Issue 11.4: August/September 2008

Return of the Konohiki

story by Chris Pala
photo by Monte Costa


Pacific islanders have traditionally relied on fish for their protein. In pre-contact days, Native Hawaiians practiced conservation measures, or kapu, so strict that violators were severely punished, sometimes even killed. Harsh, yes, but as a result, the Islands supported populations equivalent to what they are today, when 90 percent of our seafood is imported.

Hawai‘i’s konohiki, or resource specialists, were responsible for ensuring healthy fish stocks. They knew that fish follow the lunar calendar, and they could predict which species would gather where and when to spawn. The konohiki knew to leave older female moi (threadfin), which produce more eggs than young ones, and not to take large male uhu (parrotfish), which assemble harems.

As the Islands became integrated into the world economy, the kapu were ignored and fish populations collapsed.

Now the konohiki are making a comeback. Led by Mac Poepoe, a 58-year-old retired fireman and lifetime fisherman, a group called Hui Malama o Mo‘omomi has applied ancient knowledge to replenish the bay’s fishery. They’ve brought the biomass off Moloka‘i’s northeastern coast up to 2 tons (total fish weight) per hectare—two to three times the average for the rest of Hawai‘i’s waters.

This year the group published a unique fishing calendar. Rather than showing when to fish, like other lunar fishing calendars, this one emphasizes when not to fish. For instance, “no harvesting of spiny lobster during peak summer spawning season,” and “release females smaller than 1 pound and larger than 4 pounds.”

How detailed is information passed down through oral tradition? “Their wealth of knowledge far exceeds anything that a scientist could learn studying a particular location,” says Alan Friedlander, a fisheries ecologist at NOAA who is one of the group’s scientific advisers.

The group, created in 1993, relies neither on laws nor on enforcement to get Moloka‘i’s anglers to abide. “It’s all peer pressure,” says Poepoe. “We have a code of conduct that basically says, ‘Take only what you can eat, don’t stock your freezer and don’t take the fish when they spawn.’ When someone takes too much, he’s shamed.”

The group, which survives mostly off grants, is planning to start a konohiki school centered on Mo‘omomi Bay this year so they can teach other communities that you can have your fish and eat it too—if you catch it in season. HH