Ancient Hawaiians drew their sustenance - physical and spiritual - from the land and sea around them. Guided by a philosophy that paired a cycle of cultivating and harvesting plants and animals with conservation of those resources, they lived in balance with their environment. Within this context, fishing held a central role. Seafood provided the primary protein in the Hawaiian diet, complementing vegetable staples such as taro, sweet potato and breadfruit. Ocean resources were so important that the ahupua`a system of land division ensured each district had access to the sea along a swath of shoreline and beyond to fisheries. Within each pie-shaped division, fishing communities exchanged with upland farmers, supplying fish, shellfish, seaweed, and salt to the entire district.
Fishermen maintained personal and spiritual relationships with the sea, acquiring extensive knowledge of shore and reef areas, honing their diving skills to locate fish, spear fish, free nets, and set traps. The many proverbs, prayers, and tales attest to the importance of fishing in Hawaiian culture. A successful fisherman was a highly valued asset for his entire community. The historian Kamakau wrote that the fortunate fisherman "was like a lucky woman who attracts men by the fragrance of her skin."
Hawaiian fishermen paid close attention to the lunar cycle. The time of full moon was especially good for fishing. The days of the waning moon, between full and new, were least favorable.
Many legends grew from Hawaiians’ long tradition as fishermen, as these talented men took on mythical stature as their exploits were passed on from one generation to the next. Some fishing tales from ancient times, like the stories of Maui, are commonly known throughout all of Polynesia. These stories reflect skill and knowledge of the sea, as well as the intertwined nature of Hawaiians’ physical and spiritual worlds. Ho`opau maunu i ka i`a li`ili`i; e ki`i no ma ka i`a nunui. A waste of bait to go for the small fish; go for the big ones.
Ku`ula, a very skilled fisherman, appears in many tales. Ku`ula fished with a large 10-fathom canoe, filling it to overflowing every time he went out. The secret of his success was his pearl fish hook named Kahuoi. Kahuoi had come to him one day when he wasn't catching much; a shiny object dropped in his boat by a bird turned out to be a delicate pearl shell hook. When Ku`ula used the hook, aku began throwing themselves in the boat. Every day Ku`ula fished, a bird named Kamanuwai perched on the boat and ate until he was full, but still there was a big catch left for Ku`ula.
One day the local chief noticed Ku`ula and the fish jumping around his boat and commanded the hook be brought to him. With Kahuoi lost, Ku`ula no longer caught fish and the bird Kamanuwai grew weak and flew away. Ku`ula and his wife grew poor and hungry. They gave birth to a son, `Ai`ai, but because of their poverty, they put him in a basket and abandoned him to his fate. The chief's small daughter found the basket and brought it to her father. The two children were raised together and later married.
The chief's daughter fell ill one day and asked to eat some fish. `Ai`ai agreed to go fishing but asked first for the chief's pearl fishhook. He caught a few fish but soon his wife grew sick again. `Ai`ai, suspecting the pearl fishhook he'd used was not Kahuoi, asked the chief to search through his nets and line for another pearl fishhook. Reunited then with Kahuoi, `Ai`ai returned to the old fishing grounds in his father's boat, and aku again leaped into the canoe. The bird Kamanuwai returned, feasted on fish again, but took the pearl hook and flew away. The hook was never allowed to fall again into a stranger's hands.
Another tale shows what can happen when man grows over-confident and forgets to thank the gods for their help. A fisherman called Punihe`e (Squid-lover) went fishing daily for his favorite food. His neighbor saw him coming home one day and warned Punihe`e that the gods might be angry because he caught his squid alone without the god's assistance. Punihe`e replied he needed no help from the gods when he fished for squid.
