Ka Wahi – The Site: Wai ‘Ōpae

Place Name: In the Hawaiian language, wai means “fresh water” and ‘ōpae means “shrimp”. This coastal complex of tidepools with numerous fresh springs is home to many species of shrimp, some of which were prized as bait.

Description: Wai ‘Ōpae is a large complex of tidepools which support a diverse coral reef community and provides a nursery for juvenile fish. Roughly half this area was designated as a Marine Life Conservation District (MLCD) in 2003. Commercial activity, collecting or fishing is not allowed within the MLCD, however, the nearby coastal area is frequently used for net and pole fishing.

Wai O Pae

Adjacent to the MLCD, is a stretch of rocky coast studded with tidepools, which has some remnant native forest, but has been significantly degraded by invasive species, specifically the red mangrove. Restoration efforts, which began in 2008, have nearly eradicated the invasive trees and have allowed native vegetation to slowly recolonize the area.

MapSignificance as Part of Ahupua’a/Watershed
Wai ‘Ōpae is located in the ahupua‘a of Kapoho, at the bottom of the watershed, where fresh water drains to the sea. Resources in this ahupua‘a included coral reefs, numerous tidepools, at least one ko‘a (offshore fishing ground), several fresh springs and rich soil for farming.

The boundaries of the ahupua‘a closely overlap the boundaries of the watershed. They include the steep cliffs of the East Rift Zone to the northwest and a long fissure to the south.

The land here looks much different now than it did before the 1960 eruption, which destroyed the village of Kapoho.

Geologic Features
Kapoho means “the depression”, and also “the hollow part of your hand”. This ahupua‘a was probably named for the series of craters along Kilauea’s East Rift Zone, especially Kapoho Crater itself. In this crater a lake called Wai-a-Pele sits perched on a impermeable floor of volcanic tuff.

Many crops were grown at Kapoho using the nearly fresh water that accumulated in the crater. An early Western visitor, Missionary, William Ellis visited here in 1825 and gives the following account.
Kapoho Crater

“...The sides of the valley, which gradually sloped from the foot of hills, were almost entirely laid out in plantations, and enlivened by the cottages of their proprietors. In the centre was an oval hollow, about half a mile across, and probably two hundred feet deep, at the bottom of which was a beautiful lake of brackish water, whose margin was in a high state of cultivation, planted with taro, bananas, and sugar cane.”
William Ellis – 1825

This area has also been affected by accelerated sinking of the land called subsidence. Several historic earthquakes caused entire parts of the coastline to be submerged by the sea. One major earthquake in 1868 caused a coastal trail, fish pond walls and a small forested island, called Pōhaku Manō, to be completely submerged.

In addition to these fast acting forces, the sheer weight of the land is causing this area to sink at a rate of about one half inch a year. This phenomenon becomes most apparent and problematic in areas near the high tide line.



Nā Mo‘olelo ‘Āina – Traditions of the Land

Kūki‘i Heiau
A crater just to the north, named Pu’u Pupae, is the site of an ancient heiau called Kūki‘i. This heiau is said to have been built by the great chief Umi. It is unique because of the fine stonework that once was there. The heiau was built with large slabs of stone which were tightly fitted together without mortar. Some of the stones remain, but others have been removed. Some of them were reportedly placed at the former Harry K. Brown Park in Kalapana, which was later covered by lava.

HoluaHōlua - Sledding
Many of the nearby craters were places where young people enjoyed the sport of hōlua or sledding. Narrow paths were cleared, and then lined with Ti leaves or dry grass. The daring young person would fly down the course lying down on top of the sled, or sometimes, even standing. The person who reached the bottom the fastest was the winner.

A legend tells of a chief named Kahawali, who lived in Kapoho in the 13th century. He and his siblings enjoyed the sport of hōlua on the hills there. One track at Pu‘u Pupae was even called Ka-hōluao-Kahawali. One day when he was sledding, a woman appeared and asked if she could use his hōlua. He teased her and sledded away, not knowing that she was the goddess Pele. When he turned back to look, Pele had assumed her goddess form and stamped her foot, which caused lava to flow. She chased Kahawali on her own hōlua, so he ran to the sea, jumped in a canoe and paddled out. Pele, enraged, followed him to the shore and threw hot lava at him for a long time. You can still see some of these rock outcroppings off of Kumukahi today.

