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Go Fish!: The restoration of Oahu’s Paepae o Heeia Hawaiian Fishpond

Heeia Fishpond was built between 600 and 800 years ago at the base of the Koolau mountains. Photo by David Croxford for HAWAII Magazine.

His battered t-shirt slashed with grease, Kelii Kotubetey is cleaning chainsaws after lunch.

The work is tedious, but the view from his office—a worktable near the shore of a glassy, centuries-old Hawaiian fishpond at the base of the majestic Koolau mountains—more than makes up for it. Kotubetey is one of the founders of Paepae o Heeia, a private nonprofit that manages and cares for historic Heeia Fishpond, a kuapa (walled fishpond) corralling 88 acres of brackish water on Oahu’s windward coast.

Heeia’s wall, about 1.3 miles in length, is one of the longest for a fishpond in Hawaii. And since efforts to restore the fishpond began in the late 1990s—much of it the handiwork of college students with handsaws and gloves—Heeia’s wall is now visible from shore, stretching out into Kaneohe Bay. In February, the final pohaku (stones) were laid at a corner of the fishpond wall near the mouth of Heeia Stream, the pond’s freshwater source.

“That was really a milestone in the restoration and refurbishment of the kuapa,” Kotubetey says, gazing out over the fishpond, light winds smoothing out the bay. “It’s pretty amazing.”

What’s really amazing, though, is what Paepae o Heeia (the name means “support of Heeia”) has accomplished in 13 years.  Since its founding in 2001 to malama (care for) the fishpond, Paepae o Heeia’s staff, and thousands of volunteers, have removed thick, red shoreline mangrove from more than 3,000 feet of the 7,000-foot-long kuapa. Initially planted here in 1922 to control erosion and stabilize sediment, the plant quickly invaded all parts of the fishpond, its roots hastening silt buildup and compromising the wall’s structural integrity.

With community assistance, Paepae has also removed 50 tons of invasive limu (seaweed) from within the fishpond since 2004, giving much of it to the caretakers of a nearby loi (irrigated terrace) for use as a fertilizer for its kalo (taro) and uala (sweet potato) patches. At the same time, the nonprofit has dedicated much labor to restoring Heeia Fishpond’s wall, dry-stacking volcanic rock and coral carried to worksites along the wall by hand. 

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Check out these related HawaiiMagazine.com posts:
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Restoration work begins at historic Pearl Harbor air control tower

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