KIHEI - When South Maui residents first noticed the scattered rocks along the shoreline at Kalepolepo Beach Park nearly 20 years ago, they didn't know what they were looking at was actually the remains of an 500-year-old loko i'a, or Hawaiian fishpond.
"It was about a third of an acre, the fishpond was in disrepair, but I loved to swim in it and find a friendly snowflake (moray) eel and pretty fish," said Kihei resident Patrick Ryan. "Back then, the pond was a lot deeper, bits and pieces of rock wall poked out of the water."
Ryan and a number of other residents eventually formed 'Ao'ao O Na Loko I'a O Maui (the Association of the Fishponds of Maui) in 1998, and tried to start a lengthy permitting process that was required before they were legally allowed to begin revitalizing the Ko'ie'ie fishpond. The fishpond was originally built nearly 500 years ago to provide a constant source of fresh seafood for the ruling ali'i, or royalty, according to the association.
Cultural practitioner and ‘Ao‘ao O Na Loko I‘a O Maui President Kimokeo Kapahulehua places a haku lei upon Kihei resident Linda Gentiluomo’s head before a canoe tour of the Ko‘ie‘ie fishpond Friday morning.
The Maui News / EILEEN CHAO photo
Ko‘ie‘ie fishpond in Kihei, also known as the Kalepolepo fishpond, was originally built nearly 500 years ago, according to ‘Ao‘ao O Na Loko I‘a O Maui (the Association of the Fishponds of Maui). The association has worked to restore the ancient fishpond since 1998.
The Maui News / EILEEN CHAO photo
"There were 17 different agencies we had to get approvals from to even start any work," Ryan said.
Cultural practitioners and volunteers working to restore and preserve traditional Hawaiian fishponds currently need to comply with as many as 17 regulations and to obtain permits from agencies as varied as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the state Department of Health's Clean Water Branch and the state's Coastal Zone Management Program, state officials said.
But the state Department of Land and Natural Resources is trying to streamline the process for fishpond restoration by consolidating all the required permits into one permit, administered by the DLNR's Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands.
"There were 17 different regulations and 12 different regulating authorities. We fully understand why practitioners got tangled in the web," Michael Cain, a planner with the office, said at a public hearing Wednesday on Maui.
Representatives from the department visited Molokai, Maui and Lanai last week to discuss and gather public feedback on the effort to streamline the permitting process. They said that the new permitting process would allow cultural practitioners to obtain all the necessary approvals in fewer than six months.
"We're just trying to streamline and reduce the permitting process to make it easier for people," office administrator Sam Lemmo said. "It's something the administration is extremely excited about. We're excited about helping revitalize cultural identity in Hawaii, and we see this as a way to help us do that."
He added that simplifying the permit process would hopefully encourage more people and community groups to get involved without having to navigate all the red tape.
Similar efforts to streamline the permitting process were launched on Molokai in the 1980s and '90s, Lemmo said, but were unsuccessful.
"We want to try to make it work this time," he said.
The department is working to obtain a five-year general permit from the U.S. Army Corps before it puts together a report for the Board of Land and Natural Resources to authorize an agreement for the program, Cain said. The office also completed an environmental assessment that concluded that properly managed fishpond systems are beneficial to the health of an ahupua'a (Hawaiian land division) ecosystem in both environmental and cultural terms.
Public comments gathered last week were supportive of the measure, Lemmo said, and he hopes to have the streamlined process in place by the end of the year.
The new application would come with a guidebook that discusses the federally and state-mandated best management practices for different activities. Applicants would be required to discuss the history of the pond, the applicant's relationship to the pond and associated ahupua'a. The application also would detail the proposed work, best management practices and water quality monitoring plans that would be followed.
It took 'Ao'ao O Na Loko I'a O Maui more than five years and $5,000 to hire a consultant to sort through the confusing permitting process. The group is the only one in the state to comply with nearly all the necessary approvals, Lemmo said.
"There's a lot of people on Maui interested in restoring fishponds. A lot of the ponds have been destroyed to an extent where they know there's a pond here but they don't know where to begin," said the group's executive director, Joylynn Paman.
Historical records show that there were once as many as 400 functioning fishponds in Hawaii, although most of those have fallen into disrepair due to neglect, land erosion, natural disasters and invasive species.
But in the last couple of decades, increasing attention has been focused on the loko i'a as a symbol of ancient Hawaiian traditions and culture.
"Hawaiian fishponds are a way of connecting our people to our culture," Paman said. "By us revitalizing the wall, we're able to revitalize our culture as well."
After securing most - if not all - of the required permits, the nonprofit group made of mostly volunteers was finally able to start restoration work on the kuapa (lava rock seawall) in 2005. The group does everything by hand, including retrieving rocks weighing more than 20 pounds that have fallen to the seafloor. Community workdays are hosted from 8 to 10 a.m. on the second and last Saturdays of every month.
"Any fishpond is not only a treasure for us but a treasure for generations to come," said 'Ao'ao O Na Loko I'a O Maui President Kimokeo Kapahulehua during the public hearing Wednesday. "These are things we need to keep intact to keep our legacy, so we support your effort to expedite the process."
Kapahulehua and others from the association added concerns about the costs of leasing the land from the state. He said that to issue a 35-year lease for a fishpond that has been around for centuries is "miniscule."
Paman said the association has a 30-year lease from the state for the 3-acre fishpond and pays $2,160 per year in lease fees.
"It's a big chunk of our budget," she said.
DLNR officials said land leases are "not part of the current discussion."
'Ao'ao O Na Loko I'a O Maui offers canoe-paddling tours of the pond Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The 90-minute tour begins at 8 a.m. at Kalepolepo Beach Park. Reservations are required, and donations are encouraged.
* Eileen Chao can be reached at email@example.com.