Hawai'i: Maritime Culture

Traditional Hawai'ian maritime culture was defined by the kapu system, along with fishing and boating practices. In the Hawaiian Islands, kapu was the central religious and governmental force prior to Western discovery. In terms of maritime practices, kapu regulated what could be eaten, when, and by whom. As fishing and boating were an important part of Hawaiian life, they also had some influence in society, as well as developing in a unique way in the Hawaiian Islands. Together kapu, fishing, and canoeing were driving forces in shaping traditional Hawaiian maritime culture prior to the inflow of Western ideologies.

The kapu system separated islanders into four “highly stratified”[1] ranks, comprised of the ali’i (chiefs), the kahuna (priests), the makaainana (commoners), and the kauwa, who were considered “outcasts.”[2] Each group had a particular role in society, and lived by a particular set of rules, determined by the ali’i.

Food was one aspect of daily life that was highly regulated by the kapu.  It provided a sanction on how much fish and other seafood was consumed by the Hawaiians, thereby preventing the dangers of over fishing. This was extremely important, as at least one third of the traditional Hawaiian diet consisted of an array of different fish.  ‘Opelu (Mackerel), Akule (Bigeye Scad), ‘Ahi (Yellowfin), Aku (Skipjack), and Moi (Threadfish) were among the most popular species caught and eaten. Once caught, these fish were prepared in a variety of ways. They could be consumed raw (sometimes still alive), broiled, salted, cooked with leaves or sauce, or dried. Threadfish, considered particularly tasty, was consumed by chiefs, but considered kapu for commoners.[3] Women were also prohibited from eating certain fish.

As kapu was rooted in Hawaiian myths, the rules were dictated in stories.  According to University of Hawaii Professor Dennis Kawaharada, fishing lore demonstrated concern for limited resources and equitable distribution by making the protagonists of the myths both skillful and conscientious fishers.[4] Thus, Hawaiians used the kapu system to keep them from overexploiting resources.  For example, Hawaiian chiefs prohibited overfishing of certain areas by placing hau tree branches along shorelines of beaches.[5]  This allowed ancient Hawaiians to maintain a balanced diet of fruits, roots, fish, and other marine life, while avoiding the depletion of their natural resources. Due to their subsistence lifestyle, the livelihood of ancient Hawaiians was completely dependent on the environment, creating a very deep and respectful connection to nature. The Hawaiians termed this connection aloha ‘aina (love of the land) a term that is akin to “environmental protectionism.”[6]  Using the kapu system to set boundaries for food use was a way of practicing aloha ‘aina.    

While fish was a major component of the Hawaiian diet, islanders also relied on other marine edibles for flavoring and sustenance, most of which were not restricted by kapu to a certain social class.  Sea salt was a staple in the traditional Hawaiian diet.[7] Ancient Hawaiians had a very practical and innovative system for making salt.[8]  Pans were filled with seawater and put in the sun to facilitate evaporation, or seawater was allowed to evaporate on mats or evenly textured lava.[9]  Both of these methods were repeated until enough salt had formed to be collected by rakes.  For finer crystals, the salt was ground using a mortar and pestle.[10]  On some islands such as Kaua‘i, the salt was mixed and consumed with iron-rich soil called “red-earth.”[11]

A variety of seaweeds were also eaten regularly.  One type of seaweed, Limu kohu, has been considered the third key ingredient in the ancient Hawaiian diet, in addition to fish and poi.[12]  Limu kohu was prepared by being cleaned and mashed into a relish. [13]

Other seafood such as limpets, small mollusks, cowry, conches, and a variety of sea urchins and crabs were collected from the shoreline and consumed.  Tasks were split by gender and age, with men doing most of the fishing, and women and children looking for food in shallower water and tidal pools along the beaches.[14] .  Thus, everyone played a role in providing seafood, in effect creating an important maritime culture revolving around food production.  Even the chiefs went fishing, mostly in the deep sea, for ‘ahi (tuna).[15]

Fishing was an important part of Hawaiian culture, as both a source of food and an activity that shaped many aspects of day-to-day life.  As anthropologist Patrick Kirch writes, “although the Hawaiians raised domestic animals, including pigs and dogs, these animals were status and ritual foods, not everyday fare. Thus fish and shellfish provided the main source of protein in the Hawaiian diet.”[16]  In this way seafood helped complement a diet comprised in large part of taro, sweet potato, and breadfruit.[17]  

The ahupua, a system of land division, ensured each district had access to the sea along a swath of shoreline and beyond to fisheries.[18]  Fishermen attained an elevated level of social status based on their skill, in large part because fishing provided a service to an entire community from the coast to inland settlements where seafood might be exchanged for agricultural and medicinal plant products as well as materials necessary for building shelters.[19]

