Hawaii Island Biologists Restores Ancient Hawaiian Fishponds

David Chai
David Chai

HUALALAI (KHNL)- On the island of Hawaii, there's a biologist hard at work, restoring and maintaining old fishponds. It's a specialty job; only a few people in the world do what he does. Each time he resurrects a fishpond, he also brings back a little bit of old Hawaiian culture.

At the edge of Hualalai Resort, just past the golf course's fairways and at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, sits what is probably to you, just a pretty pond. But to biologist David Chai, it's a window to a whole new world. "I see a lot of life, so full of life and culture. Our Hawaiian culture was tied to these areas. In fact fishponds in ahupua'a here were considered wealthy because they had a fishpond."

This is a rare, anchialine, or "near the sea" pond, one of Hawaii's most threatened ecosystems. "These are anchialine ponds because they have so surface connection to the ocean yet they move with the tides. They have a subsurface connection through all the cracks and crevices in the lava," explains Chai.

All 650 anchialine ponds in the US are in this state. Most of those are on Hawaii Island, and in bad shape. This one, at Hualalai Resort, was- until Chai got to it. "This is our largest pond Waiakauhi," he gestures with a sweep of his arm. "When we got here it was completely covered in trees and alien vegetation."

Chai and his staff restored 14 ponds in the mid 90's. The 2 ½ acre Waiakauhi is his crowning achievement. The fully restored fishpond tees with life. Native grasses fringe the perimeter, while indigenous Hawaiian fish swim occasionally burst through the surface with a jump or a fin. The early Hawaiians used the ponds, so Chai stocked this one with fish and shrimp like "awa, milkfish; mullet, ama ama; papio, aholehole, manini- all traditional Hawaiian fishpond fish."

In the middle of the pond are several islands, which Chai built for native birds like these endangered Hawaiian stilts. "Islands afford protection from mongoose, cats and rats. So they really need islands to be protected."

Now, he and his staff work to maintain the fragile ponds. "These are easily disturbed, especially when alien species get into them like some of the ponds here on property." He points to swarms of guppies; probably somebody's discarded aquarium fish. "When they do they eat all the microorganisms- shrimp and arthropods - that actually keep the pond clean and balanced. Once they wipe out those little animals the pond goes in senescence or it's degraded."

Chai enjoys his work, not just because it strengthens his ties to his native Hawaiian ancestry, but also because it makes him feel like he's giving back to the land. "Like I accomplished something to help not just this place but nature in general. This is a living ecosystem."

Chai wants to raise community awareness about anchilaine ponds so he gives tours and talks to resort guests and students. If you'd like to get in touch with Chai, reach him at Hualalai Resort at 808-325-8000.