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Episode 22: Loko i‘a with Hi‘ilei Kawelo

When it came to food production, Hawaiian ingenuity was not limited to the land—it was on full display in the sea too. In ancient Hawai‘i there were six different types of fishponds, says Hi‘ilei Kawelo, the executive director of Paepae o He‘eia.

“The most recently evolved style is the loko i‘a kuap?, which is your typical coastal pond that makes use of the m?k?h?, or the sluice gate and the weir for its operation. This type of fishpond is what is unique to Hawai‘i.”

The gates of the loko i‘a kuap? were spaced every 500 to 1,000 feet. Their inventive design allowed smaller fish to swim in to the pond on a receding tide. An incoming tide attracted larger fish to be harvested.

“It’s quite innovative for something that our k?puna devised 800 to 1,200 years ago.” Kawelo says fishponds produced anywhere from 200 to 500 pounds of fish per acre per year, usually ‘ama‘ama or mullet and awa or milkfish.  There were loko i‘a around the coasts of all islands, some 400 by Kawelo’s estimate. “We look at Waik?k? today and we forget that there were forty-three fishponds there. Or a place like Pearl Harbor, where we know its history—World War II and the bombing—but we forget that there were forty fishponds. I like to think about fishponds in terms of their numbers as reflections of the wealth of the ‘?ina.”

researcher, writter, and narrator of Aloha Aina. She is currently an editor at Hawai‘i’s largest magazine, Hana Hou!, where she has written and edited numerous award-winning articles about Hawai‘i. She was the founding editor of Honolulu Weekly. She holds a BA in Pacific history and journalism from the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa and a JD from Stanford Law School.
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