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It Came From the Ala Wai: 6 Strange Creatures That Thrive in Waikīkī’s Sewage Filled Canal

What lurks in the murk of Honolulu’s most prominent drainage ditch? Lots of things, including a fish that can literally give you nightmares.


(page 4 of 4)

Photo: Elyse Butler Mallams



People do it, even though they really shouldn’t.


The state has a seemingly contradictory position on fishing in the Ala Wai Canal. On one hand, the state Department of Health has posted signs along the canal, stating the water is contaminated and warning the public not to fish there. On the other hand, the state Division of Aquatic Resources manages the Ala Wai as a regulated fishing area. So it’s permissible, for instance, to use a rod and reel to catch any legal-size fish in season, or to catch crabs using no more than 10 crab nets at a time.


To be sure, not everyone fishing in the Ala Wai eats what they take. Some practice catch-and-release fishing. Others catch bait to be used for fishing in cleaner waters. A state survey of fishers along the Ala Wai conducted in 1997 found that 38 percent ate their catch, prompting the Health Department to post the warning signs.


HONOLULU Magazine’s own informal survey of fishers along the Ala Wai found that most were fishing recreationally, though some were fishing for subsistence.


Of course, consuming anything that comes from the Ala Wai is a bad idea, but eating the crabs might not be quite as bad as eating other things caught there, says Alan Friedlander, a scientist specializing in coral reef ecology. That’s because crabs have an organ called the hepatopancreas, which filters toxins very effectively. The hepatopancreas is also known as “crab mustard,” and some people consider it a delicacy. “As long as you don’t eat the mustard, the meat probably isn’t that bad,” Friedlander says. “I still wouldn’t eat anything out of the Ala Wai.”


Ala Wai Timeline

1917:  Plans made to drain wetlands, rice paddies and taro patches in and around Waikiki by digging canal.

1918:  Government begins acquiring land, forcing out farmers.

1921:  Hawaiian Dredging Co. begins digging.

1928:  Digging complete. Waikiki heralded as “Venice of the Pacific.”

1929:  Warning issued: Canal unsafe for swimming.

1965:  Canal overflows, floods Waikiki.

1967:  Canal floods Waikiki again. Study looks into opening a second entrance to sea. Canal dredged for first time.

1976:  Study finds Ala Wai regularly violates federal limits on fecal coliform bacteria.

1979:  Three teens catch, eat 7-pound Samoan crab. Newspaper runs photo.

1983:  City dumps 2.5 million gallons of sewage into canal during Island-wide blackout.

1991:  Department of Health posts signs: Do not fish or swim in canal.

2002: Third dredging of canal.

2006:  48 million gallons of sewage dumped in canal; man who goes in dies of massive bacterial infection.


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Honolulu Magazine February 2020
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