HANALEI — Uncle Blue Kinney’s eyes beamed with delight as he recounted how, decades ago, a hukilau brought the island together.
His grandfather, he said, was a fisherman. When a school of fish was spotted in the water, he would get the nets and canoes ready.
“They would go out to gather the fish, the people hear about it, and they would all come and help to bring the nets in like we did right there,” he said while standing on the beach near Waioli Park on Saturday morning.
“All the communities and their families would come and help,” Kinney explained.
Once the fish were gathered, his grandfather would distribute them to everyone who contributed.
“Here, this is yours,” he would say to each family.
Families would come down from the mountain, from all around the island, and bring taro, bananas and other staples to share.
“They give to the fishermen and the fishermen give them fish,” Kinney said. “That is what they do.”
For what was believed to be the first time in about 50 years, a hukilau was held on the North Shore Saturday. Hukilau is the ancient Hawaiians’ way of fishing; “huki” means pull and “lau” means leaves.
Fishermen in boats cast more than 1,000 feet of nets off shore. Divers made sure the nets weren’t tangled, and they were slowly pulled together and back toward shore by a crowd of keiki and kupuna, locals and visitors.
Kinney was in the midst of the action, directing and guiding.
“Keep moving over, walk over,” shouted one of the leaders.
As waves rolled in and the sun blazed, the net was pulled to shore while hundreds looked on and snapped pictures, waiting to see the catch.
In the net, a few needlefish, oio and aholehole flipped around before being gathered up. It wasn’t a huge catch, but that didn’t matter.
“The main point is to bring community together, to teach younger generations, and have the aunties and uncles and families that have been doing this for generations to pass it down,” said Kati Conant, executive director of Hale Halawai ‘Ohana Hanalei, one of the sponsors. “For me, it was a beautiful learning experience.”
Blake Conant, board member with Hale Halawai ‘Ohana Hanalei, called the island’s first hukilau in decades “a total success.”
“In the whole scheme of things, what we’re trying to accomplish, it taught a lot of people the process of setting the lau and it brought many, many people together,” he said.
“It’s a cultural thing for us and as Blue said, it’s a means for bringing the community together. When you go to the paina, you’ll see several families represented here. That’s the beauty of it.”
Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. joined the effort, pulling hard on the net. Later, he briefly addressed the crowd gathered for a meal, music and hula.
“We came together as one big ohana from all different parts of the island,” he said. “Today was the day we all come together and share in the hukilau.
“We pull the nets in together and we share the catch. Not too much catch, but that’s OK,” he said with a smile and laugh. “It’s the memory and the experience that’s going to take all of us to the next level.”
Other sponsors of Saturday’s gathering included the County of Kauai, Kauai’s fishermen and families, the North Shore community and businesses.
“This never would have happened without the families of the North Shore,” Kati Conant said. “They’re all pulling together right now.”
Visitors who took in the hukilau came away fascinated by what they experienced.
Martin and Carol Edwards said it was their first trip to Kauai and when they heard about the hukilau, they decided to go. They were glad they did.
“It’s really neat how everyone was down there on the beach pulling and working together,” Martin Edwards said. “Even little kids were out there in the water. That was just cool to see.”
“I had never heard of a hukilau before,” Carol Edwards said. “I’m so glad we got to be part of this. Look at all the joy here,” she added as she looked around at the crowd of about 300.
Blake Conant said the hukilau could be the start of the resurgence of Hanalei Bay. Keeping the ocean clean and healthy will lead to more fish returning to the area — and perhaps another hukilau.
“We want to do everything we can on every level to keep it healthy and keep the fish coming,” Kati Conant said.
Blake said at one time it was typical to look out and see a black cloud — a school of fish — moving in the water, and that’s when the boats with the nets and the fishermen would set out. That’s when it was time for a hukilau.
Blake Conant said you won’t necessarily find fishermen on the beach, but on the periphery.
“They’re always looking out, looking at the ocean, because it feeds the whole community,” he said.