Hawaiian Fish Camps Help Families Reconnect with Nature

This summer, CI’s Hawai‘i Fish Trust partnered with local organizations to conduct several lawai‘a ‘ohana, or family fish camps, designed to reconnect local people with nature and revive interest in sustainable ocean management. CI’s Kēhau Springer recounts her experience at one camp in Kīholo.

As I travel down the long dirt road to Kīholo from the Queen Ka‘ahumanu Highway, I wonder what this place looked like before the modern convenience of trucks and cars. Before 1974, I would not have been able to make this 160-kilometer (100-mile) trek so easily from my home in the town of Volcano. It would have taken days — maybe weeks — to reach Kīholo, carrying my belongings on mules or horses. It’s no wonder my Hawaiian ancestors were so familiar with their one hānau, or place of birth!

At the end of the road, I am greeted by Mahana Gomes and Bart Wilcox, siblings who trace their lineal decent from this ahupua‘a (land division) in which Kīholo is situated. Their faces are lit up with joy, as it is “Kamanawa Ho‘omoana I Kīholo” (“Time to go camping at Kīholo”) — the literal translation for the name of their lawai‘a ‘ohana camp. Months of planning by Hui Aloha Kīholo, a local non-profit started by the families of Kīholo, will soon pay off as everyone is excited to participate in the weekend’s activities.

Our group of about 50 local people — ranging from children to elders — gathers in a circle and starts with a pule (prayer), followed by a welcoming from Ku‘ulei Keakealani and Jenny Mitchell, whose families are also native to this area. They ask us to ho‘omalie (walk in silence) with them to the hillside that overlooks the landscape to familiarize ourselves with the environment, connect ourselves to this place and open our hearts and minds to one another.

I walk barefoot on the ‘ili‘ili stones and think about all the Native Hawaiians who came before me who walked on these shores. The ‘ili‘ili stones transition to ‘a‘a lava, and I put my slippers back on to keep up with the group.

Ku‘ulei teaches us a melea song she composed that describes all the famed areas and features of this land. As she sings, we take in the panoramic view of Kīholo with the mountains of Pu‘u Anahulu, Pu‘u Wa‘awa‘a, Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa and Hualalai providing a majestic backdrop.

That night, we talk about the importance of integrating traditional knowledge and Western science to monitor our environment and help us manage our lands and ocean as best we can. We know our Hawaiian ancestors were on to something, as they were able to survive here for generations before barges brought food and supplies. As I lie down to sleep that night, I reflect on the conversations we’ve had.

The next morning I am up at 5:30 to watch the sun rise behind the thick kiawe (mesquite) brush. We all gather for our morning pule, then eat breakfast. Our morning discussion is led by Pelika Bertelmann — fisherwoman and co-founder of Nā Maka o Papahānaumokuākea, a local non-profit that supports integrated community-based marine management efforts — along with Alan Friedlander — a coral reef fisheries expert from the University of Hawai‘i — on the importance of holistic environmental observations, lunar cycles and how they relate to management.

I follow up with a talk about ‘opihi (Hawaiian limpet), including a demonstration of how to dissect them to understand local reproduction cycles. This leads to a great discussion on how we as concerned citizens can change our behavior to promote sustainable harvesting practices to reverse the decline of ‘opihi populations.

One participant, a Native Hawaiian food caterer, mentions how he stopped serving ‘opihi at the parties he caters because he noticed a decline in stocks over the years. One simple action on his part could protect thousands of ‘opihi for future generations.

Later in the day we learn about ‘opelu (mackerel scad) fishing with Mike Hind, Jenny’s brother who is a longtime fisherman. He teaches us pono, or responsible fishing practices associated with ‘opelu fishing, and demonstrates how to clean, salt and dry it. What a yummy treat for all of us! After lunch, several staff members from The Nature Conservancy teach the older kids and adults how to conduct fish surveys to monitor fish populations in their community.

Ku‘ulei’s father, Sonny Keakealani then teaches us about imu — a traditional fishing practice he learned as a young boy growing up in Kīholo, where stone platforms were built strategically along the shoreline. These platforms were used by women and children, who would surround the imu with fish baskets and use coconut leaves to scare the fish into the baskets.

The next morning I rise again at 5:30, ready for our day to mālama (take care). We are to clean up Waiaelepī a brackish water anchialine pond used traditionally to harvest ‘opae ‘ula — a kind of shrimp — as bait to fish for ‘opelu. However, Kīholo has another plan for us. Honey bees swarm the edges of the pond, making it impossible for us to work without getting stung.

Instead, Ku‘ulei takes us to another culturally significant site: Luahinewai, another brackish water pond in the middle of a barren lava field, and an important ceremonial site. We sing the mele Ku‘ulei taught us the day before to acknowledge the sanctity of this place. We swim in the cool waters, and see a small school of pāpio, or juvenile bluefin trevally. This oasis is not only a haven for the plants and animals; it is for us the wai ola — the living waters.

In our final discussion about what we learned over these past few days, one image sticks in my mind. As I listen to Bart reflect on how we need to look to the past to plan for our future, I see Uncle Sonny contentedly sitting in his chair, overlooking his grandchildren laughing and playing in the waters of Kīholo — as if to remind us that everything will be okay if we remain true to ourselves, our land and to each other.

Kēhau Springer is the fishing community partnership specialist for CI’s Hawai‘i Fish Trust program.