Calls made to end recreation activities at Ko‘ie‘ie Fishpond in Kihei

Residents want pond restored to historic site

Ke‘eaumoku Kapu, who was among the first group of volunteers that started work to restore Ko‘ie‘ie Fishpond, expresses frustration over what’s become of the fishpond after more than a decade. -- The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

KIHEI — Over a decade ago, Ke’eaumoku Kapu, Walter Ritte and a group of volunteers from Lahaina started working to rebuild the walls of the Ko’ie’ie Fishpond in Kihei, hoping to restore it to its former glory as a fishpond to the alii.

They had planned, eventually, to transfer the task over to the Kihei community. But the job they started was never finished, and today, instead of fish, the pond holds double-hulled canoes taking tourists out to sea and community members doing yoga on stand-up paddleboards.

“If I knew this fishpond was going to turn into this monstrosity — kala mai — but I wouldn’t have started it to begin with,” Kapu said. “Knowing where this thing is heading, it’s total commercial, I feel.”

Kapu is among the many community members growing frustrated with the recreational activities taking place in the culturally significant site of Ko’ie’ie Fishpond.

On Monday, about 50 people attended a meeting in Kihei organized by Vernon Kalanikau, head of the Aha Moku O Kula Makai Council. Kalanikau said he’s been bothered by what’s happening at the fishpond and hoped to find a solution that would respect the rich culture and history behind the site.

Vernon Kalanikau (right), head of the Aha Moku O Kula Makai Council, addresses the controversy over Ko‘ie‘ie Fishpond alongside Joylynn Paman, executive director of the nonprofit ‘Ao‘ao O Na Loko I‘a O Maui that handles education and restoration of the fishpond. Community members want to finally restore the fishpond and bring an end to the recreational activities that they say are inappropriate at the culturally significant site. -- The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

“If this is not going to be treated as a fishpond, then it should not be promoted or portrayed as a fishpond to get grants or funding,” Kalanikau said before Monday’s meeting. “If you’re going to keep it like a kiddie pool like Launiupoko, then do it that way. But right now it’s a fishpond. . . . We should try get the limu and the fish out there.”

Fishpond that fed royalty

The Ko’ie’ie Fishpond is believed to have been built about 400 to 500 years ago, said Joylynn Paman, executive director of ‘Ao’ao O Na Loko I’a O Maui, the nonprofit that handles education and restoration of the fishpond. Because there were few pohaku, or rocks, in the sand and wetlands of Kihei, it’s likely that the builders had to pass the pohaku “hand in hand, stone by stone” for miles over the span of many weeks, months or possibly even years.

At 4 acres, the fishpond is “relatively small,” but it was of great importance as a “loko kuapa,” a type of fishpond reserved for the alii that contained the choicest fish, Paman said. But over the years, it suffered the same fate as fishponds around it. As forests were cleared Upcountry to make way for ranching and potato planting in the 1800s, the changes to the landscape caused erosion that made its way down the hillside and filled up the fishponds.

‘Ao’ao O Na Loko I’a O Maui formed as a nonprofit in 1998 and spent several years putting together an environmental assessment for the fishpond. Paman said that while the community has grown too large for the fishpond to sustain it, the nonprofit still aimed to restore the fishpond’s walls and use it for educational purposes. The nonprofit received a conservation district use permit in 2004 and agreed to a 30-year lease with the state in 2007.

Canoes rest on the shore of Ko‘ie‘ie Fishpond awaiting visitors to take out to sea. A member of the Kihei Canoe Club said Monday that club members have not been taking canoes out into the fishpond for the past two weeks after learning that the community was upset about it. -- Photo courtesy VERNON KALANIKAU

However, “the one thing that was very prevalent in the discussion was that the community was very concerned about what kind of restrictions would occur if a full restoration was to happen,” Paman said.

Thus, as part of its lease agreement, the nonprofit had to allow public recreational uses at the fishpond to continue, which included “fishing, netting, limu gathering, beach going, swimming, wading, snorkeling, diving, kayaking and canoe launching.” The nonprofit does not have exclusive use of the fishpond.

Restoration work began around 2005, Paman recalled. Kapu, Ritte and about 15 to 18 volunteers from Lahaina started coming over to the fishpond to help rebuild the walls. But it was hard to keep it up long term. They’d leave Lahaina around 7 a.m., but the amount of work they could get done depended on the tides. Some days they’d get in two hours, other days four — hardly a full day’s work.

“A lot of guys from Lahaina came to actually help steer the project, but then about eight months later, we just couldn’t do it anymore,” Kapu said. “We was hoping to find kanaka from this community to kind of get them involved so we could slowly kind of pull out.”

While parts of the wall have been rebuilt, there remains a gaping hole that’s large enough for canoes to paddle through. Paman said that the nonprofit used to have workdays twice a month, but that people weren’t coming and staff had to commute from far away. She said the nonprofit does smaller-scale work on a regular basis with school groups and community organizations.

“We haven’t done an intense restoration lately because we need to find that particular crew that is able to become skilled workers who know how to piece everything together just right,” Paman explained. “We can have tons of people come and move rocks closer to the wall, but you really need those skilled people to be able to build the wall and stack everything in the right place so it can withstand all those swells and natural disasters.”

And, the problem is not just finding people to build it; it’s about finding people who can maintain it. Once the money runs out, interest tends to run out too, Paman said, adding that she had plans to write several grant applications “to try to gain funding for this again.”

Recreation or restoration

Long-ago efforts to maintain community access to the fishpond also have opened the door to other activities that residents say are inappropriate for the setting.

Theresa Kenolio Sniffen, one of the kupuna who spoke Monday evening, said her ancestors once tended the fishpond and that “it hurts” to see some of the things going on there. She recalled how she used to love sitting along the edge of the fishpond, and how her mom used to have to come and peel her off the rocks like an opihi when it was time to go home.

