Issue 12.2: April / May 2009

Life on the Fringe

story by Curt Sanburn
photos by Monte Costa

It’s 10 a.m. on a Sunday
, and the tall, tanned fisherman has agreed to take me out on South Moloka‘i’s reef. We sit on his friend’s waterside lanai at Kapa‘akea, just east of Kaunakakai, drinking beer and waiting for the tide. His flat-bottom, bare-bones fishing boat, Makalei, which he built himself and named after his 9-year-old daughter, floats slack on its mooring line a few yards away. The weather is sunny, winds light.

Known on the island as “Tyler-man,” the 50-ish carpenter and weekend fisherman is beloved for the reliable catch of fish—‘oi‘o, papio, kala, palani, manini—he brings in from the reef and gives to friends and neighbors.

“People ask if I have ‘o‘io for parties, or papio or whatever, and maybe they give me some beers for it,” he says. “What’s ‘o‘io?” I ask.
“Bonefish,” Tyler says, explaining that islanders scrape off the raw, white flesh and mash it up with fermented limu kohu, a seaweed, and kukui nut relish to make a favorite pupu.

Tyler scans the reef, which stretches from the beach to a distant wave line, then glances down to check the tide. The best fishing is on a flood tide, he says, when schools of fish migrate onto the reef flat to feed on algae growing in the sun-baked shallows.

A beer later, the tide is ready for us. Tyler loads the Makalei with two throw nets, a three-pronged sling spear, a cooler and a 9-foot ko‘o (pole). We motor out over the reef in foot-deep water. The near-shore bottom is a thick, coagulated bed of rust-brown mud that looks and feels like a wool blanket. Tyler’s 30-hp Evinrude kicks up a chocolaty wake.

Off the bow, a disturbed stingray scoots away. To starboard, Tyler points out a little cloud of brown 
water, an ‘aki lepo, to use the Moloka‘i term for it, which means there’s a school of fish feeding and stirring the mud. “‘Ama‘ama,” Tyler says. He passes the ‘ama‘ama (mullet) by and steers upwind—east—along the coast a mile or so and out toward the wave line where the water is cleaner and a bit deeper.

Behind us the island rises and builds into a panorama: Sere ridges and gullies of the desiccated south side sweep down from Kamakou’s forested crown to the narrow coastal plain and the wide, placid reef. Seaward, beyond the reef and across the sparkling deep-sea channels, the islands of Maui and Lana‘i glow purple under fair-weather bonnets of white cumulus. 

On the horizon between them, the low-lying slab of Kaho‘olawe marks Kealaikahiki (the way to Tahiti).

Tyler cuts the motor as we approach the edge of the reef, a good half-mile offshore. This wave line runs for 30 miles east to west, and we’re close to its midpoint. As far as we can see, we’re alone on the reef. Tyler readies his spear and nets. He pulls out his ko‘o and stands on the bow deck. He uses the ko‘o to steer, pushing off coral heads as he picks his way downwind. In silence he scans the water ahead, looking for fish exactly as Hawaiians have done for centuries—except that they used to do it in canoes.




The South Moloka‘i reef is the largest fringing reef in the Hawaiian Islands. All the older islands in the chain have areas of fringing reef, where conditions have allowed the steady growth of corals over thousands of years. Think of them as carbonate extensions of the land, blooming with life—meadows, really—just barely submerged at low tides. Moloka‘i’s coral platform stretches 36 miles from the little bay at Honouliwai in the east to Hale o Lono Harbor in the west, almost the entire length of the island. Its width from shore to wave line averages six-tenths of a mile. At its widest it’s a mile.

Among its most notable features are the “blue holes” that pockmark the reef flat and the outer reef just beyond the wave line, where the water gradually deepens. Scientists theorize that these spectacular glowing pits, 20 to 80 feet deep, are caused by dissolution of the reef from benthic freshwater springs and/or by “stream incision” that occurred 20,000 years ago, when the sea level was about 400 feet lower than it is today. Similarly, land-based freshwater runoff gouged great channels through the reef at Pala‘au, Kaunakakai, Kamalo, Keawanui and Puko‘o.

Another impressive feature of the reef, these the handiwork of man, are the seventy-odd loko i‘a (fishponds) built over the past millennium. All along the coast, elegantly stacked and 
curved lava-boulder walls loop out from the shore to enclose acres of reef. Representing the most sophisticated form of native aquaculture found in Oceania, these ponds produced vast supplies of fish but were largely abandoned by the early 20th century. Recent herculean efforts by islanders have restored a few of the ponds, but the goal of getting them back into viable production has so far proved elusive.

