Do How an Ancient Fishpond Breathes
Fat silver fish turn figure eights beneath the surface of Lāhuipua‘a fishpond. Every now and then I catch the flash of an eel’s tail disappearing into the shadows. A slender rock wall encircles the five-acre coastal pond. It’s one of seven ancient fishponds at Mauna Lani—waters once cherished by Hawaiian kings and fishermen alike. Watching ripples spread across the surface of Lāhuipua‘a, I imagine the hands that built its wall eight hundred years ago.
Uncle Danny Akaka, the resort’s Kahu Hānai, or traditional knowledge keeper, joins me at the water’s edge for a morning stroll. The perfect guide, he radiates aloha and genuinely enjoys sharing the stories of his Native Hawaiian ancestors. We walk along the narrow rock wall that separates the fishpond from the sea. We stop in front of a wooden gate that can be raised and lowered to allow water and fish to flow into the pond. “This is the mākāhā,” Uncle Danny says. “It allows the fishpond’s caretakers to maintain a delicate balance between fish populations and limu [seaweed] growth within the pond.”
Ancient Hawaiians knew how to work with the island’s existing systems to multiply the natural abundance of the land and sea. Savvy fishermen enclosed coastal ponds like this throughout the archipelago, where they cultivated their favorite species—‘ama‘ama (mullet), ‘awa (milk fish), and moi (threadfin). These seemingly simple rings of stacked rocks have survived centuries of storm surges and still provide food for their communities. They’re a testament to the native genius of this place.
The mākāhā is an effective piece of engineering: young fish can pass through the slotted gate, while larger predators cannot. In the pond’s protected shallows, baby fish grow fat snacking on the seaweed that thrives in the brackish water. When the time comes for them to spawn they gather at the mākāhā, hoping to migrate out to deeper waters. In days past, the mākāhā was the place to harvest the choicest specimens for a ready feast. The pond’s kia‘i (guardian) stood watch here during the rising tide to prevent poaching and periodically opened the gate to flush out sediment during the receding tide.
“The mākāhā is a sacred part of the fishpond,” Uncle Danny tells me. “In the poetry of the Hawaiian language, mākāhā means ‘at the source of the breath.’ The breath, or hā, is the sea water that comes in and out, giving life to the pond, the land, and its people.” We pause to listen to the sound of seawater rushing through the gate like a deep inhalation. I remember that “hā” is the second half of another, more familiar Hawaiian word: aloha. Here at Mauna Lani, it’s easy to feel the aloha, the love Hawaiians have for their island home.