Native Intelligence: O‘ahu

The Waters of Kāne

Story by Catharine Lo Griffin. Photos by Elyse Butler.

In the backyard of a deserted mansion along the busiest road in East Honolulu lies the unlikely oasis of Kānewai. One of dozens of springs that dotted the coastline prior to development, the lava tube-fed pool appears on old maps of Honolulu. When leaders from the Maunalua Fishpond Heritage Center (MFHC) rediscovered it on a Kuli‘ou‘ou property that had been tangled in a lawsuit for decades, they sought permission to clean it up. In 2010 the landowner, Rikuo Corporation, agreed.

Hundreds of volunteers removed thickets of haole koa and bougainvillea and dug rubble out of the suffocated, stagnant pool. “It took three years for the water to start to flow,” recalls MFHC president Chris Cramer. “The stones turned gold when the groundwater started to come. To see it reawakening was something special.” During the restoration, kūpuna (elders) shared their traditional knowledge: Fred Takebayashi from Kāne‘ohe brought handmade fish traps. Waiola Higa from Hilo demonstrated how to build dry stack stone walls.

Today Kānewai is productive, the water crystal clear. The mosquito fish have been displaced by native species—many of them rare. Juvenile ‘ama‘ama (mullet) nibble at limu ‘ele‘ele, a seaweed that thrives in brackish water. Pīpīwai and hapawai (freshwater limpets) cling to the stones inside the spring, while ‘ōpae (shrimp) graze its outer wall. On its banks are young coconut trees and an ‘ulu that recently bore its first breadfruit. Every day Kānewai delivers 840,000 gallons of water into Kānewai Fishpond and Paikō Lagoon Wildlife Sanctuary.

In 2017, with the cooperation of Rikuo Corporation and help from the Trust for Public Land, MFHC bought the property and secured a permanent conservation easement. “To show that our culture can live and be a part of our daily lives in spite of all this modernization is super important” says MFHC vice president Angela Correa-Pei, whose family has lived in Kuli‘ou‘ou since 1912.

MFHC hosts educational and cultural activities at the site. When the late limu expert Henry Chang Wo visited, Cramer recalls, “He said, ‘Where the wai [fresh water] meets the kai [sea], that is where the hānau.’ The hānau,” Cramer repeats. “The birthing.” He points to a sandy bed where the walls of the spring meet the fishpond. “We didn’t see it until we cleared this section. Every day this is filled with baby fish, āholehole. Seems like hundreds of them.”