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Sweat and Wisdom

Restoring a Traditional Hawaiian Fishpond

A newcomer gets a lesson in culture and conservation at a Kīholo volunteer workday on Hawai'i Island.

"For us newcomers, volunteering at Kiholo Bay offers a cultural link to lands guarded by tradition." 

Nathan Greene
Nature Conservancy volunteer

By Nathan Greene

Eighty-five smiles greet the morning in our circle of clasped hands. We stand midway between a shallow pond and a hook-shaped bay, secluded by miles of lava-rock. One by one, we introduce ourselves, grinning at shy keiki who guard their parent’s knees. Afterwards, people break into groups.

 My group plans to clear vegetation around Kīholo Fishpond. We cross a shoreline of broken rocks and branches and stare at the clear pool. On the surface, golden rays dance across fin-traced ripples. We prepare to attack the green undergrowth beside the water with clippers, handsaws, and felt-bottom shoes.

Hawaiians designed fishponds to manage food. The ponds increase the productivity of marine ecosystems by concentrating algal growth in shallow sunlit water. Algae blooms lure in hungry juvenile fish from the ocean. Sluice gates prevent the largest fish from exiting, so that they can be harvested.

Unfortunately, at Kīholo, sunlight and nutrient-rich water also allow invasive terrestrial plants to flourish. Their creeping march damages the ponds. Decaying leaves and undergrowth deposit excess detritus on the bottom. The buildup of detritus clogs waterways. Worse, bacteria that break down organic matter steal dissolved oxygen from the fishes. This reduces overall productivity. Human stewardship aims to reverse this process.

By 11:00 am a hundred-foot section of our shoreline stands clear of vegetation. We paid upfront in blisters, but now the current drifts by, unimpeded. Beside it basalt bulwarks pay homage to the engineering of generations past.

Ahead, one last tangle waits. Swathes of invasive kiawe and ironwood trees converge at an angry kink in the pond. We begin work. Tough shrubs rebut clippers and I wonder about lunch. Sunshine weighs down our shoulders. Mud tugs at our heels. Branches scrape our backs.

Then some workers breach the outer brush. Handsaws chew away larger boughs, and chainsaws tackle whole trunks. Like some storm-tossed shipwreck, the tangle breaks apart.

By noon a muddy corner marks the last trace of our shore’s green incursion. We exchange soaking back-claps, and tread off towards tents filled with steaming rice, guava salads, and heaps of pork ribs. The potluck feast glows beneath hungry eyes. Volunteer chefs are praised by food-filled chortles.

In a digestive daze we trickle back to three Hawaiians waiting to talk story. I wonder if they consider us helpers, or intruders. For generations, the land here has fed, taught, and raised the family of seated kūpuna (elder) Uncle Liwai Mitchel. Younger storytellers Roman Ha‘o and Channa-Lee Kamanawa rest across from him. I cannot decide where to sit. Looking around reveals many downturned stares. The air is still.

I choose a chair. Someone points out that the food stains on our clothes are bigger than the work stains. Guffaws and crinkling smiles follow. The Hawaiians commend our hard work with stories, memories, and wisdom from their childhood at Kīholo. As breezes from the sea wash over, we dive with Roman Ha’o’s for giant opihi shells. Channa-Lee Kamanawa guides soft morning canoe trips. Uncle Liwai Mitchel whispers tales of spectral footsteps that still walk ancient paths. Sometimes the sound of the crashing surf is enough, and we are left in shared solitude.

In Hawai‘i the exchange of land stewardship for access to traditional places and wisdom is exciting. The partnership contrasts the land conflicts often seen when indigenous culture meets outsider development. For us newcomers, volunteering at Kīholo Bay offers a cultural link to lands guarded by tradition. For families of the land, work parties help restore ecosystems ravaged by invasive species and human degradation. The system is bound by a delicate weave of shared responsibility to preserve land and wisdom for future generations.

After the tales wind down, we share clasped hands and smiling eyes. Families reluctantly pile into trucks. There are no plastic souvenirs, no dollars exchanged, yet as dusty cars rumble away, each takes away something more valuable from the bay named for a fishhook, Kīholo.

 

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