Punihe`e brought his squid home and cut it in portions. He salted some, put some broiling over charcoal, and hung some by his door to dry. Punhe`e left for his vegetable patch and came home at day's end when he was hungry. He got out his poi bowl and dish of salted raw squid - but the pieces of squid were squirming toward each other and joining again into whole tentacles. The dish of cooked squid was doing the same. Punihe`e ran to tell his neighbor. Both of them came back to the house and saw the dried squid by the door frame moving. The cooked pieces from the house joined it and the squid was whole again. It climbed on top of the house with its tentacles hanging over the doorway, its head nodding toward the fisherman. At this, Punihe`e fled to the home of his friend and never went fishing for squid again. Today, dried squid still squirms when placed over hot coals.
Maui, powerful and mischievous, plays a leading role in many tales. His heroic feats include raising the sky from the earth and snaring the sun. At least one tale takes him fishing. Maui's brothers went fishing often but they always left Maui behind. Maui decided he wanted to fish for something unusual. He went first to the underworld to find a hook. From an old woman there who was half alive and half dead, he took the jawbone from her dead half and fashioned a fishhook. For magic bait, he caught a sacred alae bird.
Finally coaxing them into taking him along, Maui took his hook and bait and joined his brothers in the fishing canoe. They paddled far out into deep waters where Maui set his alae bait on the jawbone hook and let it sink to the bottom of the sea. The bait drifted down to Kaunihokahi whose duty it was to hold the land securely to the sea bottom. Kaunihokahi took the bait and hook and Maui, feeling the pull on the line, fastened his line to the canoe. He told his brothers to paddle as hard as they could toward home. As they worked against a great weight, one brother looked back and, astonished, saw a huge land mass rising behind the canoe. Another brother, too tired to continue, dropped his paddle on the fish line and snapped it. The land they were hauling up broke away and fell back to the sea bottom. Instead of a continent, Maui fished up only an island.
A part of everyday life in coastal villages, canoes were used for fishing, travel and exploring the shoreline. Much faster than on foot or a donkey trail over rough lava, canoes were definitely the quickest way to get up and down the coast.
The single-hulled outrigger canoe was ideal for near shore fishing. These canoes were typically 15 to 24 feet long with a single float on the port side for stability. With a one and a half-inch thick hull, a 24-foot canoe weighed less than 50 pounds, making for easy handling.
Canoe making, like other Hawaiian undertakings, involved much spiritual preparation, ceremony, and prayer. After prayer and ritual, craftsmen selected a tree for the hull, generally koa, then used stone adzes, chisels, and files to shape the boat. Booms were made of hau wood and the ama, or float, was shaped from wiliwili, the lightest, most buoyant wood, or from hau. Other components of these canoes included fish spear racks, paddles, bailers, ropes, and anchors.
Larger double-hulled canoes could accommodate up to 100 passengers and used wind sail power as well as paddlers. These were the canoes used for making long ocean voyages or the vessels carrying armies of warriors to battle. William Ellis, visiting the islands in 1823, noted one man could "paddle a single canoe faster than a boat's crew could row a whaleboat."
Hook and line
Hawaiians used many fishing methods. Hook and line were used to catch medium-sized fish as well as sharks, squid and octopus. The most reliable line was made from olona, one of the world's strongest plant fibers. Hooks were shaped from a single piece of human, bird, or dog bone, pearl or turtle shell, whale ivory, or wood; composite hooks combined two or more pieces lashed together. Stone, coral, or shell tools were used to shape the hooks. Hook shapes ranged from straight to nearly circular, often including one or two carved barbs. The largest hooks were built for sharks. Made of wood or a composite of wood with a bone point, they measured seven to 11 inches long. Fishermen stored lines and hooks in gourd containers.
Stone sinkers took many shapes. The plummet form, or pohakialoa, is unique to Hawai`i and was made to carry lines to the bottom of deep fishing grounds.
While in shallower water a fisherman could easily see the sandy or rocky bottom, it was more difficult to get visual bearings in deep water. Oil from roasted kukui nuts, chewed and spat on the surface, increased visibility to six fathoms (120 feet).