Kapu dictated when aku and ’opelu could be caught, alternating on half-year cycles, which provided each fish species six months to rebuild its population but allowed for a continuous supply of fish throughout the year.[21]  Additionally, different ocean food sources were tapped at different times of the year.  Fishermen were restricted to inshore fishing, and collecting seaweeds, shellfish, and salt in the summer while in winter fishermen could deep-sea fish.[22]  Fishermen also left offerings to the gods Kane and Kanaloa and prayed at a ko’a, a term used for both an offshore fishing ground and a fishing shrine.[23]  In these ways fishing was tied to the spiritual realm, and religion played a role in shaping some fishing practices.

The fishing practices that defined the Hawaiian maritime culture were developed in accordance to the society’s needs and capabilities. The main methods Hawaiians used to fish were hooks, spears, traps, nets, and fishponds. When fishing with hooks, Hawaiians used stone sinkers, lures made of cowrie shells, and baited with fish, shrimp and crabmeat.[24] While shark hooks were usually large and made out of wood, Kirch writes that fish hooks “were usually made of more durable materials…animal bone (commonly pig and dog, and also human bone), pearl shell, bird bone, turtle shell, wood, and even teeth,”[25] depending on the island and what was most readily available. The use of human bone was mainly for the believed advantage of using a person’s mana to increase fishing success.  Making hooks out of human bone also served as a way of humiliating an enemy beyond his defeat in battle.[26]  All hooks were shaped with tools made from shell, coral, or stone and could either be made out of one or two pieces.[27]  In looking at the two-piece hooks found in Hawai‘i Kirch writes:

[Hooks where] the shank and point are each a separate piece, lashed together at the bend…appear to be a local Hawaiian innovation, probably an adaptation to the lack of large pearl shells and the need to substitute bone for hooks. Because of its cross-laminated structure, shell is much stronger than bone, which tends to break at weak points (such as the bend of a hook) when stress is applied. By artificially “breaking” the hook into two parts, and then replacing the weak section with a strong and flexible lashing of fine cordage, the Hawaiians ingeniously overcame this raw material constraint and were able to manufacture bone two-piece hooks of sizeable proportions.[28]

Fishing with spears as long as seven feet occurred in the shallows along the coast and reefs and could happen at night aided with torches fueled by the kukui nut, which lured fish closer to the hopeful fisherman.[29]  Interestingly, kukui nut was also chewed and spit into the water as a way of clearing the surface to allow fishermen to see to depths as deep as 20 fathoms.[30]  Traps, although less important, were another fishing method used in Hawai‘i and were constructed like baskets with a funnel opening to allow fish in but not out.[31]  Of all the fishing techniques, fishing with nets was the favorite of the Hawaiians due to the fact that with one net a fisherman could catch more fish than using a line and hook.[32]  When looking for a material to craft nets Hawaiians turned to the olona fiber.[33]  These different techniques were integral parts of Hawaiian fishing and reflect a unique experience, especially in terms of fish hook design.

Fishponds (loko i‘a) and the development of aquaculture was a distinctive development on the Hawaiian Islands that also played a role in the social affairs of the people.  Kirch writes that “the invention of fishponds–as opposed to fish traps and weirs–was a unique achievement of the Hawaiians, for nowhere else in Polynesia was true aquaculture developed.”[34]  The “estimated yield of the ponds before 1900"[35] was a minimum of 902,160 kilograms, with forty-nine percent of that yield coming from ponds in O‘ahu, and 16 percent from Kaua‘i.[36] This development, which is dated to over 1500 years ago, was most likely due to the “lack of arable land,” especially on the smaller islands.[37] There were many advantages to this development, including a secure “food supply for the population in lean times and increased wealth of the managing chief,” as well as the provision of fish “without requiring fishing expertise” and without having to rely on good weather conditions.[38]  The two types of saltwater fishponds were Lokopu’uone and Loko kuapa.[39]  The Lokopu’uone were manmade ponds near the coastline that relied on tides and a barrier made from mud, sand, and coral.[40]  Each pond was linked to the open ocean by a canal, which allowed seawater to enter the pond with a change of tide, and many were also connected to other underground and aboveground freshwater sources.  [41]  These freshwater sources contributed to the brackish environment, which helped develop a productive and diverse ecosystem.[42]    

He‘eia is a brackish water fishpond on the island of O‘ahu, Hawai‘i.  It is over 800 years old, and is used as both a historical example and as a source of food for the local community.  He‘eia is 88 acres and is surrounded by a wall of coral and basalt with a circumference of 1.3 miles.  Young fish enter the pond with the high tide, attracted to the brackish water environment, whereas unwelcome predators such as big fish and are kept out of the pond by a screened gate. 

