Hānai Ko‘a: Feed and be fed

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Describing Hawaiian fishing practices nearly a century ago to Thomas Kelsey, Rev. Henry B. Nalimu noted, “Alas, only a few aged Hawaiians remain who can yet recall the ʻōpelu-fishing of the old days. Only a little time remains in which they can be with us, in which we may save their valuable stores of knowledge of the past.”

In fishing villages on Hawaiʻi Island, Hawaiian ʻōpelu fishermen have kept the ancient traditions alive, including a kapu on fishing to to give ʻōpelu fisheries time to rest and replenish. In September, with the kapu lifted and ʻōpelu season underway, members of Kama‘āina United to Protect the ‘Āina (KUPA) spoke to us about their traditional methods of fishing and maintaining a healthy ʻōpelu population. “One of the things we’re aiming to do is make sure these resources are sustained for us to continue to gather and fish,” said Craig Carvalho.

Fishing villages in South Kona “have a strong, long heritage of fishing traditions and Hoʻokena was one of the largest. The canoes that are on the beach are owned all by Hawaiian families and all their ancestors were fishermen,” described Charles Young. “Of course, they’re not the old koa canoe, they’re more plywood with a motor on the back, but many of the people here still fish that way.”

“That way” includes fishing the koʻa, traditional fishing grounds – all of them, said Alston Kaleohano. “Us guys, we fish the koʻa, no matter when slow, we track every one, every koʻa, no matter if no more fish. We fish, fish, fish, fish right down the line from Hōnaunau all the way to Miloliʻi – 50 koʻa.”

Once they reach the koʻa, the fishermen get their bearings so they can begin to attract ʻōpelu by the school, using bait like cooked taro, pumpkin, avocado and papaya. “First we identify the current, what way it’s going. So when we go out, we feed, we feed, just work our way around, chum, chum, and ʻōpelu, sooner or later they’re going to come up,” said Douglas Alani. “We need to keep them together, training them how to eat all the chum and tidying up the pool.”

ʻŌpelu aren’t as plentiful as they once were – historical accounts describe ʻōpelu fishing canoes streaking the South Kona waters. “Today, it’s not as much as there was back then and it’ll get worse if we don’t try to manage it,” said Solomon Alani.

It’s not just the loss of fish he’s worried about – it’s also the loss of a prized fishing tradition that few young Hawaiians have been interested in upholding. “If all we’re trying to do is just preserve what we had for our kids and our grandkids, they can catch the ‘ōpelu like we did back in the day,” he added.

KUPA and Friends of Ho‘okena would like to train more young Hawaiians to maintain the traditional fishing practices. “Almost everybody in the whole family needs to go through the process, learn how to read the ocean landmarks. You start from there,” said Doug Alani.

It could take years to master the ancient techniques – and only then can you pull the net. “When you get to pull the net, then you’re the ʻōpelu fisherman.”

Kamaʻaina United to Protect the ʻAina–Friends of Hoʻokena Beach Park received a two-year $97,741 grant to restore abundance and sustainability to South Kona fisheries. Their project, “Revitalizing Traditional Hawaiian Fishing Practices in Hoʻokena, South Kona, Hawaiʻi,” includes reintroducing seasonal closures and training a new generation of ʻōpelu fishermen.