“It is said that his fishpond was built in a single night, and that the rocks that were laid for both of the fishponds came from the sea below Makaliʻi, which is perhaps a mile or so away from Niumalu, but it is also said that the distance away could be two miles or longer.”
On the verdant east side of the island of Kauaʻi, Hulēʻia River flows into Nāwiliwili Bay.
At a wide point near the mouth of the Hulēʻia River, just before it empties into the sea, is the 600-year-old Alakoko Fishpond, described by Kauaʻi archaeologist Bill Kikuchi as “one of the finest examples in the entire archipelago of prehistoric stonework and fishpond construction.”
Those who are not kamaʻāina to Kauaʻi may know Alakoko as the “Menehune Fishpond.” Moʻolelo about this wahi pana attribute construction of the fishpond wall – an engineering marvel that is a half-mile long and traverses portions of the river that are up to 10 feet deep – to the Menehune, a people who lived alongside, but separate from, Kānaka Maoli.
This mysterious race was renowned for their skill as builders and are credited with other epic construction projects including the 1.3-mile long Kīkīaola (agricultural) Ditch in Waimea, Kauaʻi, that is over 20 feet high in places, and Ulupō Heiau in Kailua, Oʻahu, a massive heiau with walls up to 30 feet high.
An Abundant Land Overrun by Mangroves
Located just south of Līhuʻe, Alakoko Fishpond is in the ahupuaʻa of Niumalu within the moku of Puna. The area has long been a center of activity on Kauaʻi, as this ʻāīna momona is a region known for its abundance.
Along with the resources of Nāwiliwili Bay, at one time there were at least six fishponds in the area. Loʻi kalo and other food crops flourished along the many streams and valleys of the nearby Hāʻupu mountain range. The region includes an extensive wetland and estuary that is home to endangered native birds.
At the Māhele of 1848, Alakoko and the surrounding land was given to Princess Victoria Kamāmalu. It then transferred to her father, Kekūanāoʻa, and later to Princess Ruth Keʻeli- kōlani. In 1880, Keʻelikōlani sold the property to Paul Kanoa and for 106 years the land was part of the Kanoa ʻOhana estate. In 1986, the Kanoa Estate sold the property to the Okada Trucking Company.
For most of the 20th century, Alakoko was neglected, becoming overrun by invasive red mangroves. The trees were introduced to Hawaiʻi in 1902 by sugar planters to mitigate erosion caused by their plantations and ranching. By 1977, dense thickets of mangroves occupied a third of Hawaiʻi’s estuarine habitats, adversely affecting native ecosystems and impacting native species across the pae ʻāina.
Mangrove thrived unchecked along the Hulēʻia River, growing over the walls of the Alakoko Fishpond, narrowing the river, and threatening the health of the wetlands.
Malama Huleʻia is Born
Despite the declining condition of the fishpond, in 1973 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and continued to be a treasured wahi pana for the people of Kauaʻi.
In 1999, the community’s concern for the ongoing degradation of the watersheds that feed into Nāwiliwili Bay – including Hulēʻia River and other streams – led to the founding of the Nāwiliwili Bay Watershed Council. The council’s goals were to restore Alakoko Fishpond, correct stream diversions, control sources of water pollution, and restore loʻi kalo in the region.
Paddlers from the Kaiola Canoe Club who practice on the Hulēʻia River also felt an increasing sense of urgency to address the mangrove invasion. In 2012, they initiated a mangrove removal project near the club’s site at Niumalu Beach Park removing nearly four acres of mangrove by hand.
In 2013 and 2014, the club received grants to begin mangrove eradication at a “demonstration” site next to Niumalu Beach Park. The grants also provided funding for native plant restoration and for building community support and partnerships for long-term stewardship.
In partnership with the Nāwiliwili Bay Watershed Council, members of Kaiola Canoe Club, under the leadership of Stevan Yee, formed Mālama Hulēʻia in 2015 as a nonprofit dedicated to removing the mangrove in and around the Hulēʻia River, including Alakoko.
Jan TenBruggencate, president of Mālama Hulēʻia’s board of directors, was a paddler with Kaiola when he was asked by Yee to sit on his founding board of directors. “Stevan recognized that mangrove was a scourge on the landscape and proposed that we start cutting it – and a large plurality of the mangrove lands were around the fishpond. We started as a mangrove removal operation and we became a fishpond conservation organization,” he said.
Much of the mangrove that needed to be removed, including in and around Alakoko Fishpond, was within the 102-acre property owned by the Okada ʻOhana – which meant access, risk and liability issues had to be addressed and resolved with the landowner before work could begin.
“We had a million-dollar grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Coastal Wetlands Restoration Program pending that required a 20-year maintenance commitment,” explained Mālama Hulēʻia Executive Director Sara Bowen. “We needed to have an agreement in place with the Okadas, so we were diligent in finding solutions for their concerns.”
After two years of negotiations, access to the land was granted to Mālama Hulēʻia in 2017.
Mangrove Removal Begins in Earnest
With grants secured and a lease agreement, Mālama Hulēʻia could begin the laborious process of removing acres of mangrove from the watershed in earnest. Along with community volunteers, kōkua to start the work came from an unexpected place.
“A friend, Bryan Valett, with a background in earthwork and heavy equipment operation, was visiting from Washington,” said Bowen. “We hiked down to the fishpond and when he saw all the mangrove his eyes got bright and he said, ʻthis project is calling to me.’”