One aspect that makes makes He‘eia unique as a resource is the role that the community plays in harvesting the fish.  According to Keli‘i Kotubetey, one of the pond’s caretakers, locals are encouraged to do some form of service for the pond before they are allowed to consume its fish,  fostering a give and receive environment. 

The second type of saltwater aquaculture, seawater ponds, has been considered “the ultimate aquaculture achievement of the native Hawaiians and a valuable contribution to native engineering and subsistence food production.”[43] These ponds were separated from the open ocean by a man-made wall of lava or coral, and their construction involved the cooperation and participation of the entire Hawaiian working community, including women and children. One of the most ingenious aspects of these ponds were the canals connected directly to the ocean, which were constructed for easy fish collection and pond maintenance. [44] The canals relied on grates to keep large fish from leaving the ponds, and nets were placed on the pond side of the grate in order to harvest the large fish.

Fishponds were extremely important in Hawaiian culture, particularly in terms of determining social status.  The goal of the fishponds was not to produce the largest amount of fish, but rather to cultivate a good and constantly available selection for the higher classes.[45]  Thus, mass consumption was less important than the cultural aspects of the ponds, which indicated an ali‘i’s power to consume or conserve his or her resources.[46]  When the United States took over Hawai‘i and effectively destroyed the traditional chieftain system, one of the most important parts of Hawaiian culture, the fishponds, disappeared along with the culture, further demonstrating the link between the two. 

While widespread throughout Polynesia, canoes had a unique development in Hawai‘i, where single-hulled outriggers were favored for fishing close to shore.[47]  However, the canoe was more than just a fishing vessel, it was also a means for the initial populating of Hawai‘i; large, double-hulled voyaging canoes transported the colonizers from the South Pacific to Hawai‘i.  When voyaging ended, canoes began to change in Hawai‘i as long distance sailing was no longer a priority.[48]  Polynesian canoe authority Herb Kawainui Kane described some of the oldest style of voyaging canoes, with “hulls deep enough to track well while sailing across the wind…[and] used a single sail that was a triangle made up of strips of fine matting sewn together and mounted to two spars, one serving as a mast; the other, as a boom, usually more slender and either straight or slightly curved.”[49]  When major voyaging ended, canoes became used for shorter trips between islands and paddling became the preferable method for travel.[50] With the focus on paddling, the hull rounded out and the sail became a secondary means for movement and consequently changed in design to only be used when the wind was from behind rather than for moving against the wind.[51]

While the building of the canoes was a great undertaking both worthy and necessary of much description for a full comprehension, the main traditions in the Hawaiian Islands revolved around paying the appropriate amount of respect to the necessary gods and spirits, which involved many separate offerings and prayers.[52] Traditionally, the only embellishment that could be found on Hawaiian canoes was in the form of a “slight projection of the hull from under the manu at the stern, called the momo, where an invisible but benevolent ancestral spirit (aumakua) can ride.”[53]

After the arrival of Europeans, maritime practices of sailing and fishing changed and evolved with new technology and outside influences.  The first change was the return of the sail to prominence in canoes.  As a consequence of interactions with Europeans and Americans, the end of the eighteenth century saw canoes with sails and rigging that was modeled after European examples.[54] Part of the drive to implement sails once again was King Kamehameha’s effort to rule all of the Hawaiian Islands, which required vessels capable of sustaining large military forces and traveling longer distances against the wind.[55] A bigger change occurred in Hawai‘i when European-designed schooners also began being used in trade between Islands in the 1820s; steam powered vessels were in use in the islands by the middle of the nineteenth century.[56]  Fishing also took on new dimensions from outside influences; American whalers began to use Hawai‘i as a regular stop beginning in 1819, and the Japanese launched a commercial fishing industry at the onset of the twentieth century that they dominated until WWII.[57]

Today Hawaiians are using the resurgence of traditional canoe building and voyaging as a way of reconnecting with their past.  The Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS) has played an integral part in this effort by building a replica voyaging canoe, the Hokule’a, and sailing the traditional routes with non-instrument navigational techniques.[58]  The PVS is committed to undertaking "voyages of discovery (olokai); to respect, learn from, and perpetuate through practice our heritage and culture (‘ke); and to promote learning which integrates voyaging experiences and values into quality education (Ho‘ona‘auao)."[59]

While traditional Hawaiian culture has been to a great degree lost with the influx of outside influence, the PVS has offered a means for its resurgence in Hawaii today. While some cultural practices have been lost, such as the kapu, the traditional system of government, and the Hawaiian fishponds, certain fundamental ideologies have remained in the Hawaiian identity. One of these ideologies is aloha ‘aina, or the love of the land, a term which has been used by many Hawaiians to describe their legacy. By evoking the idea that the natural environment, or more specifically the ocean, is central to Hawaiian livelihood, aloha ‘aina encompasses traditional maritime culture, and provides a means for contemporary Hawaiians to rejuvenate their heritage as a maritime people.

