- Associated Press - Sunday, December 20, 2015

KIHEI, Hawaii (AP) - Sea urchins, seaweed and fish formerly reserved to be eaten by Hawaiian royalty are flourishing at a South Maui fishpond since volunteers began restoring the historic landmark 10 years ago.

Now, during low tide, the majority of the fishpond’s 1,100-foot semicircular rockwall is visible.

“This is a 10-year difference,” said Hawaiian cultural practitioner Kimokeo Kapahulehua, looking over the fishpond, called Ko’ie’ie, located at Kalepolepo Park on South Kihei Road, between the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary and the Menehune Shores condominium, The Maui News reported (http://bit.ly/1J56wK8).

Kapahulehua is the president of ‘Ao’ao O Na Loko I’a O Maui (Association of the Fishponds of Maui), the group spearheading the restoration efforts. He called the decade of work “really big progress.”

Now wana, or sea urchins, are clinging to the fishpond wall, and seaweed, or limu, that used to be small strips is longer as it has more space to grow on the restored wall. Small-sized moi, or threadfish, which used to be reserved for eating by Hawaiian royalty swim in the pond along with mullet. While only one now, eventually there will be several makaha, or sluice gates, erected at the pond. The gates allow small fish to swim into the pond, but prevent larger fish from swimming out.

“I think we are doing good,” said Joylynn Paman, executive director of ‘Ao’ao O Na Loko I’a O Maui. “We are really looking forward (to the future), we are at that tipping point now we want to get an idea of what the community wants for the future of this fishpond.”

She said the organization hopes that a portion of the fishpond can be closed off to the public in order for the fishpond to thrive as it did previously. But this next phase will probably not happen for at least two years, as the fishpond wall still needs to be completed and additional makaha have to be installed. The community will be included in the decision-making process.

For now, volunteers will continue their work. On a recent Saturday morning, around 40 volunteers, including visitors from Canada, Australia and the Mainland as well as employees of the Grand Wailea, joined Kapahulehua in working in about waist-high calm water, stacking rocks on the pond’s southern wall.

They were also there to celebrate Kapahulehua’s imminent 68th birthday.

The volunteers exceeded their goal of working on 68 feet of the fishpond wall in honor of Kapahulehua’s 68th birthday. The group worked on about 75 feet of the wall.

“I feel strong, I feel really great,” said Kapahulehua, a longtime canoe paddler who has ties to various Native Hawaiian organizations.

In 2008, Kapahulehua was in an intensive care unit at Maui Memorial Medical Center and was put on life support as he apparently contracted sepsis caused by leptospirosis and suffered kidney failure. He has since recovered and is back working in the community.

It has become tradition for the fishpond association to celebrate Kapahulehua’s birthday as a way to educate others about the fishpond as well as to raise funds for the nonprofit organization, which relies on donations, grants and gifts to restore the fishpond that dates back to the 1400s.

Paman said that Kapahulehua is a man who does not want material things and “he much rather do good in other ways” and wanted to give away his birthday gifts to the group.

“This is our annual fundraiser through the month of December,” she added.

Since Kapahulehua is turning 68, ‘Ao’ao O Na Loko I’a O Maui is encouraging donations in increments of 68, but Paman added that any donation is welcomed.

She said that the birthday fundraiser idea came about several years ago as an anonymous donor said he would match donations up to $5,000. The organization actually raised $7,000 that year, so it ended up with $12,000 in its coffers.

Donations help pay for the organization’s more than $2,000 lease from the state, which allows members to work at the pond. It also helps pay for the nonprofit’s educational programs for schoolchildren’s visits to the pond as well as programs for visitors, senior citizens and clubs interested in learning about the culture. Funds are also used for basic restoration supplies, including gloves and buckets.

“The revitalization of Ko’ie’ie fishpond is extremely important for our community not only preserving our archaeological site, but we are perpetuating our culture,” Paman said. “It’s an outdoor living classroom where people can come and learn about our Hawaiian culture; they can learn about the marine environment. They can have a better awareness and understanding of our culture.

“Especially in Kihei, where we have a lot more visitors, newcomers to the island, it’s one of the few cultural places you can visit in the south Maui area,” she said.

Ko’ie’ie O Loko I’a is considered one of the most intact and easily visible fishponds in the state. It is listed as a National Preservation Site.

But the effort to revitalize the fishpond has not been easy, as uncontrollable forces such as Mother Nature - with tides, high surf, tsunamis and hurricanes - has impacted the restoration work. Being in a highly public and visible area may also impact sensitive work.

Restoration began in 2005 but work has continued for a decade as there have been setbacks, including the need for continuous funding. If a full-time group of workers could be hired to restore the fishpond, more progress would be seen, Paman said.

But Kapahulehua said that, over the decade, he and his volunteers have learned a lot from working on the pond. This includes gaining knowledge from the rocks, the ocean and the sea creatures that inhabit the area, as those natural forces have guided work on the fishpond.

“They have taught us,” he said.

“It’s gratifying, that we have a loko ‘ia (fishpond), one of the gems of our culture that can be seen, that can be touched, that can be shared,” he added.

Kapahulehua also pointed to the educational aspect for visitors - especially those that get their feet wet.

“They live in the culture that they came to see,” he said.

The group is always seeking volunteers and normally does community restoration work on the second and last Saturdays of every month from 8 to 10 a.m. For more information, go to mauifishpond.com.

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Information from: The Maui News, http://www.mauinews.com

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