‘Ōpae ‘Ula
Small red shrimp called ‘Ōpae ‘Ula live in the Wai ‘Ōpae tidepools and were highly sought after to be used as bait, especially when fishing for ‘Ōpelu. Fisherman in this area set their nets, and then threw in the ‘Ōpae ‘Ula when the ‘Ōpelu were near. The small shrimp swam down to the bottom of the net and when the ‘Ōpelu followed, they were caught.

Arthur Lyman, who was a life long resident of the area shares this description of gathering and using ‘Ōpae ‘Ula.

Opae Ula“One of the important ponds for the ‘Ōpae was the pond called Wai ‘Ōpae, near the Kapoho-Pū’āla’a boundary. The pond was large, and was filled with ‘Ōpae ‘Ula. The fishermen would go very early in the morning to gather the ‘Ōpae in preparation for ‘Ōpelu fishing. There was also the long green limu [seaweed] which grew in the pond, and that’s what they used to keep the ‘Ōpae fresh until they got out to the fishery. [Hale-ōpelu (literally: Ōpelu house) in front of Kapoho, was one of the fisheries]. It’s also been my experience that if you dig a hole and hit water anywhere along the shore between Kapoho to Pohoiki, when you come back to the hole the next day, you’ll find the ‘Ōpae ‘Ula. They were very plentiful.”
Oral History Interview with Mr. Arthur Lyman, June 17, 1998 – Kepā Maly

Unfortunately, today ‘Ōpae ‘Ula are much less common. This may be due to habitat reduction and their vulnerability to predators, especially alien fish. Now it is illegal to use them for bait.

PohuehueThe rich marine resources found in this area were an important traditional food source. In the past, lobsters were harvested from the pools, Limu and Ōpihi were collected from rocky areas. Fish, including ‘Uhu, Manini, ‘Āholehole and Puhi (eels) were harvested as well.

Certain plants, such as Akulikuli were collected and eaten as a vegetable, or used to lay on top of food in imu ovens. Other plants were gathered for medicinal use such as Pohuehue and Uhaloa.

Still other plants were gathered here for many uses, including fiber, thatch and weaving. Some of these included Hala leaves and flowers for weaving, Hau bark for rope (‘ili hau), and lightweight Hau wood to make amas for canoes.

Traditional Resource Management:
Since the sheltered pools provided an easily accessed resource that could be used in times of scarcity, they were probably carefully managed in the way that other rich, near shore areas were by ancient Hawaiians.

During certain times, especially when fish were spawning, a fishing kapu was indicated by Hau branches placed near the shore. Different species were off limits at different times. This benefitted the species, while still allowing people to gather a continual supply of food.

Mary Kawena Pukui describes fishing kapu in the district of Ka’u.
“There was never a time when all fishing was tabu. When inshore fishing was tabu (kapu), deep sea fishing (lawai‘a-o-kai-uli) was permitted and vice versa. Summer was the time when fish were most abundant and therefore the permitted time for inshore fishing. Salt was gathered at this time, also, and large quantities of fish were dried. … In winter, deep sea fishing was permitted. … A tabu for the inshore fishing covered also all the growths in that area, the seaweeds and shellfish, as well as the fish. When the kahuna had examined the inshore area and noted the condition of the animal and plant growths, and decided that they were ready for use, that is, that the new growth had had a chance to mature and become established, he so reported to the chief of the area, and the chief ended the tabu. For several days it remained the right of the chief to have all the sea foods that were gathered, according to his orders, reserved for his use, and that of his household and retinue. After this, a lesser number of days were the privilege of the konohiki. Following this period the area was declared open (noa) to the use of all.” - Mary Kawena Pukui

Wai Opae

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