On the most basic geophysical level, the reef protects Moloka‘i’s south shore from the boisterous sea, and there’s a palpable sense of calm all along the coast—and along the 
island’s coastal highway, which strings together seaside settlements from Kaunakakai, Kawela and Kamalo to ‘Ualapu‘e, Puko‘o and Waialua. The scrappy beaches and shallow, unswimmable waters have at least partly discouraged the luxury waterfront developments typical of other Hawaiian Islands, and the south coast of Moloka‘i remains tranquil: 
a lovely song in a minor key. Indeed, the languor of the reef, particularly during windless mornings and evenings, is one of Moloka‘i’s most constant tonalities.

Many islanders look at me blankly when I tell them I’m writing about the reef. Apparently, they don’t think of it as a separate entity; either that or they take it for granted. They think of the waters in front of where they live as “my place,” their place to fish or swim or pick limu (seaweed). The reef itself is simply the “papa” or the “papapa” (literally, a flat thing).
But now that the islanders are charting their own path toward a culturally Hawaiian future (having famously—and for decades—defended their home against resort development), they’re realizing more profoundly that their bountiful reef is central to their way of life.




The Makalei drifts, pushed by gentle trade winds. Tyler stands silently at the bow, steering with his ko‘o. The bottom is a mix of sand holes and algae-covered coral heads that grow to within a foot of the surface and sometimes break it. The living corals, glimmering in pale shades of pink, purple and yellow, are easy to pick out.

Tyler spots a school of manini (convict tang) feeding on a coral head 10 yards off the bow. Their flapping tails break the surface. The ‘ale‘ale (disturbance) gives the school away, but they disappear in a flash. Then, “Ho! Kala! A big pile of ’em!” Tyler wrestles the boat toward them, but they, too, flee. “If we had more wind … They were real busy eating,” he mutters as my eyes grope for the long-gone kala.

Kala (unicorn fish), manini, papio (trevally), ‘o‘io—these are the elusive fruits of the reef, and Tyler seems to know every coral head, every sand hole in this mile-wide patch where he gets his food, Moloka‘i style. Moments later, Tyler again spots the school of kala and points it out—to no avail. He counts five ‘o‘io up ahead, but I see only one as it darts away. The 
shape-shifting sheen of the water’s surface, all those yellow reflections and blue-green shadows, the mottled reef—layered together they’re indecipherable, and I’m blind as a bat. Fish spotting must be a black art.

I ask Tyler (who says he can spot a school from 20 yards away) how he tells the difference between, say, a piece of white coral and a fish.

“Well, after 20 years you know the difference,” he says.




Because Moloka‘i is less populated and developed than the other main Hawaiian Islands, its reef is relatively healthy overall, with a live coral coverage rate between 60 and 90 percent, figures higher than at any other unprotected reef in the state. But it is by no measure pristine.

The biggest threat to the reef’s health is landward and readily apparent: the horrible condition of two adjoining watersheds between Kawela and Kamalo, a 15-square-mile area of steep and rugged terrain that has been ravaged by a century of cattle ranching. 
More recently, wild goats have more or less stripped the ground of vegetation, roots and all. When it rains heavily, prodigious mudflows empty directly onto the middle section of the reef.

It was this crisis that caught the attention of the world’s reef scientists. The first to notice was oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, who wrote in 1979 that the sedimentation threat to reefs 
was “dramatically” illustrated in Hawai‘i, where sections of the Moloka‘i reef flat are “overlaid with 4 to 27 inches of red-brown silt.”

Mobilized by the sedimentation crisis, the US Geological Survey began studying the reef in 1999. The research project used innovative, high-tech methods to measure every aspect of the reef’s physical and biological processes, including sediment movement on the reef, where, typically, afternoon trade winds stir up the mud on a daily basis. Published in 2008, the hefty and unprecedented report, The Coral Reef of South Moloka‘i, Hawai‘i: Portrait of a Sediment-Threatened Fringing Reef, looks more like a scientific atlas, full of photographs and an incredible array of maps, diagrams and charts. Its text is readable, the information accessible to any attentive layman. According to Thomas Goreau, president of the Global Coral Reef Alliance, the atlas provides “a level of documentation and insight that has never been available for any reef before.”