Mālama Hulēʻia rented a fleet of excavation machines and cranes, and Valett returned to Kauaʻi in January 2019 with a highly-skilled crew that was willing to work for airfare and accommodations. Within three months the crew from Washington removed 10 acres of mangrove from the property.
Since then, Mālama Hulēʻia has cleared out an additional 16 acres of mangrove from the fishpond and surrounding area using an amphibious excavator designed to work in muddy areas. While big machines have been used to help clear the landward perimeter of Alakoko, the removal work along the half-mile-long wall had to be done by hand.
“The handwork was all done by volunteers who we lovingly call our ʻmenehune crew,’” said Bowen. “The crew is comprised of six retirees, all of whom are skilled chainsaw operators. They came to Alakoko a couple of days a week for nearly two years until the entire wall was cleared.”
Removing acres of mangrove is more than just cutting the trees – aside from debris removal, roots and seeds must be pulled up by hand. Much of the work was accomplished by volunteers who help on community workdays, or through various school and community volunteer groups.
When the pandemic hit, lockdowns prevented volunteer groups from coming out but the amphibious excavator had just arrived and so their work continued.
Then in January 2021, the Okada family put Alakoko up for sale.
A Partnership with The Trust for Public Land
Leadership at Mālama Hulēʻia knew that their lease to the land could be terminated, and they hoped to position themselves to be able to purchase the land should the Okadas decide to sell. However, they did not anticipate it would happen so quickly.
“As an organization, we always had an interest in purchasing,” said Mālama Hulēʻia board member and past president Mason Chock. “Our vision is about the management of the entire estuary and watershed. This is a historical gem with cultural significance; it was in our interest to purchase Alakoko from a community protection standpoint.”
An online petition in support of Mālama Hulēʻia purchasing Alakoko garnered more than 5,000 signatures.
Overwhelming community support aside, the property was listed for $3 million and Mālama Hulēʻia did not have that kind of money. So they reached out to The Trust for Public Land (TPL).
“They [TPL] have a long, solid history of land acquisition, specifically for what we were trying to accomplish,” said Chock. “So it was easy to connect with them and ask them to serve as our broker. I think the whole acquisition was successful due to them.”
“At the time, there was a lot of land being purchased sight unseen by people from the mainland who have all this disposable income,” said Bowen. “So there was a lot of stress. We needed to get this done quickly. We had so much community support, but the processes for accessing public funds can take years to negotiate so partnering with the Trust for Public Land was really important.”
“I don’t know how we could have done this deal without them,” said TenBruggencate. “They were a key and stalwart partner. They handled the negotiations on our behalf. We clear invasive weeds and protect historic sites – we’re not dealers in land, that’s not our skillset.”
The Trust for Public Land helped Mālama Hulēʻia secure a private donation from the Chan Zuckerberg Kauaʻi Community Fund of the Hawaiʻi Community Foundation. The community support helped expedite the process and in November 2021 title for the property was transferred to Mālama Hulēʻia.
With ownership of the property secured – and restrictions added to the deed to ensure that the land is protected forever – Mālama Hulēʻia can focus on the future. The organization updated its strategic plan to add in the kuleana of ownership and stewardship of the land in perpetuity, but recognizes the need to involve the community in visioning.
“A major component of our stewardship is developing a master plan that has deep community involvement,” said Bowen. “Master planning will address clearing the mangrove from the rest of the watershed and bringing the fishpond into health and vitality. We are also interested in revitalizing the loʻi kalo and planting dryland crops to get back to being more food sustainable and we want to involve the community – but what does that look like?
“Weʻre also actively developing our partnership with our neighbor, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Hulēʻia Refuge bird sanctuary. Part of restoring the health and proper functioning of the fishpond is reconnecting the hydrology that is part of the land. This partnership will allow us to take an ecosystem approach to our work.”
Education is core to their vision and over the years thousands of haumāna have visited Alakoko. It’s a perfect outdoor classroom where subjects like math, science, language arts, history and culture can be easily integrated into the organization’s restoration efforts. During the pandemic, when school visits were disallowed, Mālama Hulēʻia partnered with Kamehameha Schools to develop six online curriculum units that reinforce what students learn when they come to Alakoko. Five Kauaʻi schools and one Oʻahu school are helping pilot the curriculum.
With pandemic restrictions relaxing, Mālama Hulēʻia resumed its community workdays in March and will resume school visits in the new school year.
“Alakoko is at the pinnacle of what can be because it’s all-inclusive,” said Chock. “It can be a living learning center. It also gives us the ability to build social and economic capacity for our community. If you think about it from a kānaka perspective, everything we want in terms of self-determination stems from our ability to have places where we can learn who we are and who we want to be.
“The key is to create a successful model so the community feels ownership and the fishpond is still managed properly. We want to create a learning environment that will endure for generations.”
For more information about Alakoko, or to volunteer or donate to the work of Mālama Hulēʻia go to: malamahuleia.org/organization/.
The opening quote is taken from “Moolelo o ka Lahui Kanaka i Kapaia Menehune, o Kauai,” a story by James H. Kuhau Kaiwi, transcribed and translated by Tiele-Lauren Doudt of Mālama Hulēʻia. It was part of a compilation published in 1920 by Thomas G. Thrum as “Story of the Race of People Called the Menehunes, of Kauai” in the “Journal of the Polynesian Society.”
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