Hawaiians made lures as well as hooks. The most striking are cowrie shell lures for catching squid and octopus. One or two cowrie shells and a stone sinker were lashed to a wooden shaft that also supported a bone hook; the lure might also include a hackle of ti leaf strips. Different cowrie shell lures were used to fish at particular times of day, depending on color, ocean conditions and the sea floor. Some lures passed down through generations became famous in stories and chants. Some were named for ancestors or relatives. Kamakau wrote that some lures were so powerfully attractive that they would simply be shown over the side of the boat and "squids came climbing in."
Fishermen used fish, shrimp or crab to bait their hooks. They used live bait to attract and hold a school of fish. Ground bait - cut pieces of fish pounded soft - was wrapped in a cloth package along with a baited hook, the whole bundle weighted and lowered to the sea bottom. The line was then jerked free and the hook swallowed by fish attracted to the bait. Squid ink bait made from the roasted ink sac mixed with plant ingredients was put on the fish hook tip to catch small fish near shore.
Hawaiians used spears to fish in shallows or along rocky ledges, or underwater to catch rock fishes. Night spear fishing inside the reef was done by the light of kukui-nut torches as the bright light attracted fish in shallow waters. Hard woods like kauila, o`a, koai`e, and uhiuhi were favored for spears. Finished spears were six or seven feet long, slim and sharply pointed at one end.
Fishermen also used traps woven like baskets to catch smaller fish and shrimp. A funnel opening led into the trap and a bottom opening held a stone weight or allowed the catch to be extracted. Made of lama wood and `ie`ie rootlets, the largest traps were five feet in diameter and three feet deep. Women used smaller traps to catch shrimp in streams, placing their traps under leaves and branches where shrimp would naturally hide. Other shallow-water ocean fish such as palani, uhu, kumu, kahala, and squid were fed roasted sweet potato from a basket for several days running. Once the fish grew comfortable, the bait was placed in a trap inside the basket. Sometimes fish were fed for one or two weeks to make them plump and delicious before the trap was added to the feeding basket.
Hawaiians favored net fishing over other methods. Nets allowed fishermen to catch many fish at once and they could be used from shore or from a canoe. Sometimes a community would fish together. Called a hukilau, everyone worked as one to pull in a large net spread in shallow water near shore. The catch was then divided equally among the group.
Olona plant fibers were a favorite for making net and rope. They were strong, resisted rotting, and didn’t kink. The strongest nets, for catching sharks, were of thick rope made from hau bark.
Gillnets, hanging nets, encircling nets, and seine nets were set over large areas, attached to the shore or set from canoes. Flexible wood frames supported smaller hand nets built to dip into water. Bag nets with cords attached to their free edges were used to catch fish to stock fishponds. Huge bag nets were used in places like Honolulu Harbor to catch large quantities of fish.
As a boy, Robert Punihaole accompanied his uncle on fishing trips along the Kona coast and on excursions to gather net materials. He says, "We went to Kealakekua to gather olona to make the nets. My uncle them would go mauka, gather the olona, and bring it home. They would ihi [strip] the bark, ho`opulu [soak] it, ho`omalo`o [dry] it, then kahi [comb] it on a long board to draw out the fine fibers, and then koe [separate] the fibers. They then would make poka`a [balls] about twelve or more inches in diameter, and then there were two mea wili [twiners] which they would spin to wili aho [make the rope] for the fishing and net lines." Fishermen used mesh gauges, netting needles, net menders, floats, and sinkers to finish and repair the nets.
To make olona fishing nets and lines less visible in the water, fishermen dyed them. Koki`o, the native red hibiscus, produced a purple dye also used to dye kapa. Robert Punihaole remembers, "The fishermen of Makalawena, Kuki`o, and Kaupulehu [villages on Hawai’i island] all went to the uplands of Kaupulehu to gather the koki`o bark. They gathered the bark carefully, stripping only a small section of the bark. They knew that if too much was taken the tree would die, and there would be no koki`o to gather. That was how they did it, and I went with them when I was very young. Once they stripped enough bark, they would return makai, and boil the bark to make the dye, and they then colored the olona nets and lines. Sometimes we would use kukui too, but it was not as good, because the kukui has more acid, and `ai ke kaula, it eats the rope, making it weak." He adds, "Because the koki`o dye was so valuable, if someone went up to gather, they would call the other families together, and all of them would share the dye to color their nets."
