Peleke Flores recalls his tūtū talking about seeing huge “blooms” of fish like shadow balls on the shoreline when she was growing up – and telling him that her own tūtū told her they used to be much bigger.
“Within the past 100 years the size of those blooms has decreased,” said Flores. “Back then they could actually do hukilau way more often. Today, if we did hukilau as regularly as they did it would be considered overfishing.”
Flores manages operations, community outreach and cultural protocol for Mālama Hulēʻia. He learned about fishpond management while working with Hiʻilei Kawelo and Keliʻi Kotubetey of Paepae o Heʻeia in Kāneʻohe, Oʻahu, where he worked for eight years before returning home to Kauaʻi.
He notes that the role of the fishpond (loko iʻa) within the ahupuaʻa system extends well beyond the shoreline and that the health of the loko iʻa absolutely affects wild fish populations.
“When we sit in agency meetings and talk about why the wild fish population is degrading, the top three reasons discussed are overfishing, pollution and climate change. But one of the main puzzle pieces, the question no one is asking, is what kept those wild fish populations so big in the first place?”
Flores notes that early surveys documented hundreds of fishponds across the pae ʻāina, but he believes that the actual number likely exceeds one thousand based on his own research.
Fishponds functioned as incubators for hundreds of millions of baby fish (pua). At least half of the pua born within the fishponds find their way out and become part of the wild fish population and, ultimately, part of the food chain for smaller nearshore carnivores, who in turn become food for larger carnivores and so on all the way to pelagic (open ocean) fish.
As fishponds have been lost to development, disrepair or freshwater diversion, the pua have decreased proportionately, adversely affecting the entire food chain – a fourth reason for the decrease of the wild fish population.
“People often have the mindset that fishponds are like fish pens where you grow fish, eat fish, then put in some more fish through natural recruitment or restocking,” said Flores. “But by understanding fishponds as incubators, our kūpuna amplified their natural resources to create wai momona – the base of a productive food chain that feeds the pua. In turn, the excess pua from the fishponds helped amplify wild populations.”
According to Flores, one adult ʻanae (mullet) can produce 200,000 to 400,000 pua in one season. Because the loko iʻa created abundance within the larger ecosystem, there were more opportunities for fishing. Thus, our kūpuna rarely took fish to eat directly from the fishpond; they could easily catch fish along the shoreline and – on Kauaʻi – in the rivers.
“Alakoko is one of our biggest fishponds on Kauaʻi,” said Flores. “If we can get this loko iʻa back to a functioning state, there shouldn’t be any excuse for not restoring other fishponds on this island, no matter how damaged. If we start fixing all our incubators and re-starting this machine, then when something happens that affects our food security – be it the weather, a pandemic, whatever – we’ll be ready.”
Related Article – Alakoko: Restoring Kauaʻi’s Most Famous Fishpond