The Hawaiians knew Pearl Harbor by several names, for example, Ka-awa-lau-o-Pu`uloa, the many harbors of Pu`uloa, and, more poetically, Awaawa-lei, the garland of harbors.
Bertell D. Davis1
In the Director’s Annual Report published by Bishop Museum in 1909, John F.G. Stokes described the walled fish traps found at the entrance to Pearl Harbor. Traps of this sort, he noted, were not to be found elsewhere, “probably for the reason that conditions favorable to their operation are only to be found at this one place.”
The traps “were used for the purpose of taking the ocean fishes which had entered the harbor, the principal being the akule (Trachurops crumenophthalma Bloch), oio (Albula vulpes Linnaeus), weke (Mulloides and Pseudopeneus sp.), and pualu (Hepatus guntheri Jenkins), and the maki awa (Etrumeus micropus Schlegel).” Three traps remained at the time Stokes was writing.
“The name of the builder of the fish traps has not come down to us,” Stokes writes, “but the natives living thereabout say that the Pakule [the largest trap of the three] was built in one night by the Menehune — gnomes — many years ago.”
He goes on to recount many other legends and stories associated with the fish traps, citing, among other sources, a museum janitor who had participated in catches at the traps.
Stokes’ article ends as abruptly as the traps disappeared: “These walled fish traps, being in the line of the channel planned by the United States naval authorities, will probably cease to exist within the next twelve months.”
And so they did.
A Changing Landscape
The dredging of the entrance to Pearl Harbor by the U.S. Navy was not the first time such a task was undertaken. In Polynesian Race, Fornander writes that Keaunui, a chief of the Ewa district, widened and deepened the harbor channel 30 generations ago. The Hawaiians continued their modest alteration of the harbor with the construction of fish ponds in addition to the traps mentioned above. By the time of Western contact, the harbor was ringed with thirty or more fish ponds.
The harbor’s rich fisheries were the stuff of legend. In his Archaeology of O`ahu, J. Gilbert McAllister described the migration of mullet from Kaihuopala`ai (the entire West Loch of the harbor) to La`ie, on the Windward coast. “Each year, beginning in October or November, large shoals of mullet are said to go from Pearl Harbor east to Makapu`u Point and then north and west to La`ie or Malaekahana, from which point they return to Pearl Harbor over the same route in March or April. This is a favorite story which one comes across frequently about the island, and the oral versions are diverse as those written.”
Oysters, clams and mussels were abundant. In recent years, commercial fishermen began harvesting the abundant Hawaiian anchovy, or nehu (Encrasicholina purpurea), from Pearl Harbor to use as bait for tuna.
Today, the fish ponds, nearly all of them filled in, are part of the real estate occupied by the Navy in connection with its activities at Pearl Harbor. The mullet no longer run. The shellfish that survive are unfit for consumption. The hardy nehu alone seem to be unfazed by contaminants.
A Century of Devastation
The U.S. Navy’s use of Pearl Harbor predates Hawai`i’s annexation by the better part of a century. According to the Navy, “the earliest military presence in Hawai`i was in 1814, when a captured British ship, commanded by a U.S. Marine, visited Honolulu. The navy followed with a visit by the Navy ship, USS Dophin. For the next 50 years, Hawai`i was visited by various military sailing ships for purposes of shore leave and resupply.”
The Navy’s history, contained in a 1983 report, continues: “In 1826, an agreement was made between the United States and King Kauileaouli of Hawai`i on ocean commerce and seamen. The agreement included a temporary coaling station, which was established at Honolulu during the Civil War for the purpose of supplying fleet steamships…
“In 1840, a Navy survey indicated that Pearl Harbor would be the most usable harbor in the Pacific if the entrance was deepened. During the next decade, the United States pursued plans to annex Hawai`i as a territory: By the 1860s, an Army report recommended that the United States obtain a cession of Pearl Harbor from the government of Hawai`i.
That was accomplished in 1876, with the signing of a treaty of reciprocity between the kingdom of Hawai`i and the United States. The treaty allowed Hawai`i’s sugar planters free access to U.S. markets in return for which the United States obtained the use of Pearl Harbor. Lawrence Fuchs, writing in Hawai`i Pono, describes the tradeoff:
“The newly proposed treaty was exceedingly favorable to the United States. The list of Hawaiian products to be admitted to the United States free was considerably narrowed (after all, sugar was the important thing), and the American list included just about everything exported by the United States. More important, the treaty forbade the Hawaiian government to give any territorial, commercial, or political preferences to any other power. Most significant in the long run was the provision transferring Pearl Harbor to the United States Navy…”
The reciprocity treaty expired in 1883, but was renewed annually. In 1887, King Kalakaua, under increasing pressure from the foreign-instigated Reform party to cede Pearl Harbor to the Navy, finally signed a “supplementary convention” to the reciprocity treaty, giving the U.S. Navy exclusive rights to the harbor.