Noose Shark hunting
Many types of sharks swim in Hawaii's waters. Hawaiians revered some as embodiments of ancestral spirits or `aumakua. They fed and cared for these sharks and spun tales of their protective powers.
Other sharks were hunted to be eaten, caught by hook, net, or noose. To noose a shark, the animals were first tamed by several days of feeding. Fishermen threw bait from a canoe in relatively shallow water, usually baked meat wrapped in ti leaves as well as pounded `awa mixed with water that was lowered into the ocean in gourd vessels. The feeding routine was repeated for three or four days until the sharks met the fishermen regularly and came in close to their boats. Finally, satiated with the food and slightly stupified by the `awa, the fishermen could slip a noose over the shark's head. The shark was then dragged to shore where it was stranded and killed.
"To the native son, the shark was a horse to be bridled, its fin serving as the pommel of a Mexican saddle. I have seen men skilled in herding sharks riding a shark like a horse, turning the shark to this side and that until carried to shore, where the shark died."
Hawaiians developed aquaculture to supplement other fishing activities. Fish ponds guaranteed a food supply for chiefs in lean times and increased the wealth of the managing chief. Massive stone walls enclosed shallow bays or inlets. The walls curved so prevailing currents pushed sand and debris around the wall rather than collecting it at one side. Stones on the outer wall - built without mortar - angled downwards so wave action worked to pull them tighter. Creating a new pond was a major engineering project and required 10,000 men to build a 60-acre pond.
Sluice gates in the pond walls allowed small fish to enter from the open sea and prevented larger fish from leaving. Pond stock was replenished as new fish entered with currents and high tide.
Hawaiians built fishponds on Kaua`i, O`ahu, Maui, and Moloka`i with the highest concentration on Moloka`i. Hawai`i island had the fewest ponds due to its abrupt coast and lack of reef and lagoons.
Hawaiians also used natural fresh or brackish water ponds, stocking them with fish and using them in the same manner as artificial ponds. Anchialine ponds filled with brackish water support a type of small, red shrimp (`opae ula). Hawaiians cleaned and maintained the ponds, harvesting the shrimp to use as bait for `opelu fishing. They caught and released small ocean fish into other ponds; manini, aholehole, and moi were left to grow to a good eating size. They were caught later in fish traps, the desired fish collected and the rest allowed to swim back to the pond. As with all fishing, Hawaiians were guided by the dictum, "Lawa kupono, a`ale `anunu!" (Take only enough for what you need, don't be greedy!)
Fish ponds were stocked with awa (milkfish), `ama`ama and `anae (two kinds of mullet), `ahole (sea-pig), `opae (shrimp), `o`opu (guppies), and puhi (eels). Other sea fish entering the ponds were ulua, kahala (amberjack), kumu (goatfish), manini (surgeon fish), `o`io (bonefish), and uhu (parrotfish).
Ko`a, dedicated fishing grounds, were associated with specific land features. The connection assured a food source for the onshore population. To fix the location of a fishing ground, Hawaiians used multiple landmarks. By aligning specific points, one on the shore and one on the hills or mountain behind, and using two sets of points on either side of the canoe, fishermen returned to the same spot every time to chum the water and take fish as needed.
Hawaiians also had names for specific regions of the ocean, from the shore to the open sea:
Leading lives so intimately tied to the natural world, Hawaiians became expert at reading weather signs and ocean currents. The kilo lani was the ancient weatherman, a keen observer of sky conditions who offered a vast regional knowledge of weather history. Ordinary fishermen or farmers could reasonably guess at conditions for a three or four day period; the kilo lani's abilities stretched farther into the future.
Hawaiians had many specific names for sky conditions and cloud formations:
Certain sky conditions led to changes in the weather or the sea. A Western horizon appearing blue-black at sunset would be followed by high surf. An opening in the clouds shaped like a swordfish jaw would lead to rain. An exceedingly black sky with angular thunderheads meant impending thunder, lightning, or a violent storm. These storm elements originated in Kulanihako`i, a mythical lake or pond in the sky.
