The evolution of environmental law in the United States is fascinating. On one hand, it can be a powerful device to protect fragile resources from destruction or degradation. On the other hand, those same laws can often impede environmental and cultural restoration activities.

Environmental permitting is a quagmire of government regulations and data collation, and for the last three decades, it has been one of the largest obstacles to the restoration and maintenance of the approximately 400 traditional fishponds that exist in Hawai‘i.

The Department of Land and Natural Resources, along with Conservation International’s Hawai‘i Fish Trust program and other state and federal agencies, is on the verge of helping to resolve this challenge. A Master Conservation District Use Permit Application is being presented to the Board of Land and Natural Resources on June 27 that will set the stage to streamline federal and state-permitting requirements for activities related to the maintenance, protection and restoration of traditional fishponds across Hawai‘i. An environmental assessment was completed for the program late last year.

Bridge to Nowhere Molokai

Keawanui Fishpond on Molokai.

Hui o Kuapā

The Department of Land and Natural Resources, Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands, will then support the issuance of a Regional General Permit (RGP) from the federal government that will allow the state to coordinate a single application process for Hawaiian fishpond restoration activities. The objective of the proposed action is the restoration, repair, maintenance and reconstruction of loko iʻa (traditional Hawaiian fishpond systems) across the paeʻāina of Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian archipelago). This action will catalyze traditional Hawaiian cultural activities, the restoration of fishpond systems and the production of food from these long-dormant systems.

Fishpond systems were once a vital component of Hawaiʻi’s pre-contact native Hawaiian communities; their degradation was caused by the urbanization and colonization brought and fostered by foreign contact. Fishponds are identified as valuable cultural and ecological resources that positively impact coastal ecosystems and their adjacent communities. The potential impacts on the environment of the Proposed Action, and a range of reasonable alternatives, are discussed and analyzed in this draft programmatic environmental assessment. Restoring these systems will carry ecological benefits for near-shore fisheries by absorbing land-based nutrients and turbidity, and creating a sustainable source of seafood for communities.

This effort is critical to the preservation and revitalization of traditional cultural practices throughout Hawai‘i. Hawaiian fishpond systems, loko ia, are some of Hawaii’s most significant traditional cultural resources. They are biocultural articulations of Hawaiian innovation in the areas of engineering, education, hydrology, aquaculture and biology. Further, they demonstrate traditional Hawai`i’s excellence in sustainability, food sovereignty and natural resource management.

The full-scale development of loko i‘a (fishponds) from mauka (the mountains) to makai (the ocean) dates back over half a millennium. Cultivation and propagation centered on many different fresh and salt-water plants and animals, with the primary species being the prized ‘ama‘ama (mullet) and ‘awa (milkfish). An inventory in the early 1900s found 360 loko i‘a in the islands and identified 99 active ponds with an estimated annual production total of about 680,000 pounds, including 486,000 pounds of ‘ama‘ama and 194,000 pounds of ‘awa. Loko i‘a were extensive operating systems that produced an average of 400–600 pounds per acre per year, a significant amount considering the minimal amount of fishpond “input” and maintenance effort apparent by that time. It was essential to the food security of traditional Hawaiian communities.

Traditional fishpond systems are also culturally and historically significant to Native Hawaiians. According to oral histories, Hinapukui‘a, whose name translates to “Hina gathering seafood,” is the goddess of fisherman. She is the wahine (wife or mate) of Kū‘ulakai, sister of Hinapuku‘ai, Hina gathering vegetative foods, and mother to ‘Ai‘ai. Hinapukui`a’s kane (husband or mate), Kū‘ulakai, is the god and kupuna of fisherman and is said to have built the first fishpond at Leho‘ula on the island of Maui.

Kū‘ula, as he was also known, was said to be kino lua, dual bodied. He was said to be empowered with mana kupua, supernatural powers. He could control all the fish in the sea.

Kū‘ulakai and Hinapukui‘a lived in Alea-mai on East Maui. They made their residence near Kaiwiopele, the cinder hill names for “the bones of Pele,” named for the place where Pele left some of her iwi after a battle with her sister, Nā-maka-o-Kaha‘i. It was near Kaiwiopele that Kū‘ulakai built the first traditional Hawaiian fishpond in Hāna. Kū‘ulakai would share his knowledge of fishing and fishing practices with maka‘āinānā across Hawai`i through his son, ‘Ai‘ai, identified also as a god of fisherman. Written sources and oral traditions tell of ‘Ai‘ai’s extensive travels throughout Hawai‘i during which he established fishing alters, called kū‘ula after his father, and fishing areas, known as ko‘a.

