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Abundant fishing grounds were closely guarded secrets for ancient Hawaiians

By Staff | Sep 15, 2016

The word ko’a often refers to a fishing shrine erected along the shorelines of the islands for offerings to ‘aumakuka (personal gods) or to Kul’ulakai, the god of fishermen. However, ko’a are also fishing grounds that were known to hold an abundant supply of fish in a designated area.

In this day of GPS (global positioning system) and fish finders, ko’a are still revered in fishing circles as places where fish can always be found. Many names are given to ko’a and their attributes.

The general ko’a were called ko’a ‘aina, or fishing grounds to provide food. When fishermen set out to search for places frequented by fish, they first looked for a good bottom.

When found, this became the ko’a ‘aina. Deep sea fishing grounds were called ko’a hohonu by the fishermen. Fish caught in ko’a hohonu were called kai ‘uli’uli and included kahala, ‘ula’ula, aholehole, ahi, lupe hahalua, uku, lehe and momi.

Ancient Hawaiians regarded their secret fishing grounds, ko’a huna (hidden fishing grounds), as “calabashes and meat dishes” and as grandparents’ “sources of provisions.” They could be robbed or beaten before they would reveal their locations.

They pointed out their secret fishing grounds only to their own children. The locations of most of the deep sea ko’a have been lost; only a few remain known, as the knowledge of their whereabouts has lessened, and the youth of today have not been taught their locations.

The fishing grounds of Palapala on the eastern side of Mokuho’oniki, an island off the east coast of Molokai, was once a ko’a huna. After the time of Kahekili (great Maui chief of the late 1700s), its location became known, and today even the unskilled fishermen know where it is.

For fishing in secret fishing grounds, the hooks were prepared and baited onshore; the short lines that were the snoods of the hooks were put in one gourd, and the fishing lines in another.

Early in the morning, before there was enough light for him to be recognized, the fisherman went out to his ko’a. At daylight, he let down the pohakialoa sinker, a stone made somewhat like a poi pounder but long and swelling at the lower end and with a knob at the top to which the line was tied.

About two fathoms from the knob, a fish hook was attached, then another hook a yard down from that one, and so on up the line like a row of Damashi. When the fisherman knew that the hooks had all been taken by the fish, he pulled the line part way up, enough so the stone was clear of the bottom, and tied the line to the starboard end of the ‘iako, outrigger boom, and sailed out of the sight of the ko’a before hauling the fish into the canoe. Then he returned to shore. When the fisherman went ashore, the fish for the gods were separated, and the rest of the fish went to the people.

In this way, those who had secret fishing grounds kept their locations from being common knowledge. That is why most of the fishing grounds of kapo’e kahiko are unknown to their descendants, and their locations have been lost.