Fishermen also became adept at reading ocean currents. Surface currents in Hawai`i are generally westward, caused by northeast tradewinds blowing on the ocean surface. Temperature and pressure variations in the water also affect surface currents. Vigorous eddies in the lee of islands, spun as the tradewinds pass the edge of land, can mask deeper currents. Swells are also wind-produced and travel far beyond the area of their origin. A swell from a particular direction can persist for many days or longer and can be used to maintain direction during open ocean sailing.
Tidal currents flow with the rise and fall of the tide, highest at times of new and full moon. Near-shore tidal currents run parallel to shore and may change direction with the tide.
Reading the weather
For fishermen, exposed to the elements as they worked while out on the water, reading the weather correctly was critical. Robert Punihaole remembers fishing in years past: "You could predict the weather those days. The olden days, the Hawaiians were smart, they only look up at the mountain and they know. Like we go fishing for `ahi, or kukaula, or `opelu. You stay outside, far, you look to ke ao [the clouds], the kuahiwi, the mountain, you look at the clouds. And the clouds, they tell you, `It's not going to be a good day, you better move on.’ If you hard head, you're going to get it."
Rains and winds, like clouds, are called by specific names according to their traits:
Hawaiians ate their fish raw, cooked, salted, and dried. Hawaiians delighted in serving a raw fish while it was still alive. In preparing any fish eaten raw, the body was scaled, split ventrally with the head left untouched, and the flesh was salted. Large raw fish were prepared by mashing the flesh with the fingers (lomi), softening the meat to allow salt to penetrate deeper. If the fish were not soft enough to lomi, it was cut in chunks or slices, or left whole. Once salt was worked into the flesh, the excess was rinsed off before eating.
Fish were baked, broiled, or steamed by adding hot rocks to a container of water. For baking in an underground oven, whole fish or fish pieces were wrapped first in ti leaves. Broiled fresh or dried fish was cooked directly on hot coals or embers.
Hawaiians preserved fish by salting then drying it. Fish were partially dried for short-term storage, or well-dried for longer storage. Fish were scaled, cleaned, cut into pieces if the fish was large, generously salted, and laid on stones. Thick pieces from a large fish were soaked in brine for three days then dried in the sun. A thoroughly dried fish, hard and white with salt, could keep for two or three years if it was stored in a dry place and aired and sunned periodically to keep it from mildewing. Even mildewed fish could be saved by cooking it in an imu, or underground oven, and redrying it. Dried fish was eaten like jerky or broiled.
To collect salt, Hawaiians spread sea water over smooth pahoehoe lava, or lau hala mats, or poured it into shallow pans. The sun evaporated the water, leaving behind a thin layer of salt. The process was repeated many times and then the dried salt was raked together.
Hawaiians also gathered shellfish and seaweed to eat. The Hawaiian term i`a referred not only to fish but to all products harvested from the ocean. While men did the offshore and near shore fishing, it was primarily women and children who combed tidal pools and shallow shoreline waters for shellfish, sea urchins, crabs and seaweeds.
Hawaiians gathered a number of shellfish for eating: `opihi, leho, pipipi, puho`okani and `olepe. `Opihi, or limpets, were very popular as a food item, probably the most commonly eaten shellfish in ancient times. `Opihi clinging to shoreline rocks were knocked loose with sharp stones. Gathering `opihi in rough areas was often dangerous, spawning the belief that is was kapu to eat `opihi while a companion was out gathering, lest the companion be washed out to sea. Hawaiians ate `opihi raw or salted, with or without seaweed accompaniment. `Opihi were also cooked in the shell, boiled in a bowl with hot stones. This method also produced a delicious liquid called kai.
Pipipi, or small mollusks, cover the rocks in tidal pools. Hawaiians gathered them during both daytime and nighttime. To eat them, a needle was used to extract the meat from the shell. Pipipi could be prepared several ways: eaten raw, boiled, or wrapped in leaves and broiled. A broth was also made from pipipi, with the shells added for additional flavor.
