Photo: Punohu Kekaualua, Hanohano Naehu and Kahale Naehu-Ramos
Punohu Kekaualua, Hanohano Naehu and Kahale Naehu-Ramos take a break during a workday at ʻŌhalahala loko iʻa. - Photos: Kahale Naehu-Ramos

Prior to Western contact in 1778, there were well over 400 seaside loko iʻa throughout Hawaiʻi ranging from half an acre to 500 acres in size. Small or large, they all had kuapā (walls) up to six feet high that were excellent examples of dry-stack masonry, stones fitted together tightly with no mortar.

Set in the walls were mākāhā, six-to-12-foot-wide sluice gates made of branches that kept out predators and enabled young fish to enter the pond to feed on limu. As the fish matured, they became too big to pass through the mākāhā’s slats and could easily be harvested with nets. Under the watchful eye of kiaʻi loko, the caretakers, fishponds yielded 300 to 600 pounds of fish per acre per year.

Over the decades, most of Hawaiʻi’s loko iʻa were either destroyed or damaged, the victims of erosion, lava flows, invasive mangroves, and runoff from ranching, development and agricultural pursuits. Sixty-eight fishponds once lined Molokaʻi’s southern shore; on the west end, some of their walls are now under six feet of mud.

With a paniolo background, Hanohano Naehu didn’t know much about loko iʻa prior to 2000 when his journey from pasture to pond began.

He had held jobs in tourism and farming but was searching for work that would strengthen his ties to his Hawaiian roots. Coincidentally — or perhaps it was fate — nonprofit Hui o Kuapā was starting the restoration of 55-acre, 800-year-old Keawanui, the largest fishpond on Molokaʻi, and Naehu was given the opportunity to assist.

Well-known social activist Walter Ritte founded the 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 1989 to support loko iʻa reconstruction, education and research. “Kalaniua, my best friend, is Uncle Walt’s son,” Naehu said. “He had been restoring fishponds with Hui o Kuapā since 1994, and by 2000 he had become one of the best kiaʻi loko in Hawaiʻi. I was excited to work with him and learn from Uncle Walt at Keawanui.”

Naehu and Kalaniua had occasional help from volunteers, but they wound up doing the bulk of the work themselves. “Four mākāhā and the 2,000-foot wall had to be rebuilt,” Naehu said. “We had no machines; there was only us.’”

They finished repairing Keawanui’s kuapā and mākāhā in 2004, and efforts to restock limu and fish were progressing well until March 11, 2011, when a magnitude-9.1 earthquake occurred off the northeastern coast of Honshu, Japan’s main island, generating giant tsunami waves that sped more than 4,000 miles to Hawaiʻi. When they hit the south shore of Molokaʻi, they demolished Keawanui’s reconstructed wall.

Once again, Naehu and Kalaniua found themselves at square one but, with two helpers, they were able to rebuild the kuapā in a year and three months. Keawanui is now a fully functioning loko iʻa — a model for other fishpond restoration projects in Hawaiʻi.

In 2019, Ritte initiated steps to launch a new nonprofit, ʻĀina Momona, based at Keawanui. Instead of just loko iʻa, its kuleana would encompass health, conservation, sustainability, food security, and Hawaiian cultural rights and practices. His intent was to wind down Hui o Kuapā in 2020 as ʻĀina Momona was ramping up.

“That’s when my wife, Maile, and I asked Uncle Walt if we could take over and continue the good work Hui o Kuapā had been doing for 30 years,” Naehu said. “He thought it was a great idea. Maile is Hui o Kuapā’s program director; I’m the head kiaʻi loko; and our son, Kahale Naehu-Ramos, is the photographer and film producer. Maile works closely with our administrator, Joe Farber, on funding, issues, and community and government relations. Although we are separate organizations, we partner with ʻĀina Momona on some fishpond projects.”

Hui o Kuapā’s current focus is ʻŌhalahala, a half-acre loko iʻa that’s a five-minute walk from Naehu’s home in the ahupuaʻa of Kūmimi in southeastern Molokaʻi. To date, 140 feet of its 350-foot kuapā have been rebuilt.

“Kalaniua and I could do it in four months, but no one else would learn,” Naehu said. “It’s not about finishing the project; it’s about the journey. We want to share the journey with future kiaʻi loko. If people want to restore a fishpond in their ahupuaʻa, they can train with us at ʻŌhalahala. Our goal is to restore the people who are going to restore the loko iʻa.”

Kōkua the Loko Iʻa

Hui o Kuapā will be hosting four community workdays at ʻŌhalahala Fishpond in the coming months. They are scheduled on these Wednesdays from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.: August 16, September 13, October 18, and November 15. If you would like to participate, RSVP to Maile Naehu at Bring a towel and water, and wear a hat, leggings or Bermuda shorts and a long-sleeved shirt or rash guard.

Learn more about Hui o Kuapā visit and @hui_o_kuapa. Email to ask about arranging special programs and fishpond assessments.