“My dream would see that restored and shared so all of our coming generations can look back and say, this is what Hawaii was,” she said.

Foster Ampong of Waiehu said that the recreational activity was “unacceptable” and could be “taken out of the fishpond and just go on the beach, only a few feet away on the outskirts.” He thought the nonprofit should take the lead and asked Paman whether the nonprofit condoned the activities.

“Let me get to my board of directors, and I will have a better answer for you for that,” Paman replied.

She explained that “there is a big separation as to what we are allowed to do as a nonprofit and as a lessee.” Basically, the nonprofit can work on building and maintaining the wall and use it for educational purposes.

However, “we do not have the jurisdiction to be able to say ‘yea or nay’ to the people out there and what they do,” Paman said. “We can educate them about what’s maika’i and what’s not, but at the same time, our nonprofit is unable, based upon our lease and our permit, we’re unable to tell people, ‘you cannot do that.’ ”

When asked later why the nonprofit couldn’t control recreational activities if it was paying the lease, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources said “that’s the way the lease is written.”

“This area fronts a fully developed county park,” said Daniel Ornellas, district land agent for the Maui District Branch. “The nature of the area is visitor industry-oriented. A variety of commercial activities occur here. The nonprofit does canoe tours as part of their program. To enforce commercial permit rules would require constant monitoring and enforcement.”

He said that the department was reviewing the lease at the nonprofit’s request.

While the nonprofit may not be able to prevent certain activities, representatives from the stand-up paddleboard yoga class and Kihei Canoe Club said they were already making the decision not to enter the fishpond.

A member of the yoga class who asked not to be identified said during Monday’s meeting that she agreed with everyone’s comments “100 percent” and that “we’re not going to continue classes in the fishpond.”

Marty Martins of the Kihei Canoe Club said that members have not been coming to the fishpond for the past two weeks. He said the club typically has visitor paddles on Tuesdays and Thursdays. They don’t charge, but they ask for a $40 donation.

“As soon as we heard the kanaka maoli were upset about it, we’ve been landing over at Kalepolepo and walking over,” Martins said.

‘Ao’ao O Na Loko I’a O Maui also offers canoe tours for residents and visitors that focus on the importance of fishponds and their relation to the ahupuaa of Ka’ono’ulu. Tours run from 8 to 9:30 a.m. on available dates and cost $69.99 per adult and $39.99 for children ages 8 to 12, though community and school groups can take the tours for free.

When asked if the nonprofit might follow suit and stop its tours at the fishpond, Paman said that “because our canoe experiences benefit the education about our fishpond, the Hawaiian culture and our marine environment (things that are in line with what our purpose is and are allowed to do under our permits and lease) we do not anticipate stopping our tours because they are accomplishing an important goal of our nonprofit.”

‘Ao’ao O Na Loko I’a O Maui has three canoes, and the tours are an ongoing fundraiser that last year provided about 60 percent of the nonprofit’s roughly $30,000 annual budget, Paman said. (The other 25 percent was from donations, and the remaining 15 percent from a grant.) The nonprofit used to only ask for donations for the tours, “but unfortunately we were being taken advantage of,” Paman said.

As part of the 30-year lease, the state appraises the site every 10 years and adjusts the fee. Last year, the lease was increased by $600 to $2,730, which Paman said is sometimes a struggle to pay.

“If we were to cease offering these tours, it would take away a major source of funding for us and thus cause us to have to look for other funding sources elsewhere (such as grants which are actually in the works of being written at this time and was the plan prior to this meeting),” Paman said. “Because this is fundraising income, like other entities, we also pay general excise taxes on these tours too.”

As for whether the tours could be moved, Paman said that the lease and permits allow the nonprofit to launch and land canoes at the fishpond, “and so we operate within our area’s shoreline and at a higher elevation, which prevents them from interacting with high tides.”

“We have been doing this tour for over six years now and have, for the most part, had positive feedback from the community and it has worked,” Paman said. “I think that our canoes are only now becoming an issue because of other organizations’ activities in recent months, which is now affecting our good work. We have been very open to listening and appreciate the public’s comments regarding these issues and will take them into consideration. However, we will make this decision within our nonprofit and it will be done with a private discussion between us and the state.”

Finishing the work

Community members hoped that a revitalized interest in the pond could help spur the completion of the walls so that recreational activities and tours would no longer be an issue. Kapu pointed out that Ko’ie’ie is on the National Historic Register, and that the community should use that as justification for creating a code of conduct for the fishpond.

If restoration is truly the goal, Kapu said, “then eh, you know what? Finish the walls, put the sluice gates in, lock this place down and turn it into what it should be.”

John Buck, deputy director of the county Parks and Recreation Department, said that the county doesn’t have jurisdiction over ocean activities — that’s state territory. However, he encouraged people to let the department know if they see businesses using a county park to access a commercial activity on the water, as some tour buses have reportedly been doing at Ko’ie’ie. Commercial activity in county parks is not allowed without a special permit.

“If a tour bus is dropping people off to walk around the fishpond and stuff, they don’t have a permit from us,” he said. “That becomes a concern of us, because we do not allow commercial activities in the park. . . . The only thing that has a permit right now is filming.”

Paman said she would be open to the idea of the community hashing out a code of conduct. She said she planned to take the concerns to the nonprofit’s board and organize a workday at the fishpond.

“It’s one of the last cultural treasures we have along this coastline,” Paman said. “So this is awesome, where we were able to come together and see that ‘i’ini, or that desire, is reawakening in everyone.”

Ornellas said that DLNR agrees that “proper signage with use information is needed, and we’ll work with the nonprofit on establishing a reasonable code of conduct for this area.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.