Spirit of togetherness: sharing the art of traditional Hawaiian aquaculture

As part of Hawaii’s E Alu Pū Gathering, indigenous and community representatives from around the world were invited to share the experience of restoring a traditional Hawaiian fish pond, ahead of the IUCN World Conservation Congress. Miriam Anne Frank and Helena Clavero Sousa of IUCN’s Social Policy Unit reflect on this unique gathering.

© Holladay Photo by Mark Holladay Lee Photo: © Holladay Photo by Mark Holladay Lee

The community E Alu Pū Global Gathering, hosted by the E Alu Pū network and convened by Kua’ Āina Ulu ‘Auamo (KUA), started on 28 August in a campsite at the Queen Liliuokalani Children’s Center in Hale’iwa on O’ahu. E Alu Pū means “move forward together”, and is a network of Native Hawaiians - 'Kanaka Maoli' - that share the vision that to nurture community is both a responsibility and a privilege. They work by coming together to learn directly from one another on how to better care for the land. 

This was the first year the E Alu Pū Global Gathering brought in international participants - indigenous and community leaders, practitioners, researchers and supporters of communities from more than 30 countries. People attended from as far away as Madagascar and Papua New Guinea’s New Ireland islands. The idea was for participants to learn from each other ahead of the IUCN World Conservation Congress, to strengthen their own efforts in caring for their lands and waters. Many of the participants are linked by common geographies, others by related cultures, but most by community efforts to take care of their landscapes and seascapes. 

“The reason we organised this gathering was to convene a conversation with people of place to further the mission of KUA, to provide a safe space for people who do. One of the themes emerging from this gathering is that it is time for action, not more talk. We are here and we are not going away,” said Makaala Kaaumoana, founder and board member of KUA. 

On the second day of the gathering, participants were called to join in for a morning of fishpond restoration. The Native Hawaiians have practiced a unique form of aquaculture through the development of fishponds, typically built in the shallow areas of a reef flat. A low lava rock wall is built to separate the fishpond from the sea. The fishpond is designed to contain various species of edible fish for easy catch. 

On this rainy and misty morning, the group was assembled, standing shoulder to shoulder with the locals. They were taught how to move even the heaviest of rocks by working as a team, moving them along hand-to-hand to form a pile at the end. It was amazing for group members to see how, when working together, they could quickly move rocks that they could not imagine lifting alone.

“When I come back to our islands I plan to tell our communities that they are not alone, that the world is out there to help us” - indigenous leader John Aini

The group then moved into the fishpond, where smaller groups formed and were guided in the making of fish houses. These were built by arranging lava rocks in circles, with the base in the water, stacked to allow for small holes through which the baby fish could retreat if predators came over the wall or birds flew in. Finally, garlands of seaweed made the night before were laid around the fish houses, to feed the young fish and guide them to their new homes.

Throughout the gathering, the Hawaiians kept the group going and encouraged them to participate in chants. By sharing this experience, they all learned first-hand the truly collective and community-based work that goes into the restoration of these fishponds, this one over 600 years old.

“It was the spirit of togetherness. The weight on our shoulders would be lighter if we were together like this in our quest for sustainability” said John Aini, from the community organisation Ailan Awareness from Papua New Guinea. His organisation helps bring together communities in New Ireland in their work to ensure that what they have now will be available for future generations. “When I come back to our islands I plan to tell our communities that they are not alone, that the world is out there to help us.”

As the gathering came to an end, and participants came back to Honolulu to prepare for the start of the IUCN World Conservation Congress, they felt energised by a strong sense of community nurtured over the past few days.

The participation of indigenous and community representatives in the gathering, and the IUCN Congress, was made possible by the Christensen Fund and the Helmsley Charitable Trust. 

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