Fishponds of Kula Kai

The Royal fish ponds of Kula Kai. At least four Loko I’a of the Loko Kuapa (walled) variety were built here on the shallow fringing reef.


Indigenous Watershed Engineering:

The Royal fishponds of Kula Kai have significant cultural and historical value. Fish ponds are called “Loko I’a” in Hawaiian. These ponds are of the “Loko Kuapa” (walled fishpond) style. These were the most labor-intensive type of fish pond to build, sometimes requiring the work of thousands of people. Only the Ali’i could marshal this kind of manpower, so these ponds usually became dedicated to the exclusive use of the ali’i (chief, noble, or king). What is notable in this area is that each pond was originally located across the stream mouth of a separate ahupua’a. Each fishpond was carefully conceived and constructed as part of a planned indigenous watershed infrastructure, that enhanced the natural watershed features. Hawaiians respected and revered nature, and understood natural systems. Wherever possible, they took advantage of natural assets and modified them to their advantage. Each fishpond has at least one corresponding freshwater kahawai (stream, gulch) and a muliwai (wetland, estuary) and was part of an integrated agricultural and aquaculture system for food production and resource management.

Kalepolepo in the nineteenth century (Kolb 1995: 63)
Kalepolepo in the nineteenth century (Kolb 1995: 63)

“This type of setting was selected most frequently for the construction of loko kuapa (walled ponds), due to wave protection provided by the reef and the presence of a shallow shoal area. Kalepolepo Fishpond is significant as a well-preserved example of the technological achievements associated with the development of Hawaiian aquaculture. The fishpond was an economic resource that was important for its subsistence value to the people of the Kula District between approximately AD 1500 and 1880.”

Kalepolepo Fishpond (Ko i’e i’e):

Fishponds are strongly associated with streams (kahawai) and muliwai (wetlands, estuaries). The Kalepolepo fishpond pictured below has no obvious wetland today, because the Menehune Shores hotel was built on top of the wetland. However, the wetland hydrology remains underneath. Springs still flow underneath the ground and into the ocean here. And sometimes when it rains the original Ko’ie’ie Wetland‘s spring can burst out of the ground near the beach and take out a mass of sand. After one particular rain event, it took 50 truckloads of sand to “fill the spring back in”.

Kalepolepo (Ko i’e i’e) Fishpond, in Kula Kai (Kihei)

Here is how Kalepolepo looked in 1963, before the Condo/Hotel Was Built:

The wetlands in the Kalepolepo area in 1963

During the pre-Contact Period, there were several fishponds near Kīhei; Waiohuli, Kēōkea-kai, and Kalepolepo Pond (also known as Kaonoulu-kai, and by the ancient name of Kōʻieʻie Pond; Kolb et al. 1997). Constructed on the boundary between Kaʻonoʻulu and Waiohuli Ahupuaʻa, these three ponds were some of the most important royal fishponds on Maui. The builder of Kalepolepo and two other ponds (Waiohuli and Kēōkea-kai) has been lost in antiquity, but they were reportedly rebuilt at least three times through history, beginning during the reign of Piʻilani (1500s; Ibid; Cordy 2000). (Source, A94-706_FEIS_Vol3_AppendixI-2.pdf)

Oral tradition recounts the repairing of the fishponds during the reign of Kiha-Piʻilani, the son of the great aliʻi (chief) Piʻilani, who had bequeathed the ponds to Umi, ruler of Hawaiʻi Island. Umiʻs konohiki (land manager) ordered all the people from Maui to help repair the walls of Kalepolepoʻs fishponds. A man named Kikau protested that the repairs could not be done without the assistance of the menehune who were master builders (Wilcox 1921:66-67). The konohiki was furious and Kikau was told he would die once the repairs had been made. Kēōkeakai was the first to be repaired. When the capstone was carried on a litter to the site, the konohiki rode proudly on top of the rock as it was being placed in the northeast corner of the pond. When it was time for repairs on Waiohuli-kai, the konohiki did the same. As the last pond, then known as Kaʻonoʻulu-kai, was completed, the konohiki once again rode the capstone to its resting place. Before it could be put into position, the capstone broke throwing both the rock and konohiki into the dirt. The workers reportedly said, “Ua konohiki Kalepolepo, ua eku i ka lepo” (the manager of Kalepolepo, one who roots in the dirt)” (Ibid: 66). That night a tremendous storm threw down the walls of the fishponds. The konohiki implored Kikau to help him repair the damage. Kikau called the menehune who rebuilt the walls in one night. Umi sent for Kikau who lived in the court of Waipiʻo valley from then on. The region of Kēōkea-kai and Kaʻonoʻulu-kai Fishpond became known as Kalepolepo Fishpond (Ibid.).  (Source, A94-706_FEIS_Vol3_AppendixI-2.pdf)


Kikau and the Konohiki; the story of Kula Kai Fishponds:

Whenever the chief commanded that a fishpond be built, the konohiki was in charge of the recruitment of labor and of construction. The responsibility of the construction of sites F6 (Kalepolepo, Kaʻonoʻulu-kai), F13(*?) and F28 (Waiohuli-kai) was given to a favorite of High Chief Umi. Wilcox (n.d.) describes this overseer as being arrogant. At one time the konohiki mounted a litter on which 40 men were carrying a large boulder. He surrounded himself with pomp and ceremony while he and the boulder were conveyed to the shore; however, the litter broke and both stone and man fell unceremoniously to the ground. The konohiki, who was an outsider, coming from the island of Hawai‘i, became enraged and demanded that a local native, Kikau, and his friends dive for stones in deep water. The konohiki did not listen to the advice of Kikau as to the proper construction procedures, whereupon a great storm arose to destroy the three fishponds, leaving the konohiki to regret his incompetence. This outsider then allowed Kikau to rebuild the ponds in his own fashion, for failure would have resulted in the punishment of death, not only for Kikau but also for the konohiki. (Source, KIKUCHI-FISHPONDS-1973-AZU_TD_BOX75_E9791_1973_219) [*F14 Kēōkea-kai would fit the story better]

Learn more about What are Fishpond Wetlands?

Learn more about Six main types of Hawaiian Fishponds