Hawaii Stories

Hana Hou! Magazine

Go Fish

In the village of Milolii, the next generation is learning to live from the sea in the old Hawaiian way

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Justiss Decalio de-scales an uhu (parrotfish) using an ophi shell as a scraper. For generations the people of Milolii have been living from the sea, and they have preserved traditions lost in much of the rest of Hawaii.

With one huge hand, Craig Carvalho points to a water tank perched on the lava high above the shoreline. “See how that telephone pole lines up against the tank?” he says, more than once, to make sure I do see it. “That’s how we find the koa.” He tells me that Hawaiians would often plant coconut trees to use as maka koa, or the landmarks a fisherman uses to find his koa, his fishing grounds. But there aren’t many coconut palms on the scorched terrain, so he triangulates using telephone poles and water tanks instead. With pinpoint accuracy. “Hawaiian GPS!” he grins.

I’m honored that Craig’s telling me this because the location of a koa isn’t often shared with outsiders. For generations the families of this area have nurtured their respective koa and abided by the kapu, the unwritten rules about where one may and may not fish. Not that I could take advantage of such information: the kind of fishing Craig does is practiced by only a few people these days — maybe five, he guesses — using an old if not ancient technique that takes years of practice and a saint’s patience. Craig’s a master at it — he’s been fishing for opelu since he was ten years old. You won’t find this small, meaty fish in Island restaurants, but for as long as anyone can remember, the opelu (mackerel scad) has been a staple for the people of Milolii, and the ingenious method their ancestors developed for catching it works really well if you know what you’re doing. During the season Craig says he can net two or three hundred pounds on a single pull.

In the aft of Craig’s small boat, 13-year-old Keanu Caldwell hunches, looking like he’d rather be anywhere else. Normally Craig’s son Nainoa would be helping him, but this morning Nainoa’s out spearfishing in a tournament. Keanu tries to follow Craig’s instructions on setting up the upena, the net, but opelu fishing’s not really Keanu’s thing. In fact, boats in general aren’t his thing: he gets seasick. Tough break for a kid growing up in a fishing village, but like a lot of the kids down in Milolii, Keanu has no desire to pull net like his family before him. He wants to be a pilot.

The net ready, Craig picks up the “glass box,” a homemade device for looking underwater. Affixed to one end of an oblong wood box is a glass plate; at the other is an open hole for viewing. He puts the glass end in the water and peers into the depths, hoping to spot a single opelu—the one that will lead him back to the “pile,” the main school, which could number in the hundreds of thousands. When I ask how old this way of fishing is, Craig says nobody’s sure but that it goes back to at least the early nineteenth century and probably into pre-contact times. When I point out that ancient Hawaiians wouldn’t have had glass, he smiles. “Kukui oil,” he says, explaining that the Hawaiians would pour the oil of the candlenut tree on the water, creating a glassy sheen through which they could spy fish.

“Come on, buddy,” he implores, speaking into the glass box. “This is your ohana! Come on, you scaly one, where you at?” When and if Craig finds the pile, he’ll have maybe thirty seconds to get his net in and back out of the water before the fish wise up. “You gotta be fast,” he tells me without taking his eye from the glass box. “You cannot mess around. With this guy,” he says, meaning the opelu, “if you’re not fast enough, the school just pass.” Efficient as it is, this way of fishing isn’t as exciting — or as lucrative — as going after ahi, ono, mahimahi: fish that restaurants buy and that support a multimillion-dollar sport fishing industry against which traditional fishermen like Craig must compete.“That’s why the kids don’t want to get involved,” Craig laments. “You gotta know a lot of different things. You gotta be patient. Me? I love this, doing what my grandparents did, and I hope and pray that the kids keep up the tradition.”

Craig glances at Keanu, who’s white-knuckling the gunwale. “What about you, Keanu?” he teases. “You see yourself doing this in the future?”

Keanu says nothing, but his pallor answers for him.

From above Milolii looks like an Antarctic research station or maybe like a Mars colony

The people here don’t just say “Milolii” when describing their village. They’ll say instead “down here Milolii,” because it’s literally five miles downslope from Mamalahoa Highway at the end of a narrow, winding road where few tourists go. But it’s also meant figuratively, as shorthand for the place’s isolation. From above Milolii looks like an Antarctic research station or maybe like a Mars colony would: a scattering of houses on a stark lava plain where its four hundred or so residents live. There’s no electricity other than some solar here and there. The water’s all catchment, with much of it trucked in from Kailua-Kona, and yes, it does sometimes run out between deliveries. Other than play volleyball at the rough park where the road ends and the foot trail along the wild coast of South Kona begins, there’s not a lot for a kid to do but fish.

