Lawaiʻa
He lawaiʻa no ke kai pāpaʻu, he pōkole ke aho; he lawaiʻa no ke kai hohonu, he loa ke aho.
A fisherman of the shallow sea uses only a short line; a fisherman of the deep sea has a long line.
— (ʻŌlelo Noʻeau #725)

Hungry for some poke? Know where to get the freshest seafood in Hawaiʻi? In the ocean, of course! That’s why our kūpuna say, “The ocean is our ice box” (a.k.a. refrigerator). Like our ice box at home, the ocean stores food for future consumption. All we have to do is gather it!

 

“Lawaiʻa” can refer to the practice of fishing or the person doing the fishing. There are many techniques to lure, hook, net, snare, spear, stun, and gather the abundant resources of the sea.

 

Traditionally, there are two types of food for kānaka: ʻai and iʻa. ʻAi are staple foods such as kalo, ʻuala, and ʻulu. This is the starch part of the meal. Other foods are referred to as iʻa. Lawaiʻa provide iʻa for their family and community. Iʻa included foods such as fish, shellfish, and limu, as well as salt, pig, chicken, and vegetable foods such as lūʻau (broiled young taro leaves).

ʻOihana Lawaiʻa

There are many techniques in ʻoihana lawaiʻa. Some of the most productive methods of fishing use various types of ʻupena (nets). Kānaka ʻōiwi utilize different kinds of ʻupena, such as hand nets, casting nets, nets for surrounding fish, and nets that trap fish.

Another productive method is fishing with a hook and line. Kānaka ʻōiwi have created various kinds of makau, or fishhooks, for catching every type of sea creature. Ka poʻe kahiko (the people of old) kept their makau in special gourds called ipu lēʻī. Some makau were considered to be prized, magical items that were passed from generation to generation.

Another type of Hawaiian fishing uses the ʻauhuhu and ʻākia plants. This type of fishing is not very common now. Lawaiʻa would mash the bark and leaves of the plants and place the mixture into tide pools where fish were abundant. The chemicals in the plant would temporarily stun the fish so they could be collected by hand. This avoided damaging the reef and had no ill effects on humans. Lawaiʻa are skilled in multiple forms of environmentally responsible fishing.

Lawaiʻa practice strict rules, known as kapu, to ensure that ocean resources are maintained sustainably. Ka poʻe kahiko knew the life cycles of each species. During a fish’s breeding season, that type of fish would be kapu, giving that resource time to replenish itself.

This system was about balance. When one beach was kapu, another was open. When deep-sea fishing was kapu, reef fishing was allowed; when one species was off-limits, another was abundant for harvest. Kapu ensured that the marine ecosystem would be healthy, and that the lawaiʻa and their families would have enough to eat and trade.

Lawaiʻa is practiced in streams, shallow ponds, at the edge of reefs, and in the deep sea. The time for fishing is determined by the cycles of the moon. The moon phases are closely related to the tides and weather. These natural cycles determine when fish are reproducing. Knowledge obtained through observation was passed from generation to generation.


It’s a pretty well known custom of Hawaiian lawaiʻa to say “holoholo” (go here and there) instead of “lawaiʻa” (fishing). The lawaiʻa felt that the fish could hear what people said, so by not saying they were going fishing, lawaiʻa avoid scaring off the fish.


Stories of ʻOihana Lawaiʻa

ʻOihana lawaiʻa has existed as long as kānaka ʻōiwi have. One moʻolelo tells the story of how the akua (god) named Māui fished up the Hawaiian Islands with his magic hook named Mānaiakalani. There are other famous gods related to fishing. Some of the most famous are Kūʻulakai, Hinapukuiʻa, and their son, ʻAiʻai. These people became the akua and ʻaumākua for fishing.

Kūʻula, or fishing shrines, were erected near fishing spots for lawaiʻa to offer their first catch to one of the fishing akua. Today the tradition of offering the first or the best of the catch at a kūʻula is still practiced. The development of loko iʻa is also attributed to Kūʻulakai.

Loko iʻa are fishponds for farming fish. Loko iʻa maximize the number and size of fish by enhancing the natural environment. Thousands of fish were harvested from loko iʻa each season without depleting the fish population or negatively impacting the environment.

Our kūpuna were experts at living in tune with their environment—both the sea and the land. There are people among us today who, like our kūpuna, are experts in navigation, sailing, and fishing. We continue to set our nets and cast our lines. We practice responsible fishing techniques that don’t hurt reefs, don’t overfish, and don’t take fish that are too small. We follow the moon phases to determine the best time to fish. We follow the kapu periods on fish to ensure fish for tomorrow. And we keep our ice box clean, healthy, and well-stocked because we understand that it’s a shared resource.