Restoring Hawaiian Fishponds Important Step toward Seafood Security

fisherman, Hawaii

Fisherman in Hawai’i. (© Troy K Shinn/ www.troyshinn.com)

Over the last several decades, many Native Hawaiians have taken up the ancient practice of Hanai i’a, or raising fish in loko i’a (fishponds) that were built by our ancestors.

These ponds once supplied as many as 2 million pounds [907,000 kilograms] of fish per year for local people. These days, many loko i’a are in disrepair; if they are ever to be as productive as they once were, they are in desperate need of restoration.

Approximately 400 traditional fishponds exist in Hawai’i today. Not one has been fully restored for fish production. For years, the main barriers that slowed this progress were the strenuous effort and time it took for fishpond practitioners to obtain all the necessary permits — 17 in total — that would allow for the ponds’ complete restoration.

The ocean has always been central to life in Hawai‘i, for everything from diet to transportation to recreation. But in recent years, threats like pollution runoff, reef loss and overfishing have impacted ocean health around the islands.

Currently, over 60% of Hawai’i’s seafood is imported — meaning that while a tourist may think her opakapaka (crimson snapper) came from the bay in front of the beachfront restaurant, it may have actually traveled thousands of miles to get to her plate. (Learn more in the video below.)

Fishponds may be part of the answer to this problem. Traditional Hawaiian loko i’a is an efficient and sustainable way to farm local fish. A well-trained fishpond practitioner can create an entire ecological habitat within its walls, using native plants, seaweed, fish and coral that grow and feed one another. Pond-raised species like mullet and threadfin are protected from predators and are allowed to feed and grow in a safe environment until they are ready to be harvested.

The fishponds not only raise fish for consumption by the local community, they also help restock the surrounding reefs with fish as those who oversee the ponds release stock into the wild. Their walls provide a gathering place for marine life that thrives on small organisms escaping from the fishpond. Fishponds also provide a basin for erosion that would otherwise cause severe damage to the reef.

CI’s Hawai’i program recognizes the benefits of functioning loko i’a, as well as what needs to be done to get there. The first step is to streamline the tedious permitting process — to wrap all these permits into one easy-to-use permit for fishpond practitioners to follow.

Together with Honua Consulting, Hawai’i’s Department of Land and Natural Resources and other state and federal agencies, we coordinated a master conservation district use permit application that streamlines the federal and state-permitting requirements for activities related to the protection, restoration and maintenance of traditional fishponds across Hawai’i.

This new streamlined permit has been recognized and approved by Hawai’i’s Board of Land and Natural Resources, and is currently being considered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which approves all coastline modifications.

Once that happens, no longer will fishpond practitioners need to waste time trying to fulfill state requirements and waiting for approval of their proposals. People will soon be able to focus on the work itself: rebuilding this innovative and traditional method of aquaculture, which could serve as a model for sustainable fish farming in shallow coastal areas across the globe.

There is still a lot of work to be done if fishponds are to function as they once did. But this streamlined permit will bring much-needed momentum toward seafood security in Hawai’i. Soon, loko i’a will no longer be relics of our past — they will also be what feed our future children.

Luka Mossman is the fisheries outreach coordinator for CI Hawai’i.

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