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Traditional Hawaiian Salt Harvesting

Native Hawaiians used sea salt, pa‘akai (“to solidify the sea”), to season and preserve food, for religious and ceremonial purposes, and as medicine. Preserving food like i‘a (fish) and he‘e (octopus) was essential not just for storage on land, but also to provide nourishment during ocean voyages. In Hawai‘i, sea salt can be collected from rocky shoreline pools, were it occurs as a result of natural solar evaporation. Native Hawaiians also harvested sea salt on a larger scale through the use of man-made shallow clay ponds. One of the few active salt ponds is located on the island of Kaua‘i near Salt Pond Park in the ahupua‘a (watershed) of Hanapepe, where salt is made according to ancient traditions.

In Hanapepe, underground seawater is accessed from deep wells and held in holding pools, where the seawater becomes concentrated through evaporation, and then transferred to shallow ponds (Fig. 1A). The amount of time it takes until the salt is ready to be harvested from the shallow ponds depends on environmental factors like precipitation. Salt is not harvested during the winter months when it is rainy. During harvest, the top, white sea salt is raked, rinsed, and dried (Fig. 1B). This salt is used like table salt. Some of the white salt is also mixed with red ‘alaea clay, which is collected from the mountains of Waimea (Fig. 1C). The red color comes from iron oxide in the clay. Native Hawaiians believe that ‘alaea gives the salt spiritual power; it is used in traditional ceremonies, for ritual blessings and purifying, and for healing purposes.

<p>Fig. 1A.&nbsp;Salt evaporation ponds in Hanapepe, on the island of Kaua‘i, Hawai‘i.</p><br />
<p>Fig. 1B. Raking the top of the salt ponds in Marakkanam in Tamil Nadu, India.</p><br />
<p>Fig. 1C.&nbsp;<em>‘Alaea</em> salt is a Hawaiian salt made from solar evaporated seawater. The salt is then coated with red clay.</p><br />

The middle layer of salt is a pinkish color and also used for seasoning, blessings, and medicine. The bottom layer of salt, which is only harvested once at the end of the season, is brown. It is used as bleach, for pickling, for blessings, and to maintain kalo (taro, a root vegetable) loʻi (fields) and loko iʻa (fish ponds).

Although the Hawaiian salt produced at Hanapepe is harvested using traditional methods, it does not meet strict “food grade” requirements according to the U.S. government. This means the salt may be given as a gift or traded, but it cannot be commercially sold. Because ‘alaea does not meet “food grade” requirements, “‘alaea salt” sold in stores is not made with authentic ‘alaea clay. These requirements are in place to protect the consumer. Interestingly, the cost of manufacturing salt also prevents most “Hawaiian salt” from being produced in Hawai‘i. Here is a Youtube video about the Traditional Saltmaking in Hawai‘i.

Hawaiian Salt Ponds in the News

Many people still treasure the salt that is harvested at Hanapepe. An article published in Honolulu's Civil Beat on June 19th, 2019 explores the challenges that arise with nearby development:

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Exploring Our Fluid Earth, a product of the Curriculum Research & Development Group (CRDG), College of Education. University of Hawaii, 2011. This document may be freely reproduced and distributed for non-profit educational purposes.