Hawaii's Fish Ponds

Hawaiian Fishponds 101

Whenever I see a postcard of the sunset at Anaeho’omalu Bay, I can’t help but be amazed by the beauty of the ponds next to the beach. Did they build those ponds when they built the hotel?

We agree that the ponds are really incredible – and they’re not new. They actually played an integral part in historical Hawaiian culture. In Hawaiian, the general term for any kind of pond or enclosed water is “loko”. The Hawaiians recognized five types of loko and at least 449 of them had been constructed before 1830 – and the earliest known ponds were developed in the 14th century.

So the Hawaiian’s actually “built” the ponds? What did they use them for?

Of the 5 main types of loko, the ali’I (royalty) most likely controlled 3 types. The loko  kuapa was the most important type of shore pond. It was enclosed by a curved seawall and had a sluice gate at one end called a “makaha” – like the pond you can see near the Ocean Sports beach hut. The ali’I also controlled the loko pu’uone, which were shoreline ponds containing brackish water, and the loko wai (inland freshwater ponds). The ponds were used not just to trap fish as in other Polynesian cultures, but to raise them for later consumption as needed. The ancient Hawaiians were the first culture to actually develop a system to manage water levels regardless of tides.

What kinds of fish were raised in the ponds?

Although many species were raised in ponds, the main species were milkfish (called awa) and mullet (‘ama’ama also called ‘anae during its adult stage). One of the translations for “Anaeho’omalu” is “Bay of the Protected Mullet”.

So the fish at Anaeho’omalu were used to feed the royalty? Who took care of the ponds?

It is thought that the ponds at Anaeho’omalu were used to raise fish for the ali’I and their families. Each pond had one male caretaker whose job it was to guard the fish from pigs and dogs, and also to clean and maintain the ponds. Because the fish raised in the ponds ate various kinds of algae, the caretaker also fertilized the ponds with sweet potatoes, taro, breadfruit and seaweed.

So what stopped the common people from eating fish raised in the ponds?

The ali’I put strong kapus (laws or taboos) on the ponds – which probably were reason enough to prevent poaching. But the Hawaiians were also a deeply religious people, and believed that guardian spirits (called ‘aumuaka mo’o) inhabited the ponds. The people regularly gave offerings to these spirits at shrines near the walls.

What kinds of spirits would inhabit the ponds?

The ‘aumakua mo’o were female guardians that usually appeared as lizards, turtles, or as a woman sitting beside the pool, combing her long black hair.

If the ali’i and their families were the only ones eating from the ponds, did the commoners see any benefits at all from the ponds?

Common people did manage many of their own “loko”. Some of them were inland freshwater ponds, and some were part of the wetland taro fields. Of course the fish and shrimp and other animals inhabiting these ponds were different species than those inhabiting the brackish water ponds of the ali’i. It is also thought that by maintaining abundant food sources for passing royalty and their entourage in ponds, the near-shore reef fish were left for the use of the rest of the population.

Are the fish ponds at Anaeho’omalu the original ponds?

Two of the ponds, Ku’uali’I, and Kahapapa, are thought to be part of what used to be a much larger complex of ponds. When the resort area was originally slated for development in 1973, the landowner (Boise-Cascade) hired Chuck Dewitt to dredge the ponds. The wall, which separated the pond from the beach at Anaeho’omalu till the March 11, 2011 tsunami destroyed a large portion of it, was constructed in 1985. In 2016, some of the walls were rebuilt and the ponds dredged again.


A Cultural History of Three Traditional Hawaiian Sites on the West Coast Of Hawaii Island, Chapter 1. March 2011. https://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/kona/history1e.htm

Dewitt, Chuck and Nick Craig. A Summary of Anaeho’omalu Bay. July 2005. Ocean Sports Archives.