Malama Loko Ia

The Hawaiian word malama means “to care for.”

In Hawaii, we malama aina (“care for the land”) by protecting and preserving our landscapes and natural resources, such as our streams, mountains, forests and even our state parks and trails. We also malama kai (“care for the ocean”) by doing the same for our coastal areas and surrounding ocean waters, keeping them free of debris and taking of their bounty sustainably.

The Hawaiian culture has a long history, as old as the culture itself, of caring for the ocean and the sustenance it provides, centuries ago creating one of humankind’s most advanced aquaculture systems of its time. In fact, early Hawaiians are widely believed to be one of the first cultures to develop fish-farming systems as a means of supplementing traditional fishing methods.

First constructed between 600 and 800 years ago and called loko ia, Hawaiian for fishponds, at least a half-dozen types of these ponds were devised by early Hawaiians in a variety of sizes for trapping ocean or stream fish via sluice gates and fattening them for eating when ocean catch was low. The most common type were loko kuapa, rock wall-enclosed shallow shoreline ponds once numbering in the hundreds throughout the Islands.

Though many are now lost to time, a growing number of nonprofit groups and community organizations have formed over the past three decades with a mission of carefully restoring fishponds still in existence, largely through volunteer community workdays.

Hawaii Fish Pond 3
The He‘eia Fishpondon
Hawaii Fish Pond 2
auwai or sluices

Become a Volunteer

Hawaii resident and visitor volunteers are welcome to join in to malama kai or malama loko ia on these workdays whose host nonprofits are always grateful for all the helping hands they can gather.

Sign up for one of these workdays and you can typically expect to join others in helping clear invasive vegetation and debris from the fishponds — a gritty but essential and restorative task to preserve fishponds and their native plants and marine life. (The work can also be quite fun in a group setting.) If you’re feeling brawny and the work is needed, you might also be asked to help with the muscle-testing work of helping restore a fishpond’s protective kuapa (rock seawall).

A bonus? Volunteering to help restore and preserve loko ia is one of the best ways to see these centuries-old wonders of ocean engineering up close and learn about and participate in traditional Hawaiian aquaculture skills. Your work will also positively impact the ecological well-being of these fishponds immediately and well into the future for generations to come.

You’ll find loko ia volunteer community workdays on most of Hawaii’s islands year-round. Check out the websites of each of the organizations below to find out about their loko ia volunteer workdays and how to contact them directly for more specifics.

Please note, however, that workdays for some of these organizations may be on hold due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Find us Here

On Kauai
If you wish to help malama the ocean and shoreline while visiting the Garden Isle, check in with the Surfrider Foundation, Kauai Chapter. The nonprofit recently launched its Ocean-Friendly Visitors Program, which provides visitors with recommended ways they can protect shoreline flora and fauna as well as marine life.

Suggestions include self-directed beach clean-ups, using only reef-safe sunscreen and dining at ocean-friendly restaurants. These efforts go a long way toward not only helping keep the island’s beaches and ocean waters clean, but also helping protect marine life such as highly endangered Hawaiian monk seals, green sea turtles and coral.

Before checking out volunteer opportunities with the nonprofits and organizations listed above, take a look at this video featuring Noelani Lee, executive director of Alii Fishpond caretakers Ka Honua Momona, as she explains the true masterworks of aquaculture engineering and sustainability Hawaiian loko ia are, and the meaning of malama.

Says Lee, “Looking at the world today, malama aina is for everyone. Whether it’s their backyard or the fishpond, or their mauka — their mountains — we should all be caring for our land and sea.”

Learn how you can malama Hawaii on your next trip to the Islands. Visit the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau Malama Hawaii webpage for a listing of other fun, rewarding and beneficial ways you can malama the Hawaiian Islands while here, and take home memories and connections you’ll keep for a lifetime.

Mahalo for your malama!

This Article appeared in Hawai’i Magazine about continuing Volunteer Vacation Travel.