Loko i‘a (fishponds) were once a vital source of subsistence in Hawai‘i. These varied and sophisticated structures, found nowhere else in Polynesia, also held cultural and spiritual significance. Despite the widespread decline and destruction of loko i‘a following Western contact, many Native Hawaiians still seek to maintain Hawai‘i’s traditional systems of fish cultivation. This chapter discusses the history of loko i‘a, their current status as “private property,” and the ways in which the present legal framework both inhibits and facilitates their restoration and perpetuation.
After the Māhele of 1848, both Hawaiian and U.S. federal courts consistently declared loko i‘a to be the property of individual or corporate landowners. Consequently, so little protection was provided to loko i‘a that only six were still found to be operative in 1994, down from nearly five hundred formerly in existence. This discovery alarmed the Hawai‘i legislature, which passed several measures designed to encourage loko i‘a restoration. However, the process of obtaining the necessary permits, while providing potentially helpful oversight by the state government, has often proved prohibitively cumbersome and expensive.
Although the Hawai‘i Constitution affirms the state’s duty to uphold Native Hawaiian traditional and customary rights, the rulings of state courts regarding the right to restore and fish in loko i‘a have been less straightforward. This chapter outlines the issues that remain unresolved and clarifies the relevant laws and judicial decisions, with the aim of furthering Native Hawaiian efforts to revitalize a priceless indigenous resource.
“Loko I‘a: Hawaiian Fishponds” is Chapter 11 of Native Hawaiian Law: A Treatise, a volume that updates and expands on the seminal work of the 1991 Native Hawaiian Rights Handbook. The publication is a collaborative effort of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, Ka Huli Ao Center for Excellence in Native Hawaiian Law at the William S. Richardson School of Law – University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, and Kamehameha Publishing.