Conservation News

News, views and stories from the front lines of conservation


All recent news

How an ancient tradition could save Hawai‘i’s oceans

© Conservation International/photo by S. Kēhaunani Springer

As wild fisheries worldwide have collapsed, fish farms have proliferated to keep up with an ever-increasing global demand for fish. This rapid expansion has often come at the expense of valuable coastal ecosystems such as mangroves — but the revival of an ancient cultural tradition is proving that this isn’t the only option.

On the shores of Hawai’i, the ancestors of modern Native Hawaiians built loko iʻa (traditional fishponds) that provided them with a regular source of fish. The pond walls were built with stacks of rocks that allowed ocean water to filter through the cracks. Young wild fish would swim through the gates into the pond to feed in its rich, brackish water; once there, the fish grew too large to swim out of the gate and became trapped.

As a result of overfishing and the degradation of coral reefs and other habitats in the islands, today around 60% of seafood consumed in Hawai‘i is imported. Luka Mossman of CI Hawai’i believes that the revitalization of loko iʻa can help change that. “The goal is to feed the communities,” he said.

Surprisingly, the fishponds can also help restore the coral reefs nearby. The pond managers periodically release some of their farmed fish back into the wild, and the pond’s walls become habitat for bivalves and other marine life that prey on the small fish escaping from the fishpond. The pond also traps sediment runoff that would otherwise damage the reef.

In 2014, Mossman blogged about how although about 400 traditional fishponds remained across the state, not one had been fully restored for fish production. Since then, thanks in part to CI’s efforts to streamline the permitting process allowing communities and organizations to restore loko iʻa, there are now more than 50 fishponds in some stage of restoration.

Among the forces driving the resurrection of this ancient tradition? Modern technology.

“We are using modern tools like cloud software and tablets to help us collect water-quality data within the loko iʻa,” Mossman explained. “We will then reconcile this with our traditional kilo (Hawaiian observations) of our resources. This will help further our understanding of the optimal conditions for loko iʻa to rear fish, and allow us to revitalize this traditional practice.”

Learn more about Mossman and this project in the short video below.

Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Conservation News.

Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates. Donate to Conservation International.