Restoring the He‘eia Fishpond back to health

As one of the largest remaining fishponds on O‘ahu, the He‘eia fishpond has often been hailed as one of the island’s most unique and visually stunning points of interest. Spread across 88 acres of pristine coastal waters over the Kane‘ohe Bay, the manmade fishpond pays homage to an ancient Hawaiian form of aquaculture still viable today.

To secure and maintain the fishpond’s well being, Paepae o He‘eia, a private non-profit organization, has worked in partnership with landowner Kamehameha Schools since 2001 to clean and restore the fishpond to its original state.

“Our Hawaiian ancestors first started building fishponds almost 1,200 years,” says Hi‘ilei Kawelo, executive director of Paepae o He‘eia. “During population booms they proved to be a very effective way to supplement food they were already receiving from nearby fisheries.”

Kawelo, who grew up in Kahalu‘u, remembers visiting the He‘eia area regularly as a child.

“As I got older, I would visit with my friends during our time off to take care of the fishpond,” says the activist, who graduated from the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa with a degree in zoology. “What started out as just a simple mission to clean up the fish-pond soon led me to leave my day job and create Paepae o He‘eia, so that I, along with a few others, could dedicate myself full-time.”

Since its conception, Paepae o He‘eia has allocated the majority of its funding to cover restoration efforts. “In 1922, the mangrove weed was introduced to O‘ahu so over a period of many decades during which He’eia received no maintenance, the fishpond became overrun with the invasive plant species,” Kawelo explains. “Later in 1965, there was also a massive storm, which rendered the fishpond virtually inoperable due to the drastic change in water pressure and one of the walls breaking down.”

Despite the necessary work that lies ahead, Paepae o He‘eia has received an overwhelming amount of support from members of the community. Assistance, not only in the form of monetary donations, but also, hard labor, has substantially aided rehabilitation initiatives for the fishpond.

giving_20141201_01

Picture 1 of 4

Photo by Manuel Mejia of the Nature Conservancy of Hawai'i

“Our work could only have come this far with the helping hands of our nearly 8,500 volunteers who come each year,” Kawelo says. “The restoration work is incredibly hands-on, so there is definitely power in numbers to help transport biomass, cut down mangroves and use hand loppers to pull out roots.”

Thirteen years of restoring the site’s physical infrastructure later, the He‘eia Fishpond is nearly 50 percent recovered and thriving with phytoplankton, milk-fish and other coastal reef species. One of the area’s top priorities this year includes rebuilding a new gate to close the gap in the wall caused by the 1965 storm.

“Even though there is still so much to do, we are actually making very good progress,” Kawelo shares. “Furthermore, because a lot of schools now require students to complete community service, we almost never have to solicit for volunteers.”

In addition to restoration, Paepae o He‘eia dedicates thousands of hours and significant resources each year toward an extensive education program.

“It is extremely important for us to work with different young ones—from preschool to college students—[who] connect with the fishpond and actually contribute by getting their hands dirty,” Kawelo states. “Because of technology and other distractions, kids today are very much detached and unaware of their surroundings.”

Part of Paepae o He‘eia’s scholastic reform also includes educating the public about the noteworthy technology behind island fishponds, like He‘eia.

“Hawai‘i has some of the most unique and advanced forms of aquaculture on earth,” Kawelo explains. “When you think about how it took our ancestors only two years to master the meticulous mixing of fresh water to salt water to create a sustainable fishpond, along with building a 7,000-foot-long wall without mortar, it is both humbling and awe-inspiring.”

In the years to come, Paepae o He‘eia hopes to transition the area into an economically profitable fishpond.

“Once we finish the restoration process and rebuild the wall, we will finally have a functioning fishpond, free from the threat of invasive species,” Kawelo says. “I would love one day for the fishpond to be able to provide enough food for our employees, their families and whoever else in the community is interested.”

In an age in which fast food and microwavable meals dominate many peoples’ diets, the He‘eia Fishpond provides a valuable service by helping residents understand the mechanisms of a natural food source.

“Most kids today have no idea where their food comes from, so here at the fishpond, one of the greatest things we do is teach our volunteers how to catch, prepare and cook their own fish,” Kawelo expresses. “Only through such an experience can people really appreciate why places like He‘eia are so important to preserve.”

To learn more about Paepae o He‘eia, visit paepaeoheeia.org.

Photos courtesy of Paepae o He‘eia unless otherwise noted