Awa – Milkfish

Biology Connections – Ike Noeau:

Awa, or Milkfish, are one of the oldest, most primitive types of bony fish. They are large and silvery with small mouths, forked tails, and a single large dorsal fin. Growing up to 6 feet long, they are often mistaken for sharks. However, awa lack teeth and feed by filtering plankton or nibbling on algae or the occasional invertebrate. They spawn in the sea but their larvae subsequently enter rivers and streams where they were historically caught by Native Hawaiians in fish ponds. Awa often hang out in shallow areas near the reef with their mouths hanging wide open. 

Cultural Connections – Mo’olelo:

Awa are a classic Hawaiian food, and were commonly trapped and grown in saltwater fish ponds. The Legend of Eleio describes the famous runner, Eleio, who transported awa across Maui every day. One day, the King of Maui Kakaalaneo discovered that Eleio ran faster than the wind and could run around the entire island three times in one day. Kakaalaneo then asked Eleio to be his runner, and from thereafter Eleio ran awa (Milkfish) from Hana to Lahaina every day. This trip was more than 140 miles round-trip, but Eleio ran it in a flash, so quickly that the awa fish was still wriggling when it was put on the king’s plate (Fornander).

This is how long it would take to walk from Hana to Lahaina today. How did Eleio run it so quickly?


Awa are featured in line 149 of the Hawaiian creation chant, 

Hanau ke Ao, hanau ke Awa i ke kai la holo.
Born is the Ao, born is the ‘Awa [milkfish] in the sea there swimming.