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Reef Fish Are Living Connections to Hawai‘i’s Culture & Past

Author: Evan Pascual

In the vast Pacific Ocean, Hawai‘i’s coral reefs reign as one of nature’s greatest marvels, home to some of the world’s most unique marine animals. Beneath the waves where earth-toned corals are muted in color, the vibrancy is brought to life through its reef fish. These families of reef fish are more than ecologically significant; they serve as a living connection to Hawai‘i’s culture and past. From diet to ceremonial traditions, or music and the arts, reef fish are a longstanding cornerstone of Hawaiian society.

Maui Ocean Center Yellow Tang

From the shallow, coastal surge zones to deep reef habitats, the indigenous yellow tang starkly contrasts against the gradient shades of blue. These herbivores forage throughout the Hawaiian Islands, grazing on algae and seaweed. Aptly named based on its color, yellow tangs also have two Hawaiian names, lāʻīpala or lauʻīpala, meaning “yellow ti leaf”. In pre-contact Hawai‘i, yellow tangs were considered a delicacy, preferably broiled or sometimes eaten raw. They were also used in religious and medicinal practices. In the Epic Tale of Hi‘iakaikapoliopele, Hiʻiaka speaks of a healing ritual that satisfies an ill grandchild’s hunger by serving him warm potato with yellow tang.

Maui Ocean Center Eyestripe Surgeonfish

The eyestripe surgeonfish is widely known as palani, which translates as “stink, smell, sour, or rancid”. Its unfortunate reputation of having a strong odor is often mentioned in Hawaiian proverbs and traditional stories. Mary Kawena Pukui, the author of ʻŌlelo Noʻeau, says “kuʻu iʻa pa i ka lani” (my fish whose odor reaches heaven). Its odor, likely derived from its diet of seaweeds or limu, was countered by a traditional custom. Laying the fish across both hands, its head in your left hand and tail in the right, you would inhale over the fish left to right, exhale sharply, and turn the fish over and repeat. This would remove the strong smell. Palani was a popular food item and one of several fish species raised in Hawaiian fishponds, or loko i‘a. Its close relative, the unicornfish or kala, shared similar traits with the palani. The kala is recognized by its mysterious, horn-like spine protruding from its forehead. It was also known for its tough skin, which was traditionally used as the tops for small, coconut shell knee drums.

Maui Ocean Center Saddle Wrasse

Wrasses make up Hawai‘i’s most extensive fish family, commonly referred to as hīnālea or ālea. Boasting a wide spectrum of colors and patterns, the wrasse family includes several endemic species (found only in Hawai‘i) like the Hawaiian cleaner wrasse and flame wrasse. Hīnālea were integral to society and fishing communities. Some species were a staple food item in the Hawaiian diet and regularly used in ceremonies and offerings to Hawaiian gods and goddesses. Specific fishing practices for hīnālea include melomelo, where club-like sticks were charred and anointed in oil to attract hīnālea when submerged underwater. Fishermen, or lawai‘a, also crafted sinking fish baskets woven with the vines of the endemic ‘āwikiwiki plant; these weighted baskets, or hīnaʻi hoʻoluʻuluʻu, were dropped into the sea to trap hīnālea.

Hina'i Fish Basket Hinalea

These are just a few examples of the living connections between Hawai‘i, its people, and the natural environment. Our coral reef habitats are more than beautiful, underwater seascapes to look at and enjoy. Behind every coral, fish, or marine critter are stories that connect us to Hawai‘i’s culture and past. While some traditions have faded over time, many still exist today and are preserved within our communities. New connections have spurred in the modern era of Hawai‘i as well. Whatever lens we view our reef communities through, one image remains clear: the ocean connects us all.


Author Evan Pascual, Marketing & Public Relations Coordinator

Written by Evan Pascual. “Ka Mo‘olelo Moana,” or “The Ocean Story,” is a monthly column written by Maui Ocean Center and published in The Maui News.

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