Hawaiians called cowry leho, poleholeho being smaller cowries and leho referring to larger ones. Other names indicated particular species within the cowry family. These animals were eaten and their shells used for shaping a variety of tools including scrapers and fishing lures. If the leho was to be eaten, the shell was broken to remove the meat. The animal was de-slimed using salt and the meat was wrapped in ti and broiled over hot coals. On Kaua`i, a favorite way of preparing leho was to boil the meat.
Hawaiians harvested puho`okani, or conches, for both their meat and their shells. Shell trumpets, or pu, were made from two types of large shells, the conch or triton and the cassis cornuta. The long pointed protuberances of the triton shells were cut off to form mouth holes. These trumpets were eight to 11 inches long and four inches wide. The slightly larger cassis shell trumpets were made by drilling a hole in the flattened top of the cassis cornuta. Pu produce a large sound that can carry as far as two miles; the volume depends on the method of blowing rather than lung capacity. Not used as a musical instrument, the pu was blown to announce an arrival or to call people to gather for a special event.
`Olepe - bivalves - weren't a favorite food for Hawaiians but their shells were valued for making shell hooks. `Olepe such as pa (light mother of pearl shells) and paua (heavier mother of pearl) were both used in making fishhooks.
Several types of sea urchins were gathered by hand in shallow waters. Wana - venomous sea urchins - were gathered with the aid of a stick to avoid wounds from the spines. Gathered seasonally, wana were considered the most delicious type of sea urchin. To eat them, their spines were knocked off with a stone or stick, the wana was opened by crushing or by putting salt into its mouth and leaving it overnight to make cracks around the mouth form. The five orangey tongues of the gonads were then scooped out, the meat most prized by Hawaiians. They also consumed the fluid from the body cavity and mouth, sometimes using it in a relish to eat with poi or sweet potatoes. Hawaiians also ate the wana eggs.
A smaller urchin - `ina - was the most common type, gathered in both shallow and deep reef waters. The pounded meat of the `ina was combined with salt and water to make a sauce called kai `ina, considered a delicacy by Hawaiians. The reddish lavender kai `ina was eaten with raw fish.
Ha`uke or ha`uke`uke was another tasty urchin, but not as valued as wana. Ha`uke has short or flattened spines. Pincushion urchins, or hawae, have fine short spines; they are the least delicious of the urchins.
Hawaiians gathered and ate a variety of crabs. Known generally as papa`i, they were also identified by species. `A`ama or black crabs were found among shoreline rocks. Hawaiians typically ate them raw with salt but they also removed the meat and preserved it for eating later. `A`ama was a special and sacred food as well as a medicine. Other crabs include the kualoa, a deep sea crab enjoyed as one of the best eating crabs; the `alamihi crab found in muddy flat reefs near river mouths; the kuhonu, a reef crab caught with nets; the `ohiki or ghost crab found on sandy beaches; and the pokipoki and mo`ala crabs. When not eaten raw, crab meat was wrapped in ti leaves and cooked over hot coals. Kumimi was a poisonous type of crab. Though not eaten, it was used as a heart stimulant.
Limu, or seaweed, was an important addition to the ancient diet, especially for commoners whose food choices were more limited than the ali`i. Hawaiians valued limu not only for its nutritional value - providing important vitamins and promoting good health - but also because it added variety to the staple dishes of the Hawaiian diet. Medicinally, limu prevented constipation and was used to treat a range of illnesses including skin problems and asthma.
Women and children gathered limu in shallow waters near shore and on reefs. They harvested limu by hand, storing it in gourd containers tied to their waists. Hawaiians classified seaweeds by category: `ekaha, or red alga, the most abundant type of seaweed; `aki`aki and manauea, two other red algae; and `a`ala`ula, a green alga. The seaweed was most commonly eaten as a relish called limu kohu. To prepare limu kohu, the seaweed was washed then pounded with a pestle to break it into small pieces. It was eaten in small pinches with other food.