Nick Costantino, Hamilton College
Monty Sherwood, Kenyon College



[1]  William K. Kikuchi, “Prehistoric Hawaiian Fishponds,” (Science Science, New Series, 193.4250, Jul. 23, 1976) 295.

[2]  Alternative Hawaii, "Hawaii History: Pre-Contact," Hawaii Vacation Travel Guide (Ala Mua Hawaii, 2002) Web. 27 Jan., 2011, <http://www.alternativehawaii.com/hacul/history.htm>.

[3]  HawaiiHistory.Org. “HawaiiHistory.org.” Info Grafik, 2011. Website. Jan. 11, 2011, <http://www.hawaiihistory.org/>.

[4]  Dennis Kawaharada, "Introduction: Hawaiian Fishing Traditions." (University of Hawaii, 2006).

[5]  Kawaharada.

[6]  Alternative Hawaii.

[7]  HawaiiHistory.org.

[8]  HawaiiHistory.org.

[9]  HawaiiHistory.org.

[10]  HawaiiHistory.org.

[11]  HawaiiHistory.org.

[12]  Linda Preskitt, "Edible Limu of Hawaii." (University of Hawaii, Botany Department, 2002), <http://www.hawaii.edu/reefalgae/publications/ediblelimu/>.

[13]  HawaiiHistory.org.

[14]  HawaiiHistory.org.

[15]  HawaiiHistory.org.

[16]  Patrick V. Kirch, “Feathered Gods and Fishhooks: An Introduction to Hawaiian Archaeology and Prehistory,” (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1985) 199.

[17]  HawaiiHistory.org, “Importance of Fishing.”

[18]  HawaiiHistory.org, “Importance of Fishing.”

[19]  HawaiiHistory.org, “Importance of Fishing.”

[20]  HawaiiHistory.org, “Sharing Resources.”

[21]  HawaiiHistory.org, “Fishing Seasons.”

[22]  HawaiiHistory.org, “Fishing Seasons.”

[23]  HawaiiHistory.org, “Fishing Gods, Shrines, Prayers.”

[24]  HawaiiHistory.org, “Fishing Methods.”

[25]  Kirch, 200, 204.

[26]  Kirch, 204.

[27]  HawaiiHistory.org. “Fishing Methods.”

[28]  Kirch, 200-201.

[29]  HawaiiHistory.org, “Fishing Methods.”

[30]  Douglas Oliver, Polynesia In Early Historic Times, (Honolulu: The Bess Press, 2002.) 87.

[31]  HawaiiHistory.org, “Fishing Methods.”

[32]  HawaiiHistory.org, “Fishing Methods.”

[33]  HawaiiHistory.org, “Fishing Methods.”

[34]  Kirch, 211.

[35]  Barry A. Costa-Pierce, “Aquaculture in Ancient Hawaii,” (BioScience 37.5, May, 1987) 325.

[36]  Costa-Pierce, 325.

[37]  Costa-Pierce, 325.

[38]  HawaiiHistory.org.

[39]  Costa-Pierce, 325.

[40]  Costa-Pierce, 326.

[41]  Costa-Pierce, 326.

[42]  Costa-Pierce, 326.

[43]  Costa-Pierce, 326.

[44]  Costa-Pierce, 326.

[45]  Kirch, 295.

[46]  Kirch, 295.

[47]  HawaiiHistory.org.

[48]  Herb Kawainui Kane, “Evolution of the Hawaiian Canoe,” Polynesian Voyaging Society, PVS, 1998, Web, Jan. 26, 2011, <http://pvs.kcc.hawaii.edu/ike/kalai_waa/kane_evolution_hawaiian_canoe.html>.

[49]  Kane, PVS.

[50]  Maritime 1987

[51]  Maritime 1987

[52]  Edgar Henriques, “Hawaiian Canoes,” Polynesian Voyaging Society, PVS, Web, Jan. 26, 2011, <http://pvs.kcc.hawaii.edu/ike/kalai_waa/henriques.html>.

[53]  Kane, PVS.

