Down a steep, narrow driveway in the residential neighborhood of He’eia Uli sits He’eia Fishpond. Overlooking the sprawling 88-acre pond, time stands still. The water is calm within the wall, though palms dance in the salty breeze.
Trade winds come from the sea and carve up the Ko’olau Mountains, evoking a presence and period long forgotten by most.
This walled (kuapā) style Hawai’ian fishpond, built 600-800 years ago brings with it the kuleana: the responsibility above ourselves to look after and take care of our resources, and the people and community in which we share space.
Angela “Hi’ilei” Kawelo bears this kuleana, and wears it as a badge as she stewards the protection and cultivation of this unique form of aquaculture.
Her flawless passion commands attention and respect while her laid back, t-shirt-slipper style invites you to sit back and get drawn in.
As the founder and Executive Director for Paepae O He’eia, a private nonprofit, Kawelo works alongside 10 paid staff members to care for the fishpond, nurture a sustainable food source, and educate the community on culture and the bountifulness of the island’s natural resources.
Having grown up just down the street from the fishpond with the windward side as her stomping grounds and fishing in her roots, it seems the perfect calling for Kawelo to pick up where others left off. After a few years working under the previous caretaker, Paepae O He’eia was formed in 2001 with Kawelo at its helm.
“We are here to support sustainable fish, support local, and support individuals to be able to feed themselves with healthy options,” says Kawelo. “In a place so special, people don’t realize they need it until they get here. How Hawai’i used to be or maybe how it should be.”
Hawai’ian fishponds can operate independently of certain conditions that ocean fishing cannot.
Where ocean fishing is dependent on ocean conditions and weather patterns, fish cultivation in ponds can supply a more steady supply with less volatility. Six mākāhā, or sluice gates are methodically built in different areas to regulate the flow of fresh and salt water from the ocean and He’eia stream.
The mākāhā give just enough space to allow small fish to enter, but once mature fish remain inside the pond. The water combination gives life to certain types of limu. In turn, the limu provides nutrition for the herbivor fish. No feeding is necessary. The pond is completely self-sustainable.
Q&A with Executive Director Hi’ilei Kawelo
Video by Aria Studios
What is the mission of Paepae o He’eia?
To perpetuate the foundation of cultural sustainability for Hawai’i through education by using the model of a traditional fishpond to provide physical, intellectual, and spiritual sustenance for our community.
What problems are you trying to solve with Paepae?
A little bit of everything. I think at its core, we’re trying to target residents of Hawai’i or folks that come here. We have a vision to educate about the ingenuity of our ancestors. Why they constructed this fishpond 800 years ago and the foresight they had that the people living in Hawai’i today would need to take up that technology, and reawaken it to provide sustenance.
When you first started, were there certain assumptions you made that aren’t relevant today?
Back then it was so hard to get people to come out. We thought, we’re going to restore this place, and everybody is going to want to help. It’s actually been really hard. We’ve had to grow that volunteer base from the bottom up. Today, we don’t even promote our work days. Our work days are filled with people that just hear about this place through word of mouth.
With that learning curve, has your mission changed for Paepae?
Never. Our mission has stayed the same. It probably will remain the same for hopefully another 20 years.
What are some of the biggest hurdles in building it to what it is now?
If you had asked me the same question five or ten years ago, I would have said permitting, hands-down. We’ve sort of dealt with that issue, so it no longer exists. Funding is challenging. I hate being in the office. That’s the not fun part of the job. Making sure we have a diverse funding stream coming from all different angles, so we can employ our staff of eleven, that’s stressful, but somebody has got to do it.
What would you say is the single-most influential factor in your success?
There’s a couple actually. The first is being very firmly grounded in where I come from. This is my community, this is my backyard, so I have very high stakes in this work that I do. The other is I’ve had amazing mentors – some of them family members and some of them I consider auntie or uncle today. It makes the job a little easier to have really strong role models and a support system around you.
How do you generate revenue to support Paepae?
Grants. [Laughs] Everybody says, “you gotta wean yourself off grant revenue,” but how are you going to do that when you get one grant, and you’ll be good for a year? For a year, I don’t have to worry about my eleven employees, their spouses, and their keiki. I love foundation grants and private grants – those are a little more user friendly. We do a fundraiser event. We do a mailout once a year. We sell merchandise. We sell Samoan crab. We have certain donors who have been really good to us over the years. Then, of course, the land owner – Kamehameha Schools. This is their place. We’re the stewards. They contribute a lot of support for our organization.
How are you staying relevant by captivating new audiences, volunteers, and developing interests?
I think our ancestral wisdom is being relevant. To exercise the life of this place, and for folks to see and know that this is Hawaiian culture alive and well. We are not a thing of the past. We are not relics of the past. We are very much living, breathing, because we have this space.
What was a mistake that may have happened as an entrepreneur for you?
I definitely think about human resources. That’s the hardest part of the job. You want to please everyone. You feel like everyone should be happy and satisfied, but people come with their own difficulties, challenges, backgrounds, and lives at home. Sometimes I think, what could I have done better? What am I learning as an executive director, so that we can hold onto those individuals a bit more? I try not to be so stubborn, but this place demands a vigilant presence. I have very soft and emotional feelings about being here. I want to be protective of this place, and make sure no harm comes to it.
Is there a piece of advice you could give someone who wants to start a nonprofit?
From the get-go, it took us forever to get our nonprofit stamp of approval. It took us four years before we got the paper that said, “You are now a 501C3.” Back then, we had to figure it out on our own. Nowadays, there’s people to help you. Find those people to help you, because it’s an arduous process. In addition, you do this for the love. You don’t do this because you’re going to make it rich. You do this because you’re filling a need in the community that you want to address. You have to really be true to your organization’s vision and mission, and constantly hold yourselves to that.
What is Paepae going to be in 10 years?
This was a fishpond 800 years ago, it still is a fishpond today, and it’s going to be a fishpond in 10 years. Hopefully, producing fish. It’s already working, so it’s just a matter of allowing the space to do its thing, to harvest those fish, and distribute those fish to the people that need it most. As they eat those fish that come from He’eia Fishpond, they know what they’re eating. They’re eating the story behind this place, the story behind this organization, and lots of love.
Text & Interview by Chelsey K. Flanagan