The sugar planters were not the only businessmen in the islands to profit by the reciprocity treaty and the increasing military presence in Hawai`i. Author Gavan Daws, in Shoal of Time, writes that in the 1920s and 1930s, “Pearl Harbor became the home of the Pacific fleet, and Schofield Barracks was the biggest army post in the United States. Even in the years of disarmament after World War One between fifteen and twenty thousand men were stationed in Hawai`i. These figures made the armed services big business in the islands, and especially at Honolulu. The building of a dry dock at Pearl Harbor alone involved a payroll of sixty thousand dollars a month for almost ten years (a period that included a fresh start after the first pourings of concrete collapsed). Walter Dillingham’s Honolulu Dredging and Construction Company and his Oahu Railroad and Land Company did well out of the development of the harbor, an undertaking second in cost only to the Panama Canal, according to one estimate.”2
The Navy’s own history provides further details of activity in the years following annexation: “In 1901, the Navy received an appropriation to acquire land for a naval station and a harbor and channel defense at Pearl Harbor. The United States acquired 800 acres of land, which were designated for the establishment of the Naval Station, on July 6, 1901, under the Law of Eminent Domain. This land is the present Navy Base, Kuahua area (known in past years as Magazine Island), and a strip on the south-east coast of Ford (Rabbit) Island.
“The bar at the entrance to Pearl Harbor was dredged under the supervision of the War Department in 1902. An engineering assessment of the harbor area stated that ‘the depth of water after passing the par is ample for any vessel. A the entrance of the harbor is a coral reef 250-300 yards wide and 2-3 fathoms deep at low water.’ Engineering assessments stipulated that the coral in this vicinity was ‘dead’ or not growing and could be removed without encountering regrowth problems.”
During World War I, the Navy presence had grown to the point that overhaul and repair were performed on twelve vessels in 1917 and 1918.
Over the next two decades, more and more land was added to the naval base. In 1937, Kuahua, or Magazine Island, was linked to the Navy yard – “probably using dredge spoil,” according to Navy accounts – forming Kuahua Peninsula. From 1940 through the end of the Vietnam War, activity at the base waxed and waned, fluctuating with the nation’s engagement in bellicose actions worldwide.
Today’s shoreline of Pearl Harbor bears little resemblance to that known by the Hawaiians before Western contact. Nearly all the fish ponds have been filled. A 200-foot deep freshwater lake in Makalapa Crater, on the harbor’s eastern shore, was lost forever in the 1930s, when the crater was used as a handy receptacle for dredge spoils. A Navy report on potential hazardous waste sites notes that later, “the crater was extensively used for disposal of damaged equipment, especially during cleanup operations following the Pearl Harbor attack of 1941. During the war years, the Makalapa Crater received metal scrap, engine parts, empty ammunition casings, and airplane and ship parts.”3
The western shore did not escape injury, either. Iroquois Point, now used for housing, was during the war “a staging area for equipment being sent overseas. At the end of World War II, the NEESA report states, Army and Navy equipment being returned to the mainland was temporarily parked here. Equipment that was in very poor condition was taken out to the edge of the lagoons and allowed to sink into the marshy soil. Jeeps, tanks and bulldozers were some of the items which sank into the mud.”
Extremely toxic pesticides were applied liberally. Petroleum pipelines were laid and abandoned almost at will. Unlined pits, draining straight into the harbor, received everything from petroleum sludges to paints to battery acid. Storm drains provided a convenient means of disposing of everything from mercury (at the gyroscope repair shop) to chromium (from plating and welding shops).
What lies below the water’s surface underwent an equally dramatic, if less apparent, transformation. Most species of indigenous fish and crustaceans have died off. The hard surfaces that oysters must attach to if they are to grow have been covered over with silt. PCBs, mercury, lead, chromium, and organochloride pesticides contaminate sediment in the harbor. For many decades, radioactive liquids were routinely discharged into the harbor; cobalt-60, a radioactive isotope associated with submarine reactors, remains at elevated levels in some parts of the harbor.
Writing on the Wall
Beginning in the late 1970s, the Department of Defense began what it called its Installation Restoration Program. This was in response to a decade that had seen Congress enact a slew of laws that were forcing private parties to adhere to a higher standard of environmental responsibility.
Nearly all of these laws allow for “national security” waivers to be granted by the president, upon request by the secretary of defense. Still, the Department of Defense was able to read the writing on the wall. By the time its Installation Restoration Program (IRP) was formally codified as DERP (Defense Environmental Restoration Program) in the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986, most military facilities, including the various Navy authorities at Pearl Harbor, were well along in the process of identifying sites where the past reckless management of hazardous substances might pose existing or future problems to public safety and the environment.
In 1983, the Navy conducted its first review of sites in the Pearl Harbor area where contamination of one or another kind was suspected. The findings were published in the NEESA report, mentioned earlier. Thirty possible sites were identified following a review of historical records, aerial photographs, field inspections and interviews with Navy personnel. Of those, just three were recommended for further study — a Navy landfill on the Pearl City Peninsula, an oily waste disposal pit at Red Hill, and a PCB-contaminated transfer station located near Marine barracks.
The Navy did not make any measurable progress on cleaning up even these three sites over the next few years. However, beginning in the late 1980s, more intensive studies were undertaken by the Navy of many of these as well as additional sites, including a number of areas contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and one or another type of petroleum waste. At the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency started its own review of Pearl Harbor for inclusion on the National Priorities List of contaminated sites — the so-called Superfund list.
That review culminated with Pearl Harbor’s nomination to the Superfund list. Official listing is imminent.
1 Archaeological Assessment of Proposed Developments at the U.S. Naval Base, Pearl Harbor, O`ahu, Hawai`i (Honolulu, 1990), p. 7.
2 Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands (Honolulu, 1968), p. 317.
3 Naval Energy and Environmental Support Activity (NEESA) report 13-002, “Initial Assessment of Study of Pearl Harbor Naval Base, O`ahu, Hawai`i,” October 1983. Hereafter the “NEESA” report.
Volume 2, Number 6 December 1991