By Jan TenBruggencate

Board President, Mālama Hulē’ia

Malama Hulē‘ia Operations Manager Peleke Flores, far left, is seen with volunteers from Kawaikini Public Charter School, left to right, Lilia Gutierrez, Kaeo Hoffman, Keahi Troche, Pualani Jany, Miulana Asai and teacher Alohilani Rogers. Photo by Léo Azambuja

Six hundred years ago, the community around broad Nāwiliwili Bay gathered to build a resource, a monumental accomplishment that would feed the island for generations.

A complex mythology grew around that construction project — variously including magical little people and ancient moralistic tales — but it was rooted in a real feature that survives today. The Alakoko Fishpond, dating to between 1390 and 1450, is the legacy of that work.

Over the centuries, many Kaua‘i hands have worked on that fishpond wall. Replacing flood-shifted stones. Filling voids. Rebuilding the mākāhā gates that allowed water and fingerlings to traverse but kept big fish inside. The community planted crops around the pond perimeter, collected lauhala from the ancient pandanus grove at the northern end, and drew water from the several springs that feed the pond.

The pond and its surroundings fed the community that worked there. Now, it is this generation’s turn to honor the commitment of those generations.

The Trust for Public Land purchased the 102-acre property in 2021, and transferred it to the community nonprofit organization Mālama Hulē‘ia. That conservation purchase extended a great arc of stewardship. The pond was once in the control of local ali‘i, and then Hawaiian Kingdom ali‘i. Alakoko was sold in the 1800s to private interests, and now is back in the hands of the community.

Almost all the mangrove has been cleared from the Alakoko Fishpond, as show on this photo taken in January. The shallow, muddy area on the left of picture is now attracting several species of Hawaiian endangered birds. Photo by Léo Azambuja

In the coming months, Mālama Hulē‘ia will engage the community in planning for the future of the pond. Several projects have already been identified and are in various stages of planning, permitting and funding, said executive director Sara Bowen.

“Further input on the long-term vision will come from community input. Among the many initiatives that we know should go forward are the robust educational program, deep community engagement, repair to the fishpond wall, continued ecosystem restoration including removal of mangrove along the Hulē‘ia River, replanting with native species that will better hold the soil, and improving water quality and wildlife habitat,” Bowen said.

In the past three years, thousands of Kaua‘i school kids have worked and learned at the pond. There are hundreds of students there every month. Their teachers work with Mālama Hulē‘ia staff on curriculum that includes natural science, history, Hawaiian culture and much more.

“Amidst COVID restrictions, the fishpond has served as a unique outdoor classroom for over a thousand of Kaua‘i’s own haumāna (students), ranging in age from kamaliʻi (young children) to kūpuna (elderly). Our partnerships with Kanuikapono Public Charter School and Kamehameha Schools have been instrumental in returning our community to this special place,” said Tiele Doudt, who directs Mālama Hulē‘ia’s education program.

Students from Kawaikini Public Charter school are seen here helping to remove mangrove seedlings from the Alakoko Fishpond last January. Photo by Léo Azambuja

Meanwhile, the original mission of Mālama Hulē‘ia, replacing invasive red mangrove with native lowland species, is progressing. Dozens of acres have already been cleared, and the fishpond wall, which had been hidden under mangrove for decades, is now cleared and ready for repair. The organization has started working on permits required for repair of the fishpond wall repair.

“We hope to engage both students and the larger community in that effort. It’s going to be a lot of work,” said Peleke Flores, operations manager for Mālama Hulē‘ia. He has already begun training workers in the construction of Hawaiian rock walls in anticipation of the fishpond work.

One possible future is to restore the fishpond for aquaculture and make the pond and its surrounding lands a source of food for the community: fish, limu (seaweed) and shellfish from the pond, and kalo, ulu (breadfruit) and other crops from the land.

Another future might be a cultural center, focusing on education and Hawaiian crafting. Another might be a conservation science hub, working to create a template for repairing damaged ecosystems with native species.

Left to right, Mālama Hulē‘ia Board President Jan TenBruggencate, Executive Director Sara Bowen and Operations Manager Peleke Flores. Photo by Léo Azambuja

More likely, the vision would be a blend of those things and others, which will be identified during a strategic planning process.

