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Ethnology of Tokelau Islands

Bonito Fishing

Bonito Fishing

Trolling for bonito (alo) is the greatest sport of Tokelau men. They fish daily during the season when the bonito rise to the surface near the island to feed on small 0 fish. Several canoes go out together and fish in one or more fleets according to the number of schools of bonito. Each fleet is led by a head fishing captain. Each canoe is manned by a crew of 4 or 5 men led by the fishing captain (tautai) who is the stern paddler and conducts all the fishing.

Before starting after a school of bonito the fishing captain sets up his fishing rod in the grooved block behind him. When he moves near the fish he drops his hook, sits against the butt of the rod so that he can feel any lift given to it by the pull of a striking fish, and continues to paddle and guide his canoe to the shoal. As soon as a bonito takes his hook he springs to his feet and picks up the rod. In the midst of a shoal he stands facing aft and skims the hook rapidly from side to side over the water, holding the butt with both hands, braced high up on the inner side of the right leg. The line is the page 111 length of the pole so that, when the rod is lifted, the fish swings in at the height of the fisherman's chest. When a fish takes the hook, the fisherman brings the rod up sharply with his right hand, and catches the fish against his body with his left arm. He may remove the hook and drop the fish into the canoe with his left hand, while with his right he drops the top of the rod and swings the hook into the water. The entire movement takes only a few seconds for an experienced fisherman. In a large school with the fish biting well, he can take 100 fish in less than half an hour. He must work as fast as possible, for the fish frequently disappear quickly from the surface. While the captain fishes the crew paddle hard to keep the canoe in the midst of the swiftly traveling school.

The utmost skill is necessary to land bonito and it is a great disgrace to let a fish slip back into the sea or to dip the end of the rod in the water. This blunder is known as te maumau (literally, wasting). If a fishing captain disgraces himself in either of these ways, he must give a feast to all the other fishing captains who accompanied him in the day's fishing. If a new fishing captain, with as yet little standing in the fleet, commits either of these errors he loses his right to the stern seat and a new captain is appointed. The natives have observed that many schools disappear following the dropping of fish overboard. They believe a dropped bonito will tell the others, so that all immediately flee from the fishermen. This is similar to the explanation advanced by Vaitupu fishermen (13) that a half-stunned bonito slipping into the water sinks rapidly with a tail-spin motion, and his strange descent alarms the school that follows.

There is a tapu placed on swordfish and shark fishing during the bonito season. One informant said that the old men had told him in his youth that these two large fish prey upon the bonito and that the killing of either a shark or a swordfish sends the bonito into such ecstasies that they swim all over the sea in their joy.

Bonito-fishing expeditions begin about 4 o'clock in the morning. The crews take the canoes from the beaches to the passage into the lagoon where the fishing captains get in. The captains never assist with the canoes until they are on the water. As soon as all the canoes in the fleet have safely passed the reef, the head captain says lotu (pray), the crews ship paddles, and all pray for good fishing and protection at sea. This prayer is a survival of the ancient rite to O Te Moana who lived in the sea and controlled the bonito.

The location of a school of bonito is indicated by birds hovering over the shoal to prey on the fish. The head captain raises his stern paddle in the air as a signal for the fleet to dash after the bonito. As the canoes approach the school, the crews and captain splash the water with their paddles to attract the fish to the hook. As bonito expeditions start before page 112 the morning meal, the crews often eat raw fish while they work. The number of fish eaten is limited by the fishing captain.

When the bonito are running well the head captains may decide to hold a community ceremonial fishing (talangi) in which every canoe and every fisherman of the village partakes. The catch is divided among all the people. The head fishing captains announce the event several days before it takes place and all prepare hooks and canoes with special care. In the old days the priests invoked the gods of the sea to send a large run of fish for the village. On the morning of the talangi all the canoes meet beyond the reef, and the fishing captain of the village leads them to the fishing grounds. He starts the dash toward the rear of the first school, from which direction the bonito are best approached. The individual canoes carry on their pursuit of the fish until the fishing captain calls them all in. They assemble around the canoe of the fishing captain, who takes the report of the catch and decides whether each canoe will keep its catch or whether the whole will be divided among the community. The canoe with the record catch leads the file over the reef to the village. The rest follow, each taking precedence in line according to the number of fish in its hull. If the catch is large, the crew may raise their paddles as they approach the village; if they are bringing in 100 or more bonito, the fishing captain holds up his pole.

On the beach the children and old people of the village await the expedition and count the poles eagerly to learn the success of the fishermen. “Siaki, siaki-mauatuo,” they cry in greeting. The women carry the fish in baskets to the malae. It is their privilege to eat any remains of raw bonito and to take for themselves any fish which the men have left in their canoes.

The official (tauraenga) selected by the village council to supervise the division of any community food divides the bonito piled on the malae and gives a portion to each family. One large portion is set aside for the fishing god and his priest, who have lent their power to the good luck of the fishermen. Formerly as each division of the fish was counted out the older men exclaimed, “Aiooo-aoo”, a word of thanks for the great number of fish given by the god of fishing. At the end of the division the priest made an offering of fish and thanked the god. The ceremony ended, as it does today, by the entire village feasting on roasted bonito.