Their Views by Luke Nalu Mead & Brenda Asuncion appeared in the Hawaii Tribune-Herald (January 14, 2024) • Link to article at Hawaii Tribune-Herald here
Lonoikamakahiki! The changing of our weather brings a time of kapu (protection) for the native mullet or ‘ama‘ama. The kapu for this important fish runs from December 1 through March 3 to protect their annual spawning cycle.
In November, a gathering of loko i‘a (Hawaiian fishpond) stewards, fishers, researchers, aquatic resource managers and students took place in Hilo to discuss the state of this culturally important fishery and the impact of kanda (a non-native mullet also called summer, Marquesan, or Australian mullet) on nearshore environments. A fish collection session led by Division of Aquatic Resources staff captured schools of mullet in Reeds Bay. Over 100 mullet were caught in two hours, but all were kanda and not a single ‘ama‘ama was found.
This was concerning because ‘ama‘ama is a celebrated fish for loko i‘a and was important to many communities in our recent history. Loko i‘a and commercial fishers produced or caught over 700,000 pounds of ‘ama‘ama in 1903, which declined to under 70,000 pounds by 1948, and dropped to 5,500 pounds in 2021. There were no reported commercial harvests of ‘ama‘ama from loko i‘a since 1999. The decline of ‘ama‘ama is alarming to fishers and fishpond practitioners and was the focus of the recent workshop.
We can trace the source of the kanda problem to the 1950s. The decline of nehu, an important bait fish for sampan tuna fishers, prompted the Division of Fish and Game to introduce the Marquesan sardine in 1953. Unfortunately, kanda were unintentionally included with the sardines and introduced to waters off Oahu.
By the 1990s shoreline fishers reported that 80% of pua ‘ama schools were actually kanda. Current observations from fishers and resource managers indicate kanda are now present throughout our islands, greatly outnumbering ‘ama‘ama. One competitive advantage for kanda is that they spawn year-round and start to reproduce within their first year of life. This means that they might spawn three times (or more!) each year for the four years before ‘ama‘ama reproduce in their once-per-year cycle.
Current fishing regulations prohibit the use of small-eye (less than 2-inch) nets in order to protect native juvenile fish, but kanda rarely grow large enough to be caught with legal gear. Kanda collected by Division of Aquatic Resources at the recent workshop were cleaned and fried. This reminded older participants of doing the same thing with ‘oama and moi li‘i, both of which have daily catch limits and are now hard to find. Participants agreed that this fish is ‘ono and worth eating!
Understanding how kanda thrive in our loko i‘a and estuaries is one step to restore the ‘ama‘ama fishery. The workshop provided opportunities for multiple stakeholders to share their observations. Fishers of Waiākea spoke of declining ‘ama‘ama schools, Division of Aquatic Resources officials shared monitoring strategies, students from Kamehameha Schools Hawaii shared genetic techniques to distinguish the two species at their juvenile stages, and kia‘i loko i‘a (fishpond stewards) from Hawaiʻi, Molokai and Oʻahu shared data and observations of these fish in their places.
Our ‘ama‘ama should be preserved as an important part of Hawaiʻi’s culture. Identifying and establishing more efficient ways to capture kanda in conjunction with community education, partnerships to restore loko i‘a and estuaries, and hatcheries to boost native stocks may be key steps to change the trajectory for the all-important ‘ama‘ama.
We thank the participants and places for their contributions to this conversation: Honokea, Kaumaui, Kapalaho, Waiāhole, Haleolono, Hilo One, Kalāhuipua‘a, Kīholo, Kūpeke, He‘eia, and Loko Ea loko i‘a; haumāna from Kamehameha Schools Hawaii and Ka ‘Umeke Kā‘eo Public Charter School; DLNR-DAR. The workshop was funded by Saltonstall-Kennedy Grants, NOAA and the Department of Commerce.
Luke Nalu Mead is director of the Kumuola Marine Science Education Center. Brenda Asuncion is hui malama loko i‘a coordinator for Kua‘āina Ulu ‘Auamo.