Loko iʻa: Indigenous aquaculture and mariculture in Hawaiʻi, USA

Brenda Asuncion, Kevin K.J. Chang, Miwa Tamanaha; Kuaʻāina Ulu ʻAuamo

Loko iʻa are advanced, extensive forms of aquaculture unique to Hawaiʻi. While techniques of herding or trapping adult fish in shallow tidal areas, in estuaries and along their inland migration can be found around the globe, Hawaiians have developed fishponds that are technologically unique, advancing the cultivation practice of mahi iʻa (fish farmer).

Loko iʻa take advantage of natural coastal ecology and tidal cycles, enhancing nearshore areas to efficiently provide algae to feed and fatten herbivorous fish. Additionally, where high surf, storms and other weather phenomena can influence and interrupt fishing practices, or when ocean fishing may not yield sufficient supply, fishponds provide a regular supply of fish.

The variety of loko iʻa designs and construction methods demonstrates an unparalleled understanding of engineering, hydrology, ecology, biology and agriculture. Loko iʻa practice is the result of over a thousand years of generational knowledge, experimentation and adaptation, and reflects a deep indigenous understanding of the environmental, ecological and social processes specific to our islands.

Loko iʻa were essential components of traditional food systems in Hawaiʻi, providing food security and community resilience. Their revitalisation goes hand in hand with the revitalisation of Hawaiian language, arts, architecture and diet.

Restoring the wall of Waiaʻōpae fishpond, Lānaʻi, Hawaii. Credit: Scott Kanda, courtesy of Kuaʻāina Ulu ʻAuamo
Restoring the wall of Waiaʻōpae fishpond, Lānaʻi, Hawaii. Credit: Scott Kanda, courtesy of Kuaʻāina Ulu ʻAuamo

Today, most loko iʻa sites are highly degraded. Barriers to restoration include altered watersheds and diversion of water; invasive species; permitting processes that are not well designed to accommodate loko iʻa restoration; and the loss and scattering of generational knowledge of managing and caring for loko iʻa. Yet, loko iʻa remain important components of the ahupua‘a (traditional land division) and still have the potential to contribute to a healthy and robust food system.

Collaboration and the collective movement of Hui Mālama Loko Iʻa

Over past decades, Hawaiian communities and kiaʻi loko (fishpond guardians) worked to restore loko iʻa around the islands and reclaim the knowledge and practice of loko iʻa culture. Hui Mālama Loko Iʻa, a network of loko iʻa and kiaʻi loko from six Hawaiian Islands, was formed in 2004, meeting annually and opportunistically to strengthen working relationships and share experience and expertise.

Most recently, our network of committed and skilled site-based caretakers leveraged its collective influence to streamline the permitting processes in collaboration with the State of Hawaiʻi, and has generally improved co-management relationships with government and private entities. Sharing and social cohesion are key components of loko iʻa culture because of the scale of physical labor needed for construction and maintenance. The surrounding community comes to help and, in return, shares in the abundance produced from the pond. Today, loko iʻa serve as kīpuka (oases or receptacles) for the renewal of traditional practices and values in contemporary ways. They are thus celebrated for their past and future potential to contribute to the needs of their ahupuaʻa and our broader community in Hawaiʻi.

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