In terms of the reef’s importance as a fishery, the atlas reports that although it remains the most productive in the state, the reef’s average annual commercial fish catch fell from a peak 
of 150,000 pounds in the early 1980s to 22,000 pounds today, while the recreational/subsistence catch, though difficult to measure, might be as high as 100,000 pounds.
Ending on a hopeful note, the atlas concludes that although the reef’s land-derived mud is in excess of what it would be under natural conditions—a situation that threatens the reef by inhibiting coral regeneration on the reef flat—coral reefs are resilient and responsive once conservation measures are taken.




The reef is Moloka‘i’s “icebox.” That’s what islanders call it; it’s what their kupuna (elders) called it. Observers estimate that of the island’s 7,000 people, several hundred, perhaps as many as 1,000, are at least part-time fishermen. Using rods, spears, throw nets and lay nets, they go looking for prized reef fish—papio, ‘o‘io, kala and manini as well as kole, enenue, aholehole, moi, kumu, uhu and weke. They collect wana (sea urchin) off coral fields. They dive into the holes off the outer reef to spear spiny lobster and ulua. At night they carry torches onto the reef flat to catch crab. Kids learn to dig into camouflaged reef holes for octopus and squid. Limu-pickers brave the knockabout reef crest to gather limu kohu.

“Well, the men get the limu kohu,” says Auntie Vani Ainoa, correcting me, “but it’s mostly women who gather and clean the rest of it, the ‘ele‘ele, the ogo, the manauea, the huluhulu waena … I don’t know why but that’s the tradition. I guess it’s more of a feminine thing. Men don’t have the patience to finger through these things.”

The 71-year-old former businesswoman and civic leader sits at a table on her reef-side lanai in the Kamiloloa-One Ali‘i homestead under the shade of four old milo trees. She fingers a little pile of bright green, threadlike limu ‘ele‘ele, discarding the “ugly” strands and feeling for sand grains, flicking them away.

“Of course you don’t want sand in it, and if you don’t clean it right, it’s going to stink.” The limu is morning-fresh, picked from the exposed reef rocks directly in front of her house, just a yard or two off the beach where freshwater springs nourish the stuff—and where, Ainoa swears, her thirsty cat will go out at low tide to lap at the fresh water.

After picking through the ‘ele‘ele, Ainoa says she’ll rinse it in water, “rubbing it and rubbing it until it gets real soft and comes all silky,” she says as she lifts up a few strands with her fingers, admiring them, loving them. ‘Ele‘ele is used mostly in stews and soups, she says. She gathers about a gallon jug’s worth each week. After cleaning she puts it in the freezer, where it’s always on hand to use or to give away. She learned to pick and clean limu from her mother, Anarita Kanahele née Ke, when she was a girl and her family lived seven miles farther east along the reef at Kamalo. Ainoa guesses that there are about twenty-five women who pick limu on Moloka‘i. I ask whether the limu ‘ele‘ele she gathers is of any particular quality. “You know, I only pick from my place.” She is equable. “I don’t go anywhere else—I feel that’s what you call maha‘oi, intruding on someone else’s place.”

Ainoa says she’s thinking about forming a group of women limu-pickers to put some political pressure on state and county government to clean up the mud on the reef so the limu can flourish. “It’s part of our culture,” she says. “Most of us here eat fish most of the time, and when you have fish on the table, you need limu—it’s like a condiment, yeah? And to get the best limu, you need a clean reef.”

“It’s very important to have your basic lu‘au foods,” says Walter Naki, a champion freediver and spear- fisherman, as he sits in the kitchen of his Kalua‘aha home on the east end. “Say somebody asks, ‘Eh, how was Walter’s party last night?’ And you say the party was good, but he never have ‘opihi, or he never get raw crab, or he never have this or that. It’s 
that important, ’cuz gotta have limu, raw crab, raw fish, you gotta have lomi ‘o‘io—ho, lomi ‘o‘io!—tako [octopus] poke, squid lu‘au. You gotta have the traditional foods.”

He interrupts himself to shoo a noisy dog outside and yell at his son to turn down the TV in the living room. The 52-year-old Naki has been harvesting the reef since he was a kid. “I speared thousands of fish, literally,” he says. “When your table food depends on spearing the fish, you make sure you get ’em.” Based on commercialcatch data, fish stocks around the main Hawaiian Islands are down 75 percent since 1900; Naki knows it as well as 
anybody. He says fishing was “way better” forty years ago, when his grandfather first taught him to spear-fish. Naki stopped night-diving a decade ago. “It was like shooting ducks 
in a barrel,” he says. “I didn’t want to kill so much anymore. That’s what I sincerely felt.”

