Q&A with Keli'i Kotubetey on his work to preserve ancient Hawaiian fishponds

Throughout the Hawaiian Islands, modern aquaculture is growing — but aquaculture has been present in the region for generations.

The techniques of herding or trapping adult fish with rocks in shallow tidal areas is found elsewhere in the world but the loko iʻa kuapā, or walled coastal ponds, are unique to Hawaii.

These fishponds can be found throughout the state, but over time, many of these ancient pools have fallen into disrepair as other industries grew in the islands. Today, a collection of nonprofits and private businesses are repairing the fishponds tended to by their ancestors and forging a connection between Hawaii’s fish farming past and modern aquaculture advancements.

Keli'i Kotubetey, a native of Kailua, O`ahu, is a founder and assistant executive director of Paepae o He’eia, a nonprofit organization dedicated to caring for He’eia Fishpond – an ancient Hawaiian fishpond located in He’eia Uli, Ko’olaupoko, O’ahu. Seafood Source reached out to Kotubetey before his upcoming presentation at Aquaculture America 2020 to talk about Hawaii’s ancient fishponds, restorative efforts throughout the state and how these traditional techniques fit in with today’s modern aquaculture landscape.

Seafoodsource: What is Hawaii's history with aquaculture?

Kotubetey: Hawaii has a long tradition with aquaculture, going back nearly 2,000 years. It was a practice, a culture that was developed as these peoples moved throughout the Pacific and ultimately ended up in Hawaii. So it’s kind of like Hawaii has the latest and greatest of what people had been developing for generations — in terms of ancient aquaculture, Hawaii’s practices are actually the youngest. It’s young but it’s the most technically advanced. In my mind anyway — I’m biased.

Because it's the youngest, because it was adapted to Hawaii’s environment, ecosystem, and weather patterns it was very flexible to suit the needs of the people living here, whether it be on the shorelines of an older island, newer island or even up in the uplands.

Seafoodsource: Can you talk about the work you’re doing with Paepae o He’eia caring for the caring for the He’eia Fishpond? What has happened to these fishponds over time?

Kotubetey: There are a few links in the chain missing in terms of knowledge being passed down from one generation to the next. Hawaii has a recent and not-so-great plantation history — so as the plantations grew in size and as the plantation economy grew, that pulled people away from tending to fishponds. It was during those generations that fishponds started becoming less used and in some cases lost, nearly forever, just because they became derelict. The He’eia Fishpond and others that are going through restoration process right now, they never actually disappeared, they just got covered up with dust. They just need to be uncovered. Some of them are in much more recoverable shape than others. Some will need millions of dollars of dredging work and rock work, whereas others just need some rocks put back and they’re in pretty good shape.

Our fishpond and others in our state-wide network are striving for the same target, which is reactivation of these ponds and their food-producing potential.

Seafoodsource: So the ultimate goal of these restorative effort is to have these fishponds across the state completely operational and working at a commercial capacity?

Kotubetey: What the term operational means is up to the particular fishponds operator or manager. There are different ways that a fishpond can be considered “operational.”

A particular fishpond can be producing enough food to feed a few families and be considered operational — maybe it’s a smaller pond or it was too much work to restore the entire pond so aquaculture can only really take place in a smaller portion of it.

Other ponds have chosen to go the educational route, where a pond is functional and there are fish in it, but it might not be actively growing fish to feed people. For them, it’s more about educating people and exciting the next generation to then became the stewards of these ponds.

And then there are some ponds that are going all-in — fish, oysters, crab, and seaweed. We want to restore them to function and prominence in our communities and then the communities can decide how to best utilize those ponds.

Seafoodsource: How do you see the restoration of these traditional fishponds and ancient aquaculture techniques fit in with the rise of modern aquaculture?

Kotubetey: Modern aquaculture in Hawaii is growing and I think that native Hawaiian fishpond aquaculture is a perfect fit for industry. Our fishpond aquaculture has the potential to contribute thousands of pounds of fish, oysters, seaweed, and crab to the  local seafood economy, which would be wonderful. Over 50 percent of Hawaii’s seafood is imported, which is mind-blowing for being here and surrounded by ocean. I’m not saying that Hawaiian fishponds are going to be the total solution and we’re going to completely to flip the script here in our state, but they are definitely full of potential and a growing part of the economy — just crazy potential to help to feed people local seafood. That’s awesome. That’s more of what we need, more of what we hear around the world and it’s exactly what sustained our people on these islands for thousands of years. Why not look to the past to provide answers for our future?

Fishponds can definitely contribute to our current seafood economy, but I think it’s so much more than that. People are becoming more knowledgeable about the pace and direction that we see our global food economy heading and consumer sentiment is rising in terms of that direction not being sustainable. Fishponds provide an opportunity to educate, to allow people to develop physical relationships with each other and places, and become truly a part of a responsible food system.

It’s tough for us here in Hawaii because we have about 1.5 million residents and over 10 million visitors. These visitors that are coming to our shores put a great demand and stress on our food system. But if we can start in small pockets, within our fishponds, feeding our local economy — it’s not so much that we’re going to feed the world, but who knows what change we can affect at our local and state government. Fishponds represent an amazing opportunity to create societal change simply by connection to place and love for place..

We feel adamant that part of what’s missing in today’s society, and especially our food system, is connection to food and connection to place. If we can get more people touching their food or touching and helping to restore the places that grow their food, they’ll have a deeper respect for this land that feeds us and allows us to survive. On the islands, I feel like we’re a little bit more aware of that need than other parts of the United States but still we have our challenges and no place is perfect. We have a long way to go, but fishponds represent that hope.

Photo courtesy of Keli'i Kotubetey


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