Loko i‘a were an important part of Hawai‘i’s complex and sustainable natural resource management system. “Loko i‘a are not only environmental resources and historic sites, but they are cultural resources that enhance the seafood security of communities throughout the state. They are part of Hawai‘i’s living culture. Conservation International’s Hawai‘i Fish Trust program is proud to be able to lead this effort and support a program that enhances opportunities for practitioners to actively perpetuate their culture and also to teach these practices to succeeding generations,” explains Jack Kittinger, Director of Hawai‘i Fish Trust, a Hawai‘i program of Conservation International that funded the development of the streamlined permit system.

Daniel Inouye on Molokai

The late Senator Daniel K. Inouye was an early and strong supporter of fishpond restoration. He is seen here at Keawanui Fishpond on Molokai in the early 1990s.

Hui o Kuapā

DLNR’s Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands worked with Conservation International and local consulting firm Honua Consulting to complete the streamlining process. Staff planned Michael Cain agrees as to the importance of the program, “This is a wonderful example of how government can work for the people and serve the community and native culture. It’s been wonderful to have the opportunity to work with practitioners to bring this program to life.”

There is a renewed interest in the repair and operation of traditional Hawaiian fishponds, for their cultural, economic and ecological value.

Cain anticipates at least 20 fishponds to benefit from the program within the first few years. “We’ve received inquires from all across the islands from communities wanting to restore local fishponds. It’s very promising.”

The community has waited decades to see progress on this effort. Hui o Kuapā, founded by environmental leader and fishpond practitioner Walter Ritte in 1989, has worked over 25 years in support of restoration activities. The organization continues to be a leader in the protection of cultural resources and traditional knowledge in Hawai‘i. “We’ve pushed for over 20 years to see this effort move forward. We are very happy to see it finally doing so,” says Ritte, who continues to serve as executive director. “Hui o Kuapā was one of the very first fishpond organizations ever formed, and now with these permitting issues finally being resolved, we hope there will be many more communities that organization to restore their fishponds and food resources.”

Increasing immigration and western influences during the 19th and 20th centuries, coupled with industrialization and urbanization, would had a devastating impact on the traditional Hawaiian resource management systems in Hawai`i. Most of Hawaiian fishponds fell into disrepair.

There is a renewed interest in the repair and operation of traditional Hawaiian fishponds, for their cultural, economic and ecological value. However, community organizations and traditional fishpond practitioners have struggled for decades to maintain and restore fishpond systems due to the abundance of government regulations that control uses within the shoreline area making it difficult to obtain all of the necessary approvals to revitalize these important resources. “We recognized the substantial community need here, and we are grateful to have been given the opportunity to contribute to an effort that means so much to Hawai‘i’s unique environment,” noted Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands Administrator Sam Lemmo.

The difficulty of Hawaiian fishpond revitalization is compounded by the unique, fragile, and sometimes rugged environments in which they exist. Due to their geographic locations, unique ecosystems, engineering and complex biological functioning, Hawaiian fishponds are subject to a myriad of regulations and oversight by a host of different agencies. The end result is that obtaining the necessary permits and approvals to restore, repair, maintain and reconstruct fishponds is both costly and time-consuming. This permitting process has stymied many restoration efforts.

Passage of the Master Conservation District Use Permit and Regional General Permit would not only resolve the permitting issues, but potentially revolutionize modern opportunities for communities to engage in restoration activities that support healthy ecosystems, food security and ongoing climate change adaptation. Successful implementation of this effort could serve as a model for the restoration of traditional ecosystems and cultural practices across North America and the Pacific.

The streamlining process, which will cover 17 environmental regulations and jurisdictions from 12 state and federal agencies when completed, has taken about 18 months to develop. The project was funded by Conservation International (Hawai‘i Fish Trust) and led by local consulting firm Honua Consulting and supported by the Department of Land and Natural Resources Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands.   The Regional General Permit effort is being led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Honolulu District Office.

For more information about this program, visit the State of Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources special projects page at http://dlnr.hawaii.gov/occl/special-projects/.

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About the Author

  • Trisha Kehaulani Watson
    Trisha Kehaulani Watson is a Kaimuki resident, small business owner, and bibliophile. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Hawaii and J.D. from the William S. Richardson School of Law. She writes about environmental issues, cultural resource management, and the intersection between culture and politics. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can follow or contact her on Twitter at @hehawaiiau.