As Hawai‘i’s human population grew and the need for resources increased, the importance of managing those resources wisely became ever more apparent—and that, says Dr. Sam Gon of The Nature Conservancy, is what drove the kapu system.
“Human beings, especially those that are paying attention to the resources, would enter into a phase in which if a resource is becoming more rare. Essentially the kapu system existed in order to put restrictions on behavior until those resources were able to rebound.”
The kapu system codified human conduct in the environment. It controlled how and when and where people could access and harvest resources. It was the konohiki who imposed the kapu—they understood the ‘āina and knew the resources best, and they made sure that the inherent balance of the natural world was preserved.
“When you think about it, the kapu system was a resource management system. In fisheries, for example, the Hawaiian fishing system had seasonal kapu, they had monthly kapu. If you look at the lunar calendar even today they speak of the ‘ole nights in which you cannot go out to fish, or at least traditionally you were not supposed to. And the ‘ole nights actually amount to about one third of every month which means for thirty percent of every month every year throughout the generations the resources were allowed to rest, which is an amazing thing.”