[54]  Kane, PVS.

[55]  Kane, PVS.

[56]  Kane, PVS.

[57]  Kane, PVS.

[58]  Polynesian Voyaging Society, PVS, Web, Jan, 26, 2011, <http://pvs.kcc.hawaii.edu/index.html>.

[59]  Kane, PVS.



Works Cited

Alternative Hawaii. "Hawaii History: Pre-Contact." Hawaii Vacation Travel Guide. Ala Mua Hawaii, 2002. Web. 27 Jan. 2011. <http://www.alternativehawaii.com/hacul/history.htm>

“Avian Mind Design and Maiden Voyage Productions, in association with Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Pacific Islanders in Communication, Public Broadcasting Station Online, and the Polynesian Voyaging Society.” Wayfinders: A Pacific Odyssey. AMD and MVP, with CPB, PIC, PBS Online, and the PVS. Website. Jan. 11, 2011.

Costa-Pierce, Barry A. “Aquaculture in Ancient Hawaii.” BioScience 37.5 (May, 1987): 320-331. JSTOR. Website. 21:00 Jan. 24, 2011.

Freeman, Otis W. “Economic Geography of the Hawaiian Islands.” Economic Geography 5.3 (Jul., 1929): 260-276. JSTOR. Website. Jan. 11, 2011.

HawaiiHistory.Org. “HawaiiHistory.org.” Info Grafik, 2011. Website. Jan. 11, 2011. <http://www.hawaiihistory.org/>.

Kikuchi, William K. “Prehistoric Hawaiian Fishponds.” Science, New Series, 193.4250 (Jul. 23, 1976): 295-299. JSTOR. Website. Jan. 11, 2011.

Kirch, Patrick V. “Feathered Gods and Fishhooks: An Introduction to Hawaiian Archaeology and Prehistory.” Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1985. Print.

Kirch, Patrick V., and Marshall Sahlins. “Anahulu: The Anthropology of History in the Kingdom of Hawaii.” Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992. Print.

Kirch, Patrick V., and Sharyn Jones O’Day. “New Archaeological Insights into Food and Status: A Case Study from Pre-Contact Hawaii.” World Archaeology 34.3, Luxury Foods (Feb., 2003): 484-497. JSTOR. Website. 20:17 Jan. 9, 2011.

Kolb, Michael J. “Ritual Activity and Chiefly Economy at an Upland Religious Site on Maui, Hawai’i.” Journal of Field Archaeology 21.4 (Winter, 1994): 417-436. JSTOR. Website. 20:16 Jan. 9, 2011.

Kawaharada, Dennis. "Introduction: Hawaiian Fishing Traditions." Introduction: Hawaiian Fishing Traditions. University of Hawaii, 2006. Web. 27 Jan. 2011.

Linnekin, Jocelyn S. “Defining Tradition: Variations on the Hawaiian Identity.” American Ethnologist 10.2 (May, 1983): 241-252. JSTOR. Website. Jan. 11, 2011.

Oliver, Douglas. Polynesia In Early Historic Times. Honolulu: The Bess Press, 2002.) Print.

Pollenz, Philippa. “Changes in the Form and Function of Hawaiian Hulas.” American  Anthropologist, New Series 52.2 (Apr. – Jun., 1950): 225-234. JSTOR. Website. 20:12 Jan. 9, 2011.

Polynesian Voyaging Society. Polynesian Voyaging Society. PVS, Jan. 7, 2011. Web. Jan. 11, 2011. <http://pvs.kcc.hawaii.edu/index.html>.

Preskitt, Linda. "Edible Limu of Hawaii." University of Hawaii System. University of Hawaii, Botany Department, 2002. Web. 24 Jan. 2011. <http://www.hawaii.edu/reefalgae/publications/ediblelimu/>.

Schmitt, Robert C. “Early Hawaiian Statistics.” The American Statistician 35.1 (Feb., 1981): 1-3. JSTOR. Website. 20:22 Jan. 9, 2011.

Seaton, Lee S. “The Hawaiian “kapu” Abolition of 1819.” American Ethnologist 1.1 (Feb., 1974): 193-206. JSTOR. Website. 20:19 Jan. 9, 2011.

State of Hawai’i: Division of Aquatic Resources. “Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources.” DAR, 2010. Website. Jan. 11, 2011. <http://hawaii.gov/dlnr/dar/index.html>.

Suiyanata, Krisnawati. “Diversified Agriculture, Land Use, and Agrofood Networks in Hawaii.” Economic Geography 78.1 (Jan., 2002): 71-86. JSTOR. Website. 20:16 Jan. 9, 2011.