The Fishpond: Kahina Pōhaku loko iʻa Moloka’i Island, Hawaii
Named after the goddess Hina, the mother of Moloka’i island and the overseer of Lawaia (fishermen), Kahina Pōhaku Loko iʻa (fishpond) dates back to pre-western contact and is a traditional method of aquaculture providing a sustainable food source of fish and algae. Located on the eastern shore of Moloka’i, the fishpond sits on four acres of land and serves as a gathering ground for education and cultural preservation. It is a place where the art of Mauka a Makai is practiced: taking care of the land from the mountaintop to the sea.
Kahina Pōhaku Loko iʻa the home of fishpond guardian Uncle Leimana Naki
I had been on Moloka'i for several weeks and had established a biking route, a fourteen mile ride up and down the coastal road, the only road. I would religiously pedal it every morning. The route took me past a fishpond called Kahina Pōhaku Loko iʻa. I remember clearly the very first day I went on that bike ride and saw the pond for the first time. The easterly wild winds were blowing hard on my face and the ocean was crashing to my right. As I crested a small hill the powerful wall of the fishpond was suddenly, magically there as if I had entered another time and place in Hawaii’s past. It was the first functioning fishpond I had seen. I was captivated immediately. The rock wall of the pond stood strong against the crashing sea and a few bamboo sticks jutted from the wall hosting colorful flags. I stopped where I was and breathed it in.
It took a while for me to have the courage to enter the fishpond compound. I was nervous about meeting the man I had seen there as I whizzed past on my daily bike ride. For weeks I watched him from the road. He was always busy in the morning when I went by moving rocks to build the fishpond wall, cleaning the compound, or tending to the Hawaiian hale, a traditional thatched house, that stood proud next to the ancient fish pond. I knew what the fishponds were, ancient technology from pre-western times used to rear fish and algae to feed the people. They are rock walls: big rocks, enormous rocks, and little rocks piled on top of each other making a pond that creates a circle from the shoreline. They were traditionally maintained by the Hawaiian people who would daily repair and fortify the walls. At the time of Captain Cook’s arrival, there were at least three hundred and sixty fishponds producing 2,000,000 pounds (900,000 kg) of fish per year throughout Hawaii. Now, over sixty fishponds are lining the shore of Moloka’i, most of them under the water with only part of the walls protruding above the surface. But Kahina Pōhaku fishpond is alive, revived, and bridging the gap between ancient livelihoods and current times.
The fishpond had become an obsession of mine on my daily bike rides. I could feel the ancient mana, life force, there and I wanted desperately to know more about it. So one day, I got the courage to enter and meet Uncle Leimana Naki.
Uncle Leimana Naki working local palm leaves for weaving.
He embodies everything one would imagine in a Hawaiian elder, dressed exclusively in traditional Hawaiian attire, a ‘malo’, or loincloth, he is a powerful guardian with thick arms and chest from moving rocks for twenty years. His long flowing hair danced with the shine of his bright eyes. As I entered the pond he sized me, asking who I was and what I wanted. I said I was Holly from Alaska and I wanted to learn more about fishponds and the traditional ways of fishing.
He stood silent for a long time, slowly smiled, and invited me to sit down with him. I told him that my background was in marine science and that I had worked and lived in Fiji. Nervous and trying to explain myself, I rambled on that my love of the sea and learning about Aloha had brought me to Moloka’i. He then gave me a tour and started talking about how he had been living there for twenty years in the hale and a rough steel container. His mission was to keep the wall standing and to provide food for his people. I was humbled by his dedication. The infrastructure was simple, with no running water, electricity, or sanitation. He was living truly close to the land and he was as wild as the sea.
I was now even more in love with the Fishpond and blurted out that I wanted to learn. And so it began. Like many things in my life, it was a plunge headfirst into the water. Literally. At the time my dear Fijian friend and collogue, Zahida Afee aka Zaidy, was staying with me in Moloka’i. She is a top-notch marine biologist and we were both vibing out the possibility of doing meaningful work in Moloka’i to protect the ocean and conserve traditional livelihoods. After I had met Leimana that day I returned home bubbling with energy. I told Zaidy that I finally went into the fishpond and that we were invited to go dive the next day, which means snorkeling and fishing in the local jargon, with the fishpond guardian. We were ecstatic. We gathered our gear and some food to share and left early the next morning for the pond.
The gate letting water flow in and out of the pond with the tides
When we got to the pond Leimana sized up Zaidy, we knew it was a big deal to go out fishing with this elder, a holder of traditional knowledge and mana. Leimana could not pronounce the name Zaidy so he stuck with Zahida. There was not much communicated as we met and we could tell he was a little concerned about our capabilities. Hawaii is home to big waves and there are various dangers in the crashing surge of the ocean. He knew we both claimed to be divers, and apparently, he trusted that we were, so we geared up and followed him into the pond. Zahida had on her wet suit and I was in a rash guard and board shorts. Leimana went in his malo.
