Tuatara: Volume 5, Issue 3, March 1955
Shark Fishing in Western Samoa
Shark Fishing in Western Samoa
The Samoans are still ‘navigating’ people and have remained so ever since the time they were named ‘Navigators’ by the early discoverers of the Islands. This navigating instinct, strictly speaking, refers to two practices: firstly, crossing to and from neighbouring islands, and secondly deep-sea fishing — catching bonito fish with a rod and line; catching sharks with a certain rope-lasso.
Shark-fishing is, to the Samoans, just as old as their island myths and legends, but it is still exciting and customarily honoured at present as though the pre-civilized era were still existing in full. Why? The seasonality of the pastime creates immense pre-fishing felicitous anticipation; the excitement in performing the art of catching sharks and economically the high utility of the meat to the consumers, to say nothing to some extent of the fact that the pastime is still a periodical custom and tradition.
While the seasonality of shark-fishing still remains the same, it is interesting to note now that as far as the seashore fringing villages are concerned, the practice has degraded from general to regional. By regional it is meant that only those villages which have no lagoons or have poorly fish-infested ones are still engaged in shark-fishing, e.g. Falailua side, Falealupo, Miafu, Saleqa, Falefa, Fatufia, Tofua (all in Savaii), A'leipata, etc., in Upolu. Likewise the capability, the interest and the bravery naturally required to carry out the game, if it is the from father-to-son knowledge of deep-sea navigation, also shows degradation.
Rowing boats of any length are now generally used to go out fishing shark, although bonito-canoes as in the past are occasionally seen
According to the village Fatufia, there are two noted seasons in the year for shark-fishing, from April to May, and November to December. The first season is more prominent owing to the fact that at that time the sharks are exceptionally ferocious. And this makes them dash nearer and daringly to the boat. How the Samoans know this very critical time is when a certain ‘long-leaf’ grass (called Sefa) bears blossoms. The second season, of course, comes on after the ‘Palolo’ time.page break
Shark-fishing as a game has certain ‘play-grounds’ — it is not done anywhere in the deep sea. There are certain shallow locations in mid-ocean; these are known to the fishermen as ‘Aau’ or Reef. Some locations are closer to land — about twelve miles, but some are so well out in the open that land is totally invisible. Apart from the ‘reefs’ there are other fishing points right in the fathomless ocean. But these places are marked, by experience, by the fact that the ocean currents converge to and assume in those spots a boiling or whirling appearance.
The fishermen, apart from taking enough provisions for themselves, take bait — eels, canned meat (putrified), a killed dog, guts of a pig, or flying foxes.
For fishing implements they take three to six rope lassos, knives, specially-made sticks called ‘Taova'a’ and ‘Paletua’ respectively, Tui-ipo or string of shells, the string and floater or ‘Fau-ma-le-uto’, and, of course, the important signalling shell-horn.
As soon as the boat reaches the fishing location selected by the leader, one bait tied to the stern and another to the bow are hung down into the water. If it is night-time the string and floater will then be used because it is the only means the men have of knowing the presence of sharks. Note that the floater is a flat piece of board about 3 in. × 8 in. × 14 in. On its top flat surface there are baits fastened to it with wires or strong strings, and one of its ends is fastened to a string which is held by one of the men on board. The floater-and-bait is really a tamer and a teaser at the same time to the sharks.
It is said that the sharks find great difficulty in biting off the baits on the floater, and this makes them more ferocious and madder. At the same time the holder of the floater-string slowly pulls the floater and bait closer to the hull of the boat where the leader with the rope-lasso is in readiness. The lasso is half submerged, and as soon as the shark's head goes through the loop the leader pulls on the rope, having the loop locked around the gill-area or thereabouts. With patience and might the operator holds on fast to the rope, and at the same time tries to raise the shark's head upwards. At the same time one of the men with the ‘Taova'a’ shoots the latter as far as possible into the shark's mouth and throat, while another man with the ‘Paletua’ or wooden hammer strikes the shark's head with heavy blows. Within an instant the ‘catch’ is in the boat kicking about.
While this excitement goes on, one of the crew will keep his head steady and keep on throwing down bits of bait to tame the shark's darting about.
At day-time fishing the ‘bait floater’ will not be used, for the men will plainly see the sharks.
In case there may be one or two sharks or nothing at all in a certain location, then the men will use the ‘Tui-ipu’ or string of coconut shells (about six to ten shells strung through a 4ft. stick). The splashing and the crackling noise of the shells on shaking in the water imitates the splashing and the darting about of a school of big fish preying on a shoal page 85 of tiny fish. That is why sharks are quickly attracted to the spot where shells are being shaken, and of course as soon as they appear they will be tactfully baited.
By custom, the leader is the first to catch a shark, and then everybody's turn follows. Every shark caught means a blow of the horn.
Some names relating to shark-fishing:—
Va'alepa: Va'a = boat; lepa = flood; Va'alepa means the floating boat. ‘Va'alepa’ refers strictly to any rowing-boat used at the time for shark-fishing.
Va'aeva: Vaa = boat; eva = sail for joy. ‘Va'aeva’ is another name which refers strictly to a rowing-boat used at the time of shark-fishing. A synonym for Va'alepa.
Aata: Refers to a school of sharks.
Ua manu le ata: ‘Ua manu’ means plenty sharks, and are surfacing. The saying refers to a school of sharks surrounding the boat and showing up their fins in the air.