Video by Matt Yamashita
SOLUTIONS | 06.12.19
Hawaii’s Ancient Aquaculture Revival
In an ocean state that now imports half of its seafood, a determined group of activists is restoring the age-old aquaculture practices of Native Hawaiians.
The little fish were just nine weeks old, but they had already gone for a plane ride. The striped mullet, called‘ama‘ama
in Hawaiian, had boarded a plane in Oahu and flown toward their past-inspired future: an ancient Hawaiian fishpond on the island of Molokai, the center stone in the necklace of volcanoes that make up Hawaii. From the airport, they traveled in trucks to the Keawanui fishpond, a 500-year-old aquatic semicircle fenced off from the ocean by a basalt and coral wall.
When the trucks pulled up to the 55-acre pond, Walter Ritte, a 70-something, whisper-quiet firebrand, climbed out, along with a group of fishpond restoration activists. They unloaded 10 insulated boxes containing bags of squirming fingerlings, known aspua
, and walked through a tunnel cut into the mangroves along the top of the wall, a parade of children and dogs trotting in their wake. Two men hopped into the pond, water rising to mid-thigh. They placed the bags in the water to acclimate thepua
, monitored them for a time, then released the fish. The 3,500 or so fingerlings huddled together in the shallows, their gray bodies blending against the light brown muck of the bottom. Then they changed course, rolling in a sparkling silver wave.
This moment was nearly 30 years in the making for Ritte (rhymes with “pretty”), a Hawaiian sovereignty activist who’s been a key figure in Native Hawaiians’ efforts to regain access to the hundreds of vast fishponds crafted centuries earlier by their ancestors. Starting around 1200 AD, ancient Hawaiians created a system unique in the world: hybrid, cultivated-wild aquaculture using ponds to trap, raise, and harvest ocean fish. In 1830, the Hawaiian Islands had more than 450 fishponds, and Molokai—known as‘āina momona
, or bountiful land—was the epicenter. Today, 60 half-loops of rock wall are still visible along its southern shore. The fishponds helped to feed as many as 1 million people in the days before European colonization, not far from the 1.4 million who live here now. Today, however, Hawaii imports more than 85 percent of its food, including 50 percent of its seafood.
If Ritte and his comrades succeed in restoring them, Hawaiian fishponds could alter that balance—and also serve as a model for other aquaculture projects around the world. Aquaculture—the farming of fish and other aquatic animals—produces 50 percent of fish and seafood eaten worldwide, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, in part because wild fish stocks have been devastated by pollution and overfishing. But industrial fish farms pollute waterways with thick plumes of waste, incubate diseases that can spread to remaining wild fish stocks, and foster massive overuse of antibiotics.
Fishpond activists and scientists working with them to restore these systems believe there is a more sustainable model, inspired by the wisdom of the ancient Hawaiians. Their practices enforced limits on take to ensure that sufficient numbers of fish spawned and resupplied stocks, and used upland plantings to control water quality and nutrient flow into the ponds. “Nobody developed the integration of uplands and seawater—mariculture—like the Hawaiians,” says Barry Costa Pierce, a professor of marine sciences at the University of New England who studies historical systems around the globe and promotes ecological aquaculture.
“The ancients,” adds Ritte, “were fish-rearing geniuses.”
Video by Matt Yamashita
Across small openings in the rock walls, they installed slatted gates that retained growing fish while allowing the outgoing tide to suck nutrient-rich water out into the ocean, inviting more young fish to enter. “It’s kind of like ringing the dinner bell,” says Brian Glazer, a professor of oceanography at the University of Hawaii at Manoa on Oahu. Upland of the ponds, the Hawaiians grew taro, their staple starch. These fields captured excess sediment and channeled important nutrients into the ponds, stimulating the growth of algae that served as prime fish food.
Yet today, fishponds are on the brink of a renaissance—if revivalists can overcome a few big challenges. In 1989, Ritte cofounded Hui o Kuapā, a local fishpond restoration nonprofit, one of several now throughout the islands. These organizations work with local schools to educate students about native Hawaiian culture and with scientists to study fishpond operations in hopes of recovering ancient knowledge. For Hawaiians such as Ritte, restoring fishponds means not just growing food but reconnecting with their culture.
But what worked in the past may need tweaking today, given intervening damage to the environment, including pollution, sedimentation, overfishing, invasive mangroves and jellyfish, and warming oceans that damage reefs.
Video by Matt Yamashita
I met Ritte one day last November at Paddlers, an open-air bar and restaurant that is a center of social life in Kaunakakai, Molokai’s largest town. Ritte is physically slight but well-muscled, with a full gray beard and dark head of hair, and so soft-spoken that I had to lean in to hear his deep, raspy voice, inflected with a Hawaiian lilt. Ritte is a living legend in Hawaii’s native rights movement, known across Molokai and beyond as “Uncle Walter.” He radiates an iron core of intensity and conviction that initially intimidates—until he flashes a sudden, crinkly smile so genuine that it brings the sun. He wears a t-shirt that says “aloha ‘āina”—love and respect that which feeds you: the land, rivers, and ocean.
Toward the end of the 1970s, Ritte moved his family to Molokai's Pelakulu Valley, to try to live off the land as his ancestors had. Much of the area that Hawaiians had once used for hunting and fishing, however, was now owned by corporations and therefore off limits. But “the deer didn’t read any of the ‘no trespassing’ signs,” Ritte says, and he fought for the right to hunt as his ancestors had. In 1978, Ritte and fellow activists won an amendment to the state constitution that acknowledged Native Hawaiians' rights to access forests and shorelines for subsistence and religious purposes.
