By Léo Azambuja
The delicate and complex Hulē‘ia Watershed is home to the Alakoko Fishpond, one of the most culturally significant and largest archaeological sites on Kaua‘i. For more than half a century, however, a single plant species has been threatening to choke to death this once vital and fertile region for ancient Hawaiians.
“The main problem is the mangrove introduced during the plantation period. It really likes the calm, brackish water,” said Peleke Flores, operations manager at the nonprofit organization Mālama Hulē‘ia.
But Mālama Hulē‘ia has shown the damage caused by the red mangrove can be reversed and kept in check. The nonprofit is currently getting rid of the mangrove in the 26 acres surrounding the Alakoko Fishpond, also known as Menehune Fishpond.
And this is just the beginning; their mission is to lead community efforts to eradicate all the mangrove covering roughly 70 acres along Hulē‘ia Stream, reestablish the native wetland ecosystem in the watershed, and create an environmental stewardship program honoring Hawaiian values.
“A project like this touches everyone in the community,” said Mason Chock, board president of Mālama Hulē‘ia. In a lot of different ways, he said, it is building capital for the community. It gives the community a sense of place, from cultural, recreational, educational and environmental aspects.
During the height of the sugar plantation days a century ago, red mangrove was intentionally introduced to some areas of Hawai‘i to control coastal erosion. But in Hulē‘ia, the mangrove introduction was unintentional. Flores said he was told mangrove was first noticed in the area in the 1950s, and 20 years later it was already widespread.
Today, mangrove chokes both stream banks for roughly two miles, with some areas being as wide as 450 feet. Mature trees reach up to 40 feet in height, and their tall aerial roots invade the open water and hold up silt, creating a swamp-like environment and narrowing the stream. In the Alakoko Fishpond, the mangrove took over the entire kuapā, or rockwall, and caused mud to fill a large section of the pond.
Chock said that in 2012, Kaiola Canoe Club members reached to the community to understand the issues with the mangrove expansion in the area. During the next couple years, they were awarded grants from the Hawai‘i Community Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to clear a two-and-a-half-acre demonstration site at Niumalu Beach Park, next to the canoe club.
By 2015, all mangrove was removed from Niumalu Beach Park. Some native plants were reintroduced to the area, while others came back on their own. Also, native birds species started returning to the beach park. That same year, Mālama Hulē‘ia — created by members of the Kaiola Canoe Club and the Nawiwili Bay Watershed Council — was incorporated as a nonprofit, and Sara Bowen was hired for the executive direction position.
“We were able to gain a lot of credibility from the work that was done there to show it is possible for us to remove mangrove and maintain the restoration project,” Bowen said of the mangrove eradication at Niumalu Beach Park. “So we were able to apply for a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service coastal wetland restoration grant, and we were successfully awarded that grant for nearly a million dollars.”
While the USFWS grant made it possible for Mālama Hulē‘ia to address the mangrove at Alakoko Fishpond, it also put the nonprofit “on the hook for a huge amount of match contribution,” both in kind and cash, according to Bowen.
“We are looking at meeting about 8,000 to 9,000 volunteer-hours for this project (at the fishpond),” she said, adding they are using two methods: hand-removal and heavy machinery.
In archaeologically sensitive areas, such as alongside the fishpond’s kuapā, mangrove removal has to be done my hand. Elsewhere, crews manning heavy machinery went to work. In January, the fishpond was completely surrounded by mangrove, making it impossible to see it from the ground level. By mid-March, however, all the work that could be done by heavy machinery was already completed, and the fishpond was entirely visible from the ground.
Meanwhile, crews continue to work with hand tools to remove the mangrove growing close to the kuapā.
The USFWS grant gives them two years to finish the fishpond restoration, according to Bowen.
“We are aiming to do our best to get it done in that timeline,” she said.
As the project progresses and all the kinks get fixed, Bowen said she’ll start planning for the next phases, reaching out to other landowners and finding other funding sources.
There are several landowners in the area targeted for watershed restoration, including nine small landowners just past Niumalu Beach Park, five large landowners and some kuleana landowners. Bowen said the next landowner they may work with is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the Hulē‘ia Wildlife Refuge.
“They have a substantial amount of mangrove on their property. They also have the ability to do the work on their own property,” said Bowen, adding if Mālama Hulē‘ia can help by bringing additional resources, it would be an incentive for them to take care of the mangrove.
When Capt. James Cook first landed on Kaua‘i in1778, the Alakoko Fishpond was already several hundred years old. Anthropologist David Burney estimated its age to be about 600 years old, based on 12-foot-deep sampler cores he drove into the pond’s sediment in 2002, according to journalist Jan TenBruggencate. Some stories, however, suggest the fishpond may be 800 to 1,000 years old, Flores said.
The fishpond continued to be used at least until the 1950s, and many “old timers,” Flores said, still remember the importance of the fishpond to the community.
“We have a lot of written documents that show this was the icebox for this area,” said Flores, adding there are six, and possibly seven, fishponds along Hulē‘ia Stream, with Alakoko being the largest.
Although the fishpond is widely known as Menehune Fishpond, most historians agree its real name is likely Alakoko, as it is called in the oldest-known Hawaiian newspapers. “Ala” means trail and “koko” means blood, suggesting those who built the kuapā left behind a trail of blood from carrying the jagged lava rocks with their bare hands.
Flores said before the work started at the fishpond in September, the crew performed a ceremony to acknowledge their spiritual connection with the site and the Hawaiians who built it and lived off of it for a while. To him, he said, it was the right thing to do to ask them for forgiveness.
On the fourth Saturday of every month, Mālama Hulē‘ia organizes a community work day at Alakoko Fishpond. Visit www.malamahuleia.org or the nonprofit’s Facebook page for more information on how to volunteer in the cleanup.