Much of that, though, is by choice. Milolii could have had electricity, for example, but the kupuna (elders) fought to keep it out, hoping to preserve this mostly Native Hawaiian community from the changes modernity has brought to the rest of the Islands. That protectiveness is partly why Milolii’s earned a bit of a reputation for being unwelcoming, the kind of place where strangers wandering around with a camera might have a gruff, “Eh! No take pitcha!” hurled at them (true story). A hand-carved wooden sign in the middle of the village proclaims, “Milolii: last fishing village in Hawaii Nei,” and clearly many who live there want to keep it that way.

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No one knows what the future will hold for the tiny community of Milolii or whether its next generation will be able to carry forward its culture. “We want our kids to become stewards again,” says camp organizer Kaimi Kaupiko. “We know we have something really special in Milolii because of our traditional fishing, and that needs to be shared with future generations.”

The reality, though, is that modernity has caught up with Milolii anyway, and the traditional fishing culture that has sustained it for at least fifteen generations is almost gone. Hope for its future lies with a tightknit group of about fifty kids for whom there are pretty much two options: stay and try to fish a living out of the sea or leave and make their way in the world—a path that for many of them is an uphill climb, in more ways than one.

But this bright July morning, none of those kids seem particularly concerned about the future. On any normal day the seaside pavilion at Milolii Beach Park would be empty except for fishermen laughing and swapping too-loud stories at the picnic tables and kids disappearing into their smartphones. On this first morning of the 2013 Milolii Lawaia Ohana Camp, it’s full of chattering Milolii kids, their families, their friends, their kumu (teachers) and others from nearby towns like Honaunau and Oceanview and from as far as Hilo, Kailua-Kona, even one family who flew in from Honolulu. Now in its third year, the free four-day summer program — supported by grants from Conservation International’s Hawaii Fish Trust and local nonprofit Paa Pono Milolii — has grown from around twenty kids in 2010 to more than fifty today, ages 10 to 17. “Lawaia” means “fishing,” but here it’s meant to connote traditional fishing — doing it the way the ancestors did, the way guys like Craig still do. Half of that is learning to catch fish. The other half is learning to malama kai, to take care of the ocean, so there will always be fish to catch.

This year the camp’s theme is “underwater exploration,” and the curriculum includes snorkeling trips to identify fish and coral as well as outings to collect kupee (marine snails), wana (urchins), limu (seaweed) — if it’s edible, you can be sure that folks here eat it, which is why you’ll hear the kupuna frequently refer to the ocean as their “icebox.” It’s also why Milolii was featured in the Hawaii episode of Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods America, wherein host Andrew Zimmern licked a live opihi (limpet snail) he’d pried from a rock and at least pretended to like it.

That’s what some of the kids are learning about now: a group huddles around Healani Cahill, or Auntie Hea, who’s been working with Milolii’s youth since 1997 as a community-building facilitator for the Queen Liliuokalani Children’s Center. She’s showing a display of the various opihi, meaty little gastropods that hug the rocks in the surf zones of Hawaii. They are a delicacy to those with a palate for chewy, slimy gumballs that taste like low tide.

“This one’s alinalina, this one’s makaiauli, and this one,” she says holding up the largest shell, nearly the size of baseball, “this is koele.” The kids, even the ones from Milolii who pick and eat opihi every day, are impressed. “We don’t have this one,” Auntie Hea continues. “It used to be here but it’s gone.”

“What happened?” asks one student.

“They just got opihied out. People picked too many of ’em.” That gives Auntie Hea an opening to talk about the opihi’s life cycle, when and how many to pick, how long an overharvested area takes to recover (answer: a long time, if ever). The kids nod along, and Auntie Hea pauses, looking wistful, maybe even a little guilty. “I liked to put the koele over the fire just to warm them up, a little shoyu and chili pepper water … plenty of meat. Oh my gosh, they were the best!”

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Lawaia camp participants snorkel among coastal cliffs to see opihi in their habitat.

The kids are only half listening because it’s the middle of summer and today’s presentations are a little too redolent of school. And because the ocean’s sparkling waters are beckoning to them in the heat — along one side of the pavilion, their fins, masks and three-prong spears are already lined up and ready to go once class is over. “It’s fishing camp!” one aggrieved boy groans. “When we go fishing?!” But when Gary Eoff shows up, they forget for a few minutes that they’re learning something.