The energy was high, the mana of the fishpond combined with the crashing waves and the powerful presence of Leimana was thick in the seawater. We were entering some sort of test or rights of passage and the elements were welcoming us. I was a bit nervous and knew Zaidy was as well. Would we offend Leimana? Hawaiians in Moloka’i are careful about who they let into their communities and rightfully so as they’ve been exploited unjustly since western contact.
Master weaver with his wife Elano Naki.
We swam to the fishpond wall and then crawled over it into the pulsing sea. Like octopuses sliding over rocks, we entered into the pulse of the open ocean. It was beautiful. Spots of healthy coral emerged in our vision and I could sense an immediate relaxation surge through the three of us. We were all water beings and back in our element.
We began to swim the reef with Leimana leading the way. Suddenly below us swam a large green sea turtle and Zahida took a breath to dive down with her. I looked to my right and saw a black tip reef shark. I love reef sharks, they are not aggressive, and so I began to swim toward it to capture a picture. Leimana remained in the middle with his fishing spear. We continued along the reef examining the liquid environment and then circled back to the pond.
Black tipreef sharks are not aggressive toward humans. I love them.
We emerged with joyous smiles and sat to recount the various creatures and beauty we saw. Leimana wanted to know about the health of the coral. Zahida, an international professional, gave her opinion that it was in decent shape but could benefit from some coral planting. We took off our gear and went to the hale where we shared the food we brought. That’s when Elano, Leimana’s wife came by to check on him. The powerful matriarch also looked us up and down wondering what sort of characters we were and what our possible intentions might be. Leimana quickly introduced us and told her the story of the dive. He recounted, that he didn’t know who these girls were and if they could dive at all. He told his wife that we claimed to be marine biologistbiologistsought he would take us out to maybe get some feedback on the fishponds’ health. He called his wife Mom.
“Mom, I couldn’t believe it, we were out in the water for no less than five minutes and what do I see? A sea turtle on my left. And what happens? Zahida dives down deep to go swim with that turtle! I say to myself, WOW, look at her go! Then I look to my right and I see a SHARK! And what do I see? Holly…and she’s chasing the shark! I couldn’t believe it. There I was with these two women, Fiji on my left and Alaska on my right and I felt so protected and with the right people. I couldn’t believe it. A shark chaser?" He paused poetically. "I knew then that these girls were serious." He then turned to us, and in a call to duty, spoke: I’ve been praying for serious people to come here. To help me.”
And so it began, my commitment to the Kahina Pōhaku loko iʻa. I came back and helped move rocks. I started to learn a few Hawaiian words and chants, and, of course, more about the mission of the pond. I watched as numerous tourists, schoolchildren, and adults came to the pond to learn, and connect with the ocean's mana.
Zahida and I at the entrance of Kahina Pōhaku loko iʻa
Zahida had to move on to Fiji and I would follow her in another month, but since the day of the dive, I spent nearly every day at the pond. I even slept at the pond for ten days on a cot in the hale. Leimana has eight dogs and one night there was a family event so I was left alone at the pond, to protect the place. The eight dogs slept with me, a few climbing on my cot, and the rest circling my nest. I was becoming one with the crashing sound of the waves at night, the birds singing in the morning, and the sun beating down on us during the day as we pushed, rolled, and lifted heavy rocks from the bank to the wall. Sometimes we used Leimana’s tired raft, a few pallets lashed together floated by plastic drums, to float the rocks out to the wall. Most of the time we rolled the rocks along the pond floor, about a hundred and fifty feet, to the outer wall of the pond.
Local high school students working on the wall restoration. In 2017 waves from a large tropical storm took down a portion of the fishpond wall.
Then the day came for me to leave for Fiji to begin my next adventure and join the Uto ni Yalo, the traditional sea canoe of Fiji, and learn about navigating with the stars. Leimana spoke to me. He was excited about my voyage, he was proud and he wanted me to go and gather information and learn there, and someday, if I wanted to he said, to return to the pond, where I would always have a home. I told him I would return.
Currently, I’ve been back to visit the pond and Moloka’i twice since my first contact. On one occasion I was blessed to be able to join Uncle Leimana at the annual Hawaiian fishpond gathering where guardians, scientists, artists, and organizations gathered on Ohau to discuss the revival of fishponds and strategize future pond reparation and sustainability. Currently, Leimana and I have submitted a grant to bring safe drinking water and repair the pond wall from damages that occurred during a big storm. Now I wait patiently for the time to be right and the guidance that will bring me back to Leimana and Kahina Pōhaku loko iʻa.
To donate to the restoration process or for more information visit: