Hawaiian fishing traditions
Before the introduction of foreign foods, Hawaiians recognized two main classes of food: ‘ai, or vegetable food, particularly taro and poi, but also sweet potato, breadfruit, yam and other produce of the land; and i’a, or seafood. While pig, dog, chicken and wild birds were eaten, and might also be called i’a (meat), fish was the main source of protein. Seafood was eaten live, raw, baked, broiled, dried and fermented. The word “ono,” or delicious, describes the wide variety of seafood that pleased the palate.
With a knowledge of fishing areas and seasons, and an array of implements that included hooks and lines, lures, nets, basket traps, poisonous plants and spears, a fisher supplied his family or his ali’i with fish and shellfish from streams, fishponds, reefs and ocean.
Sometimes the catch was so huge, fish could be fed to the pigs and dogs, with some left over to dry as food or fuel for fire. Some was left to rot.
Those fishers that could supply large amounts of fish from ponds or catches at sea were believed to possess mana kupua, or supernatural powers, to attract fish at will or make them multiply. Successful fishing implements, such as hooks or cowry shell lures, became famous and were prized, passed on to heirs and sometimes fought over.
The great fishers of ancient times were known for their abilities to bring in extraordinary catches and for their victories over adversaries, including supernatural eel (puhi), octopus (he’e) and shark (mano).
Two of the most famous fishers were Ku’ula-kai, who, along with his wife, Hina-puku-i’a, became deified and worshiped as ‘aumakua of fishing because of their power over fish; and their son, ‘Ai’ai, who traveled around the islands establishing fishing grounds and shrines and teaching the people how to catch fish.
Other notable fishers included ‘Ai’ai’s son, Puniaiki, and the ali’i Nihooleki, who possessed pearl-shell aku lures (pa hi aku) that could bring in canoe-loads of fish; Puniakai’a, an ali’i of Kaneohe noted for his friendship with Uhumaka’ika’i, a parrot fish who was the parent of all fish and who could draw fish to shore from all directions; and the mo’o woman Kalamainu’u, who learned from ‘ounauna (hermit crab) how to make and bait hina’i hinalea, a basket trap for catching hinalea.
The fishing ‘aumakua Ku’ula-kai and Hina-puku-i-‘a and their son, ‘Ai’ai, were known not just for fishing but also for propagating and conserving fish. ‘Ai’ai punished the wanton fishing of ‘o’opu and ‘opae in Wailau, Molokai, by getting his parents to use their supernatural powers to take away the catch. The ali’i of Hawaii used kapu to prevent the people from overfishing an area or from fishing during spawning season. Hau tree branches indicated a kapu against shore fishing along a stretch of beach.
An important fishing kapu concerned the ‘opelu and the ahi, two highly prized fish caught in great numbers in Hawaiian waters. ‘Opelu was netted from July through January. ‘Opelu was placed under kapu in February until the end of its spawning season, around July.
The kapu on aku was lifted in February at the end of the Makahiki, the annual four-month-long harvest festival. Aku was taken by trolling with lures through midsummer during the period when ‘opelu was kapu. Aku was placed under kapu in July, when the ‘opelu was lifted and it could be caught and eaten again.
The exact dates of the kapu were at the discretion of the fishing experts and priests. This kapu had religious sanction – both fish were sacred to the descendants of Pa’ao, a high priest, because the aku and ‘opelu saved him from storms sent by his brother, Lonopele, during a voyage from the South Pacific to Hawaii. The kapu protected these fish from overfishing and from being killed during their spawning seasons, and hence ensured their survival. Breaking the kapu could result in death.