Scientific dating from core samples in the pond indicate it was probably built roughly in the time when the island was ruled by famed early king Kukona, his more famous son Manokalanipo and his son Kaumakaamano — the late 1300s to the middle 1400s.

The community 600 years ago began work in a bend of the Hulē‘ia River, raising a kuapā, or fishpond wall. In this case it was a unique earthen wall a half-mile long. It was lined on the river side of the wall with a double row of basalt stones to protect it from tidal and storm action in the river. Some of the stories suggest it was such a big job that it wasn’t finished all at once, and that specialized stoneworkers were brought in to complete the task — a tradition that may have led to the mythology about Menehune completing the pond wall.

From the Menehune myth, the pond got the popular name, Menehune Fishpond. Alakoko has also been called Alekoko, Pēpē’awa and Niumalu loko. But the oldest written references use Alakoko, including a Hawaiian-language 1852 Land Court survey that refers to “ka loko o Alakoko” (the Alakoko pond.)

Over the centuries, pond maintenance was regularly needed to repair damage from normal tidal movement, flash floods, tsunami and hurricanes. Alakoko was one of a half dozen named fishponds in the area, but it is the only one that has survived. Some modifications were made during a restoration around 1900, including adding a smaller pond at the downstream end, and replacing two old stone mākāhā with concrete sluice gates that still stand today.

The Alakoko Fishpond has become an outdoor learning opportunity for schools. Photo by Tina Aiu

Among the most recent threats to the pond is the mangrove, an invasive, non-Hawaiian tree that showed up on Kaua‘i about 1930. By 1970, it had started sprouting on the pond wall, and by 2010 it was dense, covering the wall entirely, along with both sides of two miles of the river and the entire inside perimeter of the pond. In the Hulē’ia  river, the aggressive mangrove began intruding from both sides, reducing its width.

That is when paddlers at Kaiola Canoe Club, led by paddler Stevan Yee, grew concerned enough collaborate with the Nawiliwili Bay Watershed Council, led by the late Cheryl Lovell-Obatake, to think about solutions. Mālama Hulē‘ia was the result: a community organization whose focus would be mangrove control.

Mālama Hulē’ia started as a program of Kaiola Canoe Club, and was incorporated as an independent nonprofit in 2015. Its initial project was the removal by hand of more than two acres of mangrove fronting Niumalu Beach Park and along the road leading past it. Hundreds of community volunteers, school groups, Rotarians, hotel workers and others joined in.

The community organization identified the mangrove-infested Alakoko Fishpond area as the next target, and negotiated a 20-year lease on the pond. By the end of 2020, more than 26 acres had been cleared — on the wall with hand tools, and on the pond perimeter with heavy equipment.

Mālama Hulē‘ia Board President Jan TenBruggencate and Kawaikini Charter School teacher Alohilani Rogers. Photo by Léo Azambuja

For Mālama Hulē‘ia, that created a new responsibility, a new kuleana. The mangrove was no longer tearing up the wall with its roots, but now the wall was exposed once again to storms and tides. The protection of the fishpond became part of the group’s mission, and with it the increasing role of education. Teachers across the island asked to bring classes for outdoor education, cultural studies and work projects. Hundreds of students visit and learn there each month.

After the landowners put the fishpond property up for sale in January 2021, The Trust for Public Land, in partnership with Mālama Hulē‘ia, negotiated a conservation purchase and bought the land with a no-strings-attached donation from Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg through the Chan Zuckerberg Kaua‘i Community Fund of the Hawai‘i Community Foundation. The land is now forever protected by deed restrictions, ensuring the property will forever be used for conservation, education and community.

“The Trust for Public Land is so humbled to partner with Mālama Hulē‘ia and the Kaua‘i community to preserve this precious wahi kūpuna (ancestral land) and help make their long held vision a reality,” said Reyna Ramolete Hayashi, The Trust for Public Land’s Aloha ʻĀina Project Manager.

Now Mālama Hulē‘ia and The Trust for Public Land are fundraising for the many projects anticipated in 2022, including work on the fishpond wall, continued replanting with native species, delivering educational programs to schools and community groups, restoring community work days, replacing tarp tent shelters with traditional Hawaiian hale construction, continuing its mangrove eradication and more.

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