For a millennium before Captain Cook discovered the island chain in 1778, Hawaiian royalty prized the moi fish, or Pacific Threadfin (Polydactylus sexfilis). Today, although not as well known as mahi mahi, ahi tuna and swordfish, the moi’s moist white, flaky flesh is a favorite of Hawaii’s cuisine.
Moi can still be caught in Hawaiian waters, but its population has dwindled to such an extent that a reliable economic supply is no longer available. The over-fishing of this highly valued fish came after native Hawaiian’s lost control of their nation a century ago. Before the overwhelming western influence in the early 19th century, the chiefs, or ali’I, raised moi in the traditional Hawaiian fishponds, or loko, along the island coasts.
Sadly, almost all of these ancient fishponds are in disrepair and only a few are still used to raise moi. Fortunately a few enterprising individuals have recently been using modern aquaculture technology to farm moi commercially to satisfy the increasing demand for what many consider to be most delicious fish available in Hawaii.
The Hawaiian fishpond is typically a permeable rock wall, or kaupa, (about one meter thick and slightly higher than a meter) enclosing a small costal inlet to form a pond (usually about 5 to 20 hectare s) of freely circulating seawater. (A few ponds were fresh water and some were associated with taro patches.)
The ingenious design allows ocean fish, including the moi, to enter and exit with the tidal currents through a gate, or makaka. The gate can be closed once the fish are inside where they can easily be fed and/or harvested. The rock walls do require considerable labor to erect initially and to repair after the wave damage resulting from the recurrent winter storms. The ali’I had a large supply of loyal labor, but with the Western influence in the 19th century, the power of the ali’I and the allegiance of their followers diminished. The walls of most fishponds were not rebuilt after being knocked down by storms and many became silted in and overgrown with mangroves.
The Hawaiian fishpond is distinctively Hawaiian, not found on any other Pacific Islands. It is estimated that when the first Europeans arrived (1778) there were 360 ponds producing almost a million kilograms of fish per year. Today only six traditional fishponds remain functional. There have been many fishpond restoration efforts, especially with the renaissance of interest in Hawaiian culture during the past few decades. Of course the dedicated labor force is no longer available, but earth moving machinery and seawall technology could achieve similar results.
The greatest stumbling block to the economic restoration has been the strict costal planning ordinances affecting all of the Hawaiian coastline. Ironically, these laws implemented to protect the shoreline from commercial development and irretrievable exploitation, also will not permit the modern technology that could restore the ancient fishponds.
The increasing demand for moi, especially from Hawaii’s many excellent chefs, is now being met with commercial aquaculture. A state hatchery provides moi fingerlings to private companies that then raise them offshore in open-ocean sea cages constructed with state-of-the art materials. Chefs who offer moi on their menus claim that the quality of the fish raised in these cages is as good as the traditionally raised fish.
Taken from Slowfood, no. 1, January 2004