Though not Hawaiian himself, Gary is something of a cultural practitioner; he’s learned to make the kinds of fish traps, tackle boxes, lures and fishhooks the ancients used. He’s hand-plaited cordage from olona, hau, and coconut, going even so far as to grow those plants himself. The kids — and the adults, too — are awed by the craftsmanship of these implements and begin to appreciate the intelligence of the ancient people who made them. And why at one time good cordage equaled wealth. “Coconut sennit was the most specialized cordage there was,” Gary says, explaining that the saltwater-resistant fiber was used for critical purposes, like canoe lashings. “Six feet of it was worth a pig, and a pig was like gold.”

This is a point of pride for his audience. One translation of the place-name Milolii is “fine twist,” the kind used in sennit plaiting, and local lore has it that Milolii is named for a renowned sennit-rope maker who lived here. But that’s not the only cordage for which Milolii was known, says Gary. “The most revered people grew the olona,” a plant with elastic fibers ideal for hand-lining the big fish, like ahi and sharks. “True fisherman always used olona because it stretches, like nylon. It doesn’t snap. And this is one of the last places where people were still using it.”

Afterward, while the kids are examining the traps and tackle, Gary tells me about why he’s volunteered to share his manao, his knowledge, with these kids. “When I look at this place, its isolation is its protection. The kids want to be out in the other thing,” he says, meaning the world of work and consumption where most of us live, “but I think they’re very lucky. If they can get back to their traditions, then that’s a good reason to stay isolated. It’s a weird thing to live traditionally, to work with what you have and not just go to a store and buy some fishing line. I want to ignite the interest for someone who wants to start that journey.”

Judging by the way some of the kids are studying the fine braid work of Gary’s olona line, that journey may well have begun.

No question the kids aboard Mike Nakachi’s boat are the lucky ones. His Boston Whaler is a Porsche compared with Craig Carvalho’s beat-up little Pinto, in which he’s hauling the stragglers who couldn’t squeeze onto Mike’s boat. A few of the boys watch from Mike’s boat as Craig’s crowded skiff grinds along low to the waterline.

“My dad’s boat won’t sink,” promises Nainoa Carvalho. “Once he had like fifteen Samoans on it!”     

“Musta been one squishy ride, brah!”

“Nah,” Nainoa laughs, “but you could hear the engine going bwaaaa, bwaaaa, bwaaaa …”

We’re motoring to Kapua bay just south of Milolii for a field trip. Kapua and the mostly uninhabited coastline south of Milolii has been designated an FRA, or Fish Replenishment Area, where both commercial fishing and collecting for the aquarium trade — an industry that’s lately begun affecting the Big Island’s reefs — have been banned. We’re here to do some fish identification; the students have their checklists, but it’s hard to deny the fact that for them the exercise is mainly an excuse to get wet. No sooner does Mike cut the engine than they’re all over the side, finally in their element. Nainoa takes his three-prong, and within a half an hour he’s speared a couple of good-size uhu, or parrotfish.

Nainoa’s been fishing since he could walk, he says. First from the rocks with a bamboo pole, then with a rod and reel, then with a spear by the time he was 8. Now 15, it’s all he wants to do. “Fishing, diving, anything to do with fish, that’s what I do. I love it,” he says, even going opelu fishing with his dad, although it’s not something he’s really interested in doing himself. “It’s the hardest fishing,” he says. “It takes patience. I have patience, but not like my dad; he can sit one hour looking at one fish.”

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Preston Wheeler with the roi, or peacock groupers, he speared in a tournament on the camp's last morning.

What Nainoa loves most is going after ahi and aku (skipjack tuna) out at the buoy three miles off Milolii. He’ll take his dad’s boat, alone, to the buoy and catch big pelagics by hand-lining rather than using a rod and reel. More action, he says, than opelu fishing. “When I fish out there, I use my hands to pull in my fish. No gloves. I have cuts all over my hands from gaffs, hooks, lines cutting my hand.” It’s more traditional, he says, but that’s not why he fishes this way. He does it, he says, because it’s better. “I’m not worried about getting hurt; that’s nothing. I’m out here to make money for my family to eat, and I’m gonna hustle a fish the fastest way. One, two pulls I’ll be halfway through my fish. Why change to a different way if it’s still working?” But what about competition from the high-tech sport and commercial fishing boats going after the same fish at Milolii’s buoy, I ask. How can you compete? Nainoa chuckles. “Technology isn’t going to pick up everything. When we go out there, my dad and me always ask them, ‘Oh, any fish on your screen?’ and they’re like, ‘Nope, no fish.’ Then we drop and pick up fish. Because most people out there don’t know what they’re doing; they’re out there to have fun. We’re out there to make a living.”

