullet. During precontact times, it’s estimated that this loko i‘a—only one of many fishponds that once existed in the lush Ko‘olau Poko district—fed a community of several thousand. And it’s this function that ultimately defines He‘eia’s sense of place.

“For me, as a Hawaiian, I know that I’m walking in the footprints of my ancestors,” says Mahina Paishon Duarte, the executive director of Paepae O He‘eia, the nonprofit organization that is currently restoring the pond. “They left a wonderful blueprint for sustainability. It’s good to know that the first engineers were thinking of ways to feed the population.”

But in addition to its deep cultural roots, this particular fishpond has a modern resonance and import: Its position as a buffer between rural areas and urban sprawl encouraged Paepae O He‘eia to include the outlying community in managing the resource. “What I think we lack is time for us—people in the community and managers of the pond—to become intimate with the rhythm and the nuances of the environment itself. If we have a place where we can model good behavior—sound practices of caring for our resources and a sustainable lifestyle, along with good decision-making and ethics—then it’s possible for the next generation to carry that on.”


 

Built stone-by-stone more than 600 years ago, He‘eia’s wall measures five feet high and between ten and fourteen feet wide, and was a massive engineering effort that no doubt involved much if not all of the populace. The fishpond, one of two dozen in Kane‘ohe Bay, was as essential a food source as the taro fields that grew upland. “Fish from the ponds gave life to men, women and children and to the family,” wrote historian Samuel Kamakau in 1869. “If a stranger, or a land overseer arrived in the night, the dwellers were prepared; they could quickly get the fish that had grown fully developed scales and hard heads, and the container of poi. Then the poi, the awa (milkfish), the ‘anae (full-sized mullet), were placed in front of the stranger or the overseer, or friends, perhaps. Thus they lived in the old days, and that is why the ‘children’ of places that had fishponds loved the lands where they dwelt.”

Anthropologist Marion Kelly, writing in a Bishop Museum report titled Loko I‘a O He‘eia: He‘eia Fishpond, notes that according to at least one account, King Kamehameha I may himself have helped to maintain He‘eia fishpond, which remained in the hands of the royal family until 1848. King Kamehameha III then gave it to Abner Paki, the father of Bernice Pauahi Bishop, out of whose estate was established Kamehameha Schools. Today, the fishpond remains under the jurisdiction of Kamehameha Schools.

He‘eia was still in active use into the 1960s, but a major flood in 1965 broke open a seaward portion of its wall and the pond fell into disrepair. But even before then, it had long been threatened by changes in the land surrounding it. Over the course of the previous century, taro fields became rice paddies and then cattle pastures, sugar cane and pineapple fields—all activities that resulted in erosion and sedimentation. Dredging of the bay and urban development in Kane‘ohe also polluted the pond, while roots of the invasive and fast-growing red mangrove destroyed portions of the wall.

As its environment transformed, the sense of place that used to anchor He‘eia became muted—as the walls broke, so did the pond’s spirit. By the time of the 1965 flood, the fishpond had caught the attention of developers, who eventually managed to have portions of it rezoned from “agricultural” to “urban,” which would have allowed for landfill and construction within the area encircled by its wall. Fortunately, in 1973, members of the community succeeded in having He‘eia designated a National Historic Site. The following year, the fishpond was zoned as conservation land.

In 1989, an aquaculturist named Mary Brooks leased the fishpond and its surrounding property and began mending the walls. In the ’90s, she established a fishpond management course at UH-Manoa’s Center for Hawaiian Studies, and her students joined her in the ongoing restoration work. Paepae O He‘eia, in partnership with landowner Kamehameha Schools, became the pond’s official steward in 2003.

Restoring the fishpond is no easy chore. Twice a month, anywhere from forty to 100 volunteers gather for community workdays. In the last three years, nearly 3,000 volunteers, under the guidance of Paepae managers, have helped in removing 30,000 square feet of tangled mangroves, hauling the wood out of the pond for later use as either firewood or construction material. In that same period, they’ve repaired 600 feet of wall, restacking stones that had been disrupted by eels or invasive mangrove roots and bringing in thirty tons of coral fill and fifteen tons of rock fill for reinforcement. Duarte estimates it costs about $1,500 to refurbish a 100-foot section of the wall.

Fishpond management also requires constant attention. In Loko I‘a O He‘eia, Marion Kelly quotes Yee Hee, whose family served as custodians of the He‘eia fishpond in the early 20th century. “People think it is easy,” says Hee. “They say all you have to do is scoop up the mullet and sell them. They forget you have to patch walls, mend nets, catch the fry and bring them back, feed the fish, raise and lower the gates whenever the tide changes, day or night, and sometimes work all night.”

 


 

There are six makaha along He‘eia’s wall, sluice grates that regulate the flow of freshwater from the land and saltwater from the sea. The resulting brackish environment is ideal for the type of algae that young fish feed on, and the makaha are also used to manage the fish stocks—their bars are just wide enough to allow young fish into the pond, while excluding larger predators (and trapping mature fish within the pond’s confines). For Duarte, these interactions serve as an important metaphor.

“The concept of where the fresh and saltwater mix—for us, it’s like facing the idea that science and culture can co-exist in a harmonious way,” she says. “It’s a tough question: How much do we borrow from the past and how much do we borrow from today’s ideas? A lot of times they’re in conflict, but this is a model that shows they can make a good marriage. It’s proof that we don’t have to abandon all of our traditional ideas and we don’t have to discount all technology.”

Duarte estimates that the pond has the potential to support the food needs of 1,500 people, and Paepae O He‘eia ultimately hopes that He‘eia fishpond will be an integral component in the community’s physical as well as spiritual sustenance. Last September, the organization took a giant step toward that goal, offering up the pond’s first harvest of moi (threadfin) since the group took over as caretakers of the fishpond. Also on sale that day were limu (seaweed), cooked taro and lu‘au leaves, and other organic products grown on local farms throughout windward O‘ahu’s Ko‘olau Poko district, from Maunawili to Waiahole.

“The pond is not as productive as it once was, precontact,” Duarte says. “But it is productive and vibrant in the sense that there is a huge population that is interested and cares for the place. The pond has attracted so many people from all over the island, even from national and international scientific communities. It’s not necessarily teeming with fish at this time—but it is teeming with people, and at those times when I get to step back and see the pond bursting with kids and families caring for its walls and its life, I realize it’s really, really important that we continue to do this.” HH