I ask him whether the reef is being overfished.

He takes a while to answer. “Maybe at one point in time, but not anymore. They used to fish with bullpen nets, miles of net. There was a couple of families made big money off ’em. But now there’s no commercial fishing per se. It’s all supplement fishing, you know,subsistence.”

Yet some people, I say, worry that Moloka‘i’s reef is getting “pounded” by fishermen who neither follow the state’s fishing laws—a patchwork of seasonal and size limits on certain species—nor are pono (good, moral) when it comes to traditional Hawaiian fishing, famous for the conservation science and strict rules that shaped its practice.

“OK,” Naki says, his tone hardening, “as a Moloka‘i resident—and most of the guys feel this way—I say we’re entitled to fish and get as much as we need, without abusing. And a lot of people exercise that right. It’s hard for someone to come over here from the state and say ‘Hey!’ because they cannot enforce their rules. We gotta enforce our own rules.”

Helping the island’s conservation ethic along is Naki’s cousin, Mac Poepoe. The retired fireman and former commercial spearfisher started a nonprofit, Hui Malama o Mo‘omomi, in 1993 to take care of his abundant home waters at Mo‘omomi Bay, on the northwest coast of the island. Since then, the hui’s success has been heralded statewide.

Last year, Hui Malama o Mo‘omomi published the 2008 Pono Fishing Calendar, an illustrated compilation of fishing tips based on Hawaiian fishing science. Every month is marked with the four traditional kapu (forbidden) periods lasting 36 or 60 hours, when fishing was prohibited—timeouts, if you will—based on the lunar phases that govern fish behavior.

The calendar suggests things a pono fisherman should know: In February and March ‘aholehole and kumu reproduce and should be left alone. Male uhu (parrotfish) form harems with several females; if the male is taken during the July spawning season, 
there will be no reproduction in the harem for a full year. Another suggestion: “Eat pono. Try a variety of fish species, not just your favorite. This will help relieve pressure on prized species.”

Explaining his holistic approach to fish science, Poepoe says, “If we’re going to monitor a certain species, like enenue [chub], we’re going to monitor it for the whole year—the male and female, the life cycles of what it eats, seasonal behavior, different phases of the moon, plus the movement of the ocean, how everything moves around.You get an overall picture, the complete system. That’s how I operate. I do my own study. I just use nature.”

A thousand copies of the calendar were distributed free to fishermen and educators, and there’s a 2009 edition in the works. Already the calendar has had an influence: “Mac [Poepoe] has a lot of mana‘o [knowledge],” Walter Naki avers. “Forty years ago, you know, somebody says ‘conservation’—eh, we didn’t even know that word! But you start thinking about your kids and grandkids, future generations. Stewardship, that’s what it is.”




The Makalei carries Tyler and me merrily along the reef, though still no fish in the cooler. We float over several long and relatively deep sand channels running perpendicular to the wave line. Typical of the reef, these channels have been called “shark runways” by at least one old-timer. An unusually wide one is called Blondie because its yellow glow is visible from shore. Tyler says it’s where he intends his remains to be scattered. “My burying 
ground,” he confesses as we float over it. “Hopefully, a long time from now.”

Ahead of us, a big cloud blooms over the west end of Moloka‘i, making the fishing even harder. The water reflects the cloud’s dark underbelly and obscures the fish. And the midday sun is searing. So, without throwing a single net, Tyler gives up on fishing and pops a beer for the motor back to shore. Anyway, he was already out earlier in the morning, and there’s a cooler of fish waiting on shore: a nice-size papio, an ‘o‘io and two palani.

Later, I read somewhere that Hawaiian fishermen never give voice to their plans because fish have ears. You’re supposed to be vague and say you’re going holoholo (to go out 
wandering by foot or canoe for pleasure, to cruise), or you’re supposed to outright lie and say you’re going into the forest. When we made our plans to go fishing, Tyler kept saying, “Yeah, we go holoholo.” I thought he was just being mellow. And I kept saying we were going fishing on Sunday morning at 10 off Kapa‘akea. I told everyone, including the fish—and you’re not supposed to chat in a boat headed for fishing grounds, either.

When we get back to shore, Tyler expertly fillets the waiting papio and cuts its pink flesh into bite-size chunks. He mixes in a dash of chili pepper water, shoyu and Hawaiian salt and serves it up raw on little paper trays. Delicious! It is the pure, constant taste of life on the Moloka‘i reef. HH