Nainoa’s only one of a few kids, maybe three or four, he says, who intend to keep fishing (though not for opelu necessarily, unless nobody else is willing: “If it comes to me being the only one that does it, I will, just to keep it alive”). As an alakai, or mentor, to the younger Lawaia Ohana campers, he does what he can to pass on his skills — how to throw net, how to spearfish, how to catch opelu — to anyone willing to learn. “They’re out there right now,” he says, gesturing toward a flotilla of snorkels chuffing at the surface. “All those kids never dove before, and now they’re diving. That’s what I do: I like to teach so it carries to the next generation.” He looks over the glassy water, the austere lava shore, the wilderness of Mauna Loa sloping away into the clouds. “I like this life. How do you beat this?”

While the spearfishers ply the reef, other students dive for wana, which they deposit one by one in a floating washtub. They drag their prickly haul onto the beach to a round of applause — urchins are, of course, a delicacy. Once de-spined by vigorous abuse in a wire basket called a “wana shaker,” they’ll be served at dinner along with Nainoa’s uhu, some opihi, opelu poke, and maybe some “Hawaiian candy,” dried aku. Mike catches an octopus in the shallows, and the kids swim over. When they’ve all had enough of watching it writhe and jettison clouds of ink, he lets it go. There’s already enough to eat tonight, and if there’s any single Hawaiian tradition to learn from this camp, Mike says, it’s never take more than you need.

It’s almost midnight on the last day of the camp, but for some reason the kids’ energy only seems to be ramping up. They’ve got the generators running, blasting abrasive Macklemore songs through the PA and dancing while the adults sag helplessly on their cots. Sagging a little more than everyone else are Kaimi Kaupiko and Lei Kaupu, two of the driving forces behind the camp. Kaimi is among the few sons of Milolii who left to pursue education rather than follow in the footsteps of his father, Willy Kaupiko, one of Milolii’s most respected fishermen. He moved back in 2010 after graduating from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He always knew he’d return though not quite so soon; he’d wanted to start a business on Oahu. But when Willy asked Kaimi for help with his business in the wake of the economic collapse, Kaimi came home to a community in need of leadership for its youth. Lei, too, had left Milolii, attended college in Omaha and at UH, then gone on to teach in far-flung Pacific island groups. She returned out of a sense of responsibility to help the younger generation in her “one hanau,” her place of birth.

Not so easy when the town’s one-room school closed in the 1970s and never reopened. Instead, Milolii’s kids were being bused up the hill to schools forty miles away. So Kaimi and Lei started there, with creating a school. Through a partnership with Kua O Ka La Charter School in Puna, seventeen kids from Milolii began attending school online through a hybrid virtual program in 2012. Now there are thirty, and starting last August a full-time teacher has been working down in Milolii for the first time in a generation.

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The Milolii ohana (family) gathers to pule (pray) at the dedication of a new community center aimed at preserving Milolii's history and culture.

The lawaia camps are an extension of the project-based learning the students are doing in their new school and a way for Milolii to share its traditions with the outside. But for Kaimi and Lei, they’re much more. “We want to become more self-sufficient. Everybody wants it,” says Kaimi. “We want our weavers back, we want to make fishing lines with the old ropes and dance hula and speak olelo (Hawaiian language).” At the same time, he’s got no delusions; it’s not about living the way people did a thousand years ago, he says. “It’s important to honor our culture, but I realize that it’s not going to bring money and provide for our families. What I do understand is that it will give these kids a foundation so that wherever they go they’ll be positive, uplifting people who truly understand our values and continue them. And so that when they come back this place and this ocean will always be here for them.”

None of that is lost on the kids themselves; like Keanu’s brother, 15-year-old Lanakila Caldwell, they’re all remarkably aware of what’s at stake. “The traditional ways are disappearing,” he says. “But some people, like Kaimi and Lei, are trying to keep the culture going. They’re bringing it back piece by piece. Because there’s not too many more people like us in Hawaii anymore; this is the last fishing village. There are lots of flaws, but all of us down here, we all work together. We all enjoy fishing — well, not all, but most of us — and we’re trying to pass down what we learn from our kupuna. Otherwise it just slowly goes away.”

With that, the generators finally kick off, the music mercifully dies, and Milolii is plunged into a silence and darkness as old as the islands themselves.

Story By Michael Shapiro

Photos By Monte Costa

Hana Hou! vol. 16, no. 6 vol. 16, no. 6 This article first appeared in the December 2013 / January 2014 issue of Hana Hou! The Magzine of Hawaiian Airlines