Before there was fast food, there were fishponds. Sectioned off by lava rock, which keep nearshore fish from escaping as the ocean tide ebbs and flows, fishponds were built hundreds of years ago as a way for ancient Hawaiians to gather food.
It's not easy to keep such an old tradition - hundreds have been neglected, washed away or overtaken by mangroves - but Mervin "Uncle Merv" Dudoit, 71, has dedicated more than 14,000 hours over the last decade to restore two ancient fishponds on Molokai's south shore. Along the way, he has passed on traditional values of respect, responsibility and hard work.
On any given day of the week, even holidays, Uncle Merv may be found at one of the two loko i'a (fishponds), Ali'i and Kaloko'eli, which are both managed by Ka Honua Momona, a nonprofit group dedicated to traditional knowledge and land stewardship. Most days, Uncle Merv is busy cutting and hauling mangrove by hand, swimming out to remove clumps of invasive seaweed and mentoring young interns or volunteers.
Mervin “Uncle Merv” Dudoit
"Uncle Merv is like a niho stone in our kuapa (stonewall surrounding the fishpond)," said Ka Honua Momona Executive Director Kauwila Hanchett. "The niho stones are placed at the base of the wall securing its foundation and setting its line. In like manner, Uncle Merv is one of the kupuna that guides our work and provides a link to the generations that have come before us."
Born and raised on Molokai, Uncle Merv is the kahu loko i'a, or the caretaker of the fishponds, but he also coordinates community work days once a month, in which community members volunteer a Saturday morning to help with tasks, such as removing mangrove and seaweed. Since its conception in 2003, Ka Honua Momona has removed more than an acre of mangrove without the use of heavy machinery, rebuilt 500 linear feet of stonewall and hosted hundreds of volunteers of all ages and backgrounds.
One of those volunteers is Ric Ornellas, a special education teacher at Molokai High School. Ornellas describes Uncle Merv as "the real deal," "a lover of the land" and "a lover of the island who generously shares it with whoever's interested."
"Generations sometimes struggle with understanding each other, but I've seen students accept him immediately because he's someone who they can trust. It goes beyond grandfatherly. It's easy for people to feel really comfortable around him," Ornellas said.
Ornellas said that he plans on organizing a field trip to the fishpond for his 9th-grade class next quarter because "it is the link to their past."
"Many of our students are food gatherers themselves, through hunting or fishing. These are things they understand. When we try to teach them, we want them to connect," Ornellas said.
* Eileen Chao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.