It was a typical October day on Molokai — 82 degrees, sunny and breezy. I had just arrived at my favorite tiny airport on a nine-passenger Cessna turbo prop-plane from Honolulu. I came from the Big Island to help my Permaculture Research Institute (PRI) USA colleagues facilitate a Permaculture Design Course (PDC) already in progress. The PDC was part of a four-course series we were doing to train a local group made up of key players working to promote sustainability on the Island.
When my ride told me that the class would be starting the day at the Keawanui fish pond, I was both excited and nervous. Much like the time I had gotten an All-Access V.I.P. Guest Pass to the Red Hot Chili Peppers concert, I would soon be in the presence of celebrities I admired. I was not only about to meet the Rittes, but they were students in our PDC.
Walter Ritte and his son, Kalaniua Ritte are well-known activists for Native Hawaiian rights and environmental justice throughout the Hawaiian Islands. Walter Ritte is perhaps best known as one of the “Kahoolawe Nine”, where in 1976, he and a group of activists occupied the island of Kahoolawe in an effort to stop half a century of bomb testing by the U.S. Navy. Kalaniua Ritte is co-creator of Hemowai TV, an internet-based Hawaii Community Public Access channel that spotlights political issues on Molokai. I was familiar with both of these men and highly respected their work.
About an hour later, when I arrived at Keawanui, class was already in session. A large group was gathered under a traditional Hawaiian pavilion made of massive wood posts and a roof of palm fronds. I quietly snuck in and found a seat at the front of one of the picnic tables. All eyes were on Uncle Walter and our proud PDC instructor, Andrew Jones. The two men talked story about Keawanui, finding common ground between traditional Hawaiian fish pond management and Permaculture.
As I listened carefully, I learned a lot.
Fish ponds are shallow reef zones, surrounded by a semi-circular low lava rock wall built out from the shore. They were traditionally created to grow fish and seaweed (limu) for communities and families. They can range in size from ½ acre to 500 acres. Most average 20 acres. Scattered throughout the walls are metal gates (makaha) that let small fish and water in and keep predators out. The number of gates varies depending on the size of the pond. Once small fish come in, the pond becomes a safe haven for them to grow. Eventually, they get too big to get back through the metal gates. Several species thrive in fish ponds, including mullet. The placement of gates is critical to get the proper flush of water to keep the water from becoming stagnant. The porous lava walls also help with circulation. Fresh water springs are present along the shore, creating slightly brackish conditions. Fish ponds also include a guard house (hale kia’i) near the gate so the gatekeeper can supervise the pond.
Unlike many commercial open ocean aquaculture operations, traditional Hawaiian fish ponds are sustainable by design. Managers work to create a perfect habitat that will attract fish into the pond and once there help them thrive. They do not stock the fish or use commercial feed. Instead, they focus on ecosystem design. If the fish pond ecosystem is balanced, it will provide all the food and conditions the fish will need to flourish. A well-managed fish pond takes only 2 people to run and can produce 700-1000 pounds of fish per acre.
Traditionally, Hawaiian fish ponds functioned as part of a complete ahupua’a. An ahupua’a is wedge-shaped land division that runs from mountain to sea, following the natural boundaries of a watershed. It is believed that there were once over 75 fishponds in production on Molokai alone, with 488 state wide. But, when Hawaii agriculture started focusing on cash crops, their use declined. Today, there are 60-plus fish ponds on the island of Molokai, mostly scattered along the south shore. For many Hawaiians, fish pond restoration is seen as an important step toward a sustainable future and a way to preserve Hawaiian culture.
In 1999, with federal E.P.A. Assistance, the State of Hawaii started a fish pond restoration project known as Project Loki I’a. Through this project, the Rittes helped to establish the Hawaiian Learning Center (HLC) at Keawanui. The purpose of the HLC is to provide the local and state aquaculture and research community an opportunity to view, discuss and experience a working fish pond and demonstration ahupua’a. The center also provides learning opportunities to groups and individuals on subjects such as water quality, ecosystems, business marketing and cultural activities. One of the primary goals of the HLC is to show how things people do ‘mauka’ (on the land) affect ‘makai’ (the waters).
The Hawaiian Learning Center is also the home to the Ho’omana Hou High School. Ho’omana Hou is a private school for students in grades 9 through 12. Its primary goal is to prepare its pupils for college. The school’s curriculum is aligned to Hawai’i Content Standards, and is certified by the Hawai’i Association of Independent Schools. Students learn from direct teacher instruction, and on individual computers using a nationally-ranked software program called PLATO. Hands-on outdoor classes are also held for science labs, Hawaiian culture and Hawaiian history. In this way, the fish pond becomes the classroom.
Keawanui is owned by Kamehameha Schools and run by the Ritte family and a handful of support staff. When they took it over more than 10 years ago, like many of Molokai’s fish ponds, it was in rough shape. They have encountered many obstacles while working to restore it to the traditional Hawaiian model. They rebuilt the entire rock wall, only to have it taken out by last March’s tsunami. Invasive mangrove, originally planted to stop erosion, has created anaerobic conditions in the pond. And, unsustainable upland cattle management practices continues to wash new batches of silt over the road and onto the reef during every big rain. Despite these obstacles, the condition of the fish pond continues to improve every day. The pond is producing an abundance of fish (700 lbs/acre) and multiple varieties of limu (seaweed), including the highly sought delicacy ‘ele ‘ele. Managers continue to work hard using trial and error, as well as researching new tools to further improve the quality of the pond.
After Uncle Walter’s overview of Hawaiian fish ponds and a thorough orientation to the Hawaiian Learning Center and its programs, Kalaniua Ritte took center stage. As primary manager of the fish pond, he decided that the best way to understand its design and function was for us to get our feet wet, literally. We were not only going to learn about the pond, we were getting in. Apparently, the students had been told to wear swimsuits that day. Living in Hawaii, I almost always wore one. With half the class walking through the water and the other half in tow on a big wooden raft, Kalaniua proudly led us across the 55-plus acre pond. We walked all the way to the hale at the outer edge, where the rock wall met the open ocean. It was an ideal classroom.
Since taking the PDC last year, both Uncle Walter and Kalaniua have come to believe that Permaculture offers solutions to some of the problems they’ve encountered at Keawanui. Uncle Walter now wants a Permaculture design created for the Hawaiian Learning Center. He also wants to work with the surrounding land users to incorporate Permaculture earthworks to help control some of the upland erosion. He has described Permaculture “as a language that goes beyond Hawaii” that he believes “needs to be understood and incorporated here in Hawaii.” And, when asked what he likes most about Permaculture, Kalaniua, like many Permaculturists, says that “it is about doing less work”. It’s hard to argue with that one.