He lawaiʻa no ke kai pāpaʻu, he pōkole ke aho; he lawaiʻa no ke kai hohonu, he loa ke aho.
A fisherman of the shallow sea uses only a short line; a fisherman of the deep sea has a long line.
A person whose knowledge is shallow does not have much, but he whose knowledge is great, does.
— ʻŌlelo Noʻeau #725

Hungry for some poke? Know where to get the freshest seafood in Hawai‘i? In the ocean, of course! And it’s through lawai‘a that we access this food.

What is lawaiʻa?

Lawai‘a can refer to the practice of fishing or the person skilled at fishing.

[Net fishing] Photo by Eric Horst.

[ʻOpihi] Photo by Ruben Carillo.In Hawaiian tradition, there are two types of food for kānaka: ‘ai and i‘a. ‘Ai are staple foods such as kalo, ‘uala, and ‘ulu. This is the starch part of the meal. Other foods are referred to as i‘a. I‘a include fish, shellfish, and limu, as well as salt, pig, chicken, and vegetable foods such as lū‘au (broiled young taro leaves). Lawai‘a provide i‘a from the streams and the sea for their family and community, making their job very important.

It’s a well-known custom of Hawaiian lawai‘a to say they’re going “holoholo” (go here and there) instead of saying they’re going fishing. This avoids scaring off the fish, who might hear the lawai‘a’s intentions.

ʻOihana lawaiʻa

‘Oihana lawai‘a refers to Hawaiian fishing traditions. There are many techniques to lure, hook, net, snare, spear, stun, and gather the abundant resources of the sea. Some of the most productive methods of fishing use various types of ‘upena (nets), such as hand nets, casting nets, and nets for surrounding fish. Baskets are also used to trap fish.

Another method is fishing with a hook and line. Kānaka ‘ōiwi have created various kinds of makau, or fishhooks, for catching every type of sea creature. Ka po‘e kahiko (the people of old) kept their makau in special gourds called ipu lē‘ī. Some makau were considered to be prized, magical items that were passed from generation to generation.

[ʻĀkia] Photo by Kimubert.Another type of Hawaiian fishing uses the ‘auhuhu and ‘ākia plants. This type of fishing is not common now. Lawai‘a would mash the bark and leaves of the plants and place the mixture into tide pools where fish were abundant. The chemicals in the plant would temporarily stun the fish so they could be collected by hand. This avoided damaging the reef and had no ill effects on humans. Lawai‘a are skilled in multiple forms of environmentally responsible fishing.

The famous fishhook of Māui was named Mānaiakalani. Māui used this makau to try and connect the islands of Hawai‘i into one so that people would have an easier time getting from island to island.

Fishing kapu

[Tide pools] Photo by Ruben Carillo.Lawai‘a are known for practicing strict rules, known as kapu, to ensure that ocean resources are maintained sustainably. Ka po‘e kahiko knew the life cycles of each species. For example, during a fish’s breeding season, that type of fish would be kapu, giving that resource time to replenish itself. Fishermen know when fish are reproducing by knowing the cycles of the moon, which are closely related to tides, weather, spawning, and other parts of nature.

[Aku fishing] Artwork by Brook Kapūkuniahi Parker.The various kapu for fishing are about balance. Traditionally, when one beach was kapu, another was open. When deep-sea fishing was kapu, reef fishing was allowed; when one species was off-limits, another was abundant for harvest. Kapu ensured that the marine ecosystem was healthy. This allowed lawai‘a and their families to have enough to eat and trade while preserving resources for future needs.

[Fishing lines] Photo by turtlemom4bacon.Kapu also protect fishing gear. Fishermen and their families avoid stepping over their pole or line so that these things don’t become defiled.

Akua lawaiʻa

There are several akua lawai‘a, or gods related to fishing. Some of the most famous are Kū‘ulakai, Hinapukui‘a, and their son, ‘Ai‘ai. These three became the akua and ‘aumākua for fishing.

[ʻAiʻai] Artwork by Brook Kapūkuniahi Parker.The development of loko i‘a is attributed to Kū‘ulakai. Loko i‘a are fishponds for farming fish. Loko i‘a maximize the number and size of fish by enhancing the natural environment. Thousands of fish can be harvested from loko i‘a each season without depleting the fish population or negatively impacting the environment.

One mo‘olelo tells of ‘Ai‘ai’s magic fishhook named Mānaiakalani—perhaps the same as Māui’s?—that helped him catch and kill the kupua eel Ko‘ona. This giant eel had been destroying the first fishpond in Hawai‘i, which was built by Kū‘ulakai in Hāna, Maui.

In another story, ‘Ai‘ai used a pearl fishhook named Kahuoi to get aku for his pregnant, aku-craving wife. Kahuoi caused ‘Ai‘ai’s canoe to be filled with aku.

[Kūʻula] Photo by Quinn Dombrowski.

With guidance from his father, ‘Ai‘ai traveled around the islands, establishing fishing grounds and shrines and teaching ‘oihana lawai‘a to the people. The shrines, or kū‘ula, were erected near fishing spots for lawai‘a to offer their first catch to one of the fishing akua. Today the tradition of offering the first or the best of the catch at a kū‘ula is still practiced.


ʻOihana lawaiʻa lives on

[Loko iʻa aerial] Photo by Kyle Hawton.Our kūpuna were experts at living in tune with their environment—both the sea and the land. Today, as before, lawai‘a is practiced in streams, shallow ponds, at the edge of reefs, and in the deep sea. Knowledge about lawai‘a is obtained through observation and is passed from generation to generation.


There are people among us today who, like our kūpuna, are experts in navigation, sailing, and fishing. We continue to set our nets and cast our lines. We practice responsible fishing techniques that don’t hurt reefs. We don’t overfish or take fish that are too small. We follow the moon phases to determine the best time to fish. And we follow the fishing kapu periods to ensure fish for tomorrow. The fishing line of the lawai‘a is still long.

Some ʻōlelo noʻeau about lawaiʻa

He makau hala ‘ole.
A fishhook that never fails to catch.
A boast of a person who attracts the opposite sex and holds his or her attention. 
(‘Ōlelo No‘eau #789)

Hana a lau a lau ke aho, a laila loa‘a ka i‘a kāpapa o ka moana.
Make four hundred times four hundred fish lines before planning to go after the fighting fish of the sea.
Be well prepared for a big project.
(‘Ōlelo No‘eau #446)

‘O ka hana ia a ka lawai‘a iwi paoa, iho nō ka makau, pi‘i nō ka i‘a.
That is the way of a fisherman with lucky bones—down goes his hook, up comes a fish.
Said of a lucky person. It was believed that cetain people's bones brought them luck in fishing. When they died their bones were sought for the making of fishhooks. 
(‘Ōlelo No‘eau #2403)

Ola akula ka ‘āina kaha, ua pua ka lehua i kai.
Life has come to the kaha lands for the lehua blooms are seen at sea.
"Kaha lands" refers to Kekaha, Kona, Hawai‘i. When the season for deep-sea fishing arrived, the canoes of the expert fishermen were seen going and coming. 
(‘Ōlelo No‘eau #2478)