In 1989, the Hawaiian sovereignty movement turned its attention to using those newfound coastal access rights to reclaim and restore the fishponds. Ritte and his fishpond group, Hui o Kuapā, began cleaning up and restoring ponds on Molokai. But it wasn’t moving volcanic rocks into place or tearing out invasives that presented the biggest challenge. It was bureaucracy. “We went to fix the walls,” says Ritte, “and we ran into the government.”
It was taking up to 10 years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to win permission to restore and use a fishpond, says local attorney Kehau Watson. Then in 2012, her legal firm, Honua (Earth) Consulting stepped in to develop a process for streamlining the federal and state permitting processes, condensing 17 authorizations from 12 agencies into a single five-page, 30-day process. After years of delay, 17 new fishpond projects moved forward across six islands.
It has been a slow, meandering path, says Ritte, but one that he hopes will ultimately lead toward reclaiming Hawaiian rights and culture. “The river doesn’t flow straight. Only the Army Corps of Engineers believes that rivers flow straight,” he says, laughing. Fighting the government and corporations to protect their land and values takes constant energy and effort, he says—and a certain mindset. “I make use of anything and turn it into a positive.” Describing how he passed the time during his many stints in jail, he says, “you talk [to cellmates] about aloha ‘āina and you talk about Hawaiian sovereignty.”
Video by Matt Yamashita
Despite the progress, says Glazer, modern fishponders face many challenges that didn’t exist centuries ago. The biggest issue is development, he says. Pavement and buildings funnel polluted runoff into the water along with sewage from septic systems and fertilizer from lawns. The fishponds were once part of an interactive system with the uplands, or ahupua‘a—the watershed and everything in it, including people. A fishpond without its upstream water management and taro fields is an incomplete system. “Fishponds are a great reflection of what’s happening above and below,” says Keli‘i Kotubetey, assistant executive director of the nonprofit Paepae o Heʻeia, which manages restoration of He‘eia fishpond. “Your fishpond is only as healthy as your ahupua‘a.”
To restore this part of the system, a nonprofit called Kākoʻo ʻŌiwi began in 2010 to weed invasive species out of wetlands above He‘eia pond and replant taro to stabilize runoff and improve nutrient flow. In 2017, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration named He‘eia fishpond part of a National Estuarine Research Reserve, supporting the restoration of the entire He‘eia watershed and funding studies of the effects of taro patches and fishponds on nutrients, sediment, flood protection, and endemic species.
Warming and acidifying oceans may also play out in unpredictable ways. Hawaii’s near-constant trade winds typically keep the ponds agitated enough for sufficient oxygen supply, but sometimes in summer, when winds slacken and temperatures rise, the ponds grow hypoxic, threatening aquatic life. A 12-year study of He‘eia fishpond by U.H. researchers and He’eia’s fishpond non-profit correlated two periods of fish die-offs in the pond with these weather events. As climate change intensifies, these extremes could happen more often. Researchers have suggested three possible fixes: Move nursery net pens closer to the gates, where ocean water can decrease the temperature and increase aeration; use artificial aeration systems; or harvest fish at the beginning of a warming event.
Video by Matt Yamashita
Ritte connected with kilo when living largely by subsistence in the Pelakulu Valley, a period he remembers as the best time of his life. “If you’re going to work every day on the freeway, you don’t have a clue what’s happening outside your rolled-up window of your air-conditioned car.” By contrast, in the valley, “I knew all the cloud movements, I knew the temperatures, I knew the ocean—all of those things became part of me. I could tell when it was going to rain and for how long. Nature talks to you. But nobody is listening.”
It’s an approach that is compatible with international best practices, as defined by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, which issued a report a decade ago, “Ecosystem Approach to Aquaculture,” calling for traditional ecological practices and principles in aquaculture design, engineering, and management. “There are examples all over the world of industrial systems that are changing,” says University of New England’s Pierce, who served on the FAO advisory team, “where people are applying nontoxic, lower stocking densities.” In Vietnam, for instance, locals are beginning to grow shrimp among mangrove roots rather than tearing out the trees to build shrimp farms. Because mangroves provide natural habitat for the shrimp, the shrimp can forage in the wild, eliminating the need for additional feed or antibiotics.
So, too, Hawaii’s fishponds can offer lessons for local aquaculture around the Pacific basin. “Part of our grand vision is to get it right in Hawaii first and then allow the Hawaiian fishpond restoration story to serve as a model,” says Glazer. People from New Zealand, Bangladesh, and Thailand have already visited He‘eia fishpond to gain an understanding of how to restore their coastal food resources. “We’re connecting with more indigenous networks as time goes on,” says Kotubetey.
But most important, for fishpond activists, are the connections they’ve made through this work to an ancient culture stripped from Native Hawaiians over the past two centuries. The day I leave Molokai, I take a final swim near the island’s east end, floating over a reef smothered in sediment and algae. But as I step out and grab a towel, my view opens onto the shore’s next half-moon, which holds a fishpond. An older man clad in amalo
, the traditional Hawaiian loincloth, is moving slowly through the water with a bucket, working methodically, his bare back bent into a golden brown question mark. It is a vision from another century—and now, from this one as well.
In the broader narrative of reclaiming Hawaiian rights and culture, “maybe this fishpond story is just a little tip of the iceberg,” says Ritte. “That’s why, at my old age, I’m still excited.”
Video by Matt Yamashita
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ABOUT THE Author
Erica Gies covers water, energy, critters, and more on the science and environment beat. She holds a master’s degree in literature, with a focus in eco-criticism. Her work has appeared inThe New York Times, Scientific American, Nature, The Economist
, and others.
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