Kanewai fishpond as depicted in a 1930s postcard.

The state has agreed not to sell its fishponds. Now what?

Resources / Now that a law has been passed banning the sale of fishponds on state-owned property, citizen groups are looking to take two off the hands of the Department of Transportation (DOT).

The state owns Kalauhaihai fishpond in Niu Valley and shares ownership of the Kanewai pond with several adjacent homeowners. But members of the Maunalua Fishpond Heritage Center and other organizations currently can only look through fences at the ponds they’d like to restore.

“So far, we haven’t been able to gain access,” said Chris Cramer, president of the Center. “Our organization and several other community organizations are really ready to take care of the fishponds. We envision these as places of education where people can come and learn.”

The groups would like to see the fishponds transferred from DOT to a state agency whose mission is more compatible with the agricultural, cultural and environmental values inherent in ancient fishponds.

“We’re trying to see which agency could take title and maybe lease them to a community group,” Cramer said. “We’re saying we’re ready to step up. We’ve gotten insurance.”

The Center and other groups already stepped up to help prevent the fishponds from being auctioned off as DOT initially planned.

“We’ve been trying to work with our government agencies so they don’t sell off our potable water systems, especially in times of drought,” Cramer said. “These ponds are artesian spring-fed so they’re not tied to an above-ground source. We don’t want to auction off our last fishponds, because as we’ve seen with the Menehune [Alekoko] fishpond on Kauai, once they go to public auction, it’s really hard to get them back.”

Driven by that concern, citizens lobbied their legislators, who in 2009 introduced a bill barring public fishpond sales. The bill was shelved, then resurrected in the last session and passed unanimously by both the House and Senate.

Gov. Linda Lingle originally expressed her intent to veto the measure, saying DOT hadn’t been able to convince other government agencies to assume responsibility for the ponds and shouldn’t be required to keep properties it has no resources to maintain. But on July 6, she allowed House Bill 1665 to become law without her signature.

While the legislative effort was key to saving the fishponds, Cramer said it was done “kind of on the side.” The Center’s main focus has been compiling an oral history from kupuna who worked the ponds.

“We want to relearn the history of how these things were worked so we can pass it on,” he said. “That’s really exciting, to learn what was. When you talk to the old-timers, you hear fantastic stories of fish flooding the gates. They have so much knowledge, these old-timers, but no one’s really tapped into that resource.”

Kalauhaihai fishpond was actively used up until the 1990s, when the spring that fed it was damaged during the Kalanianaole Highway widening project, Cramer said. “Instead of being repaired, the properties were taken over the by the state and they’ve sat there ever since.”

The Center has also been working with the city to encourage repair of its sewer system, which is currently siphoning off 1 million gallons per day of spring water that used to feed the Kalauhaihai pond. The cracks could be fixed by the end of January, he said.

“It used to be you could see the eyes of the hihiwai [native freshwater snails] glowing red in the fishpond at night,” Cramer said. “Now you see them inside the sewer. All this is correctible. If we have access, we can do our part. Looking back in a few years, I think we’ll be glad we did this.”