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Ethnology of Tokelau Islands



Scoop Nets

Small fish are caught both in the shallow water of the lagoon and in the deep sea with scoop nets (pl. 1, B). These are made in different sizes ranging from small nets held in one hand to large scoop nets worked by 5 or 6 men.

The scoop net consists of a rectangular net with one end folded and closed to form a pocket. The sides of the net are lashed with a cord to handles which cross at the closed end and diverge at the open end to spread the net in a triangle. The fore ends of the handle are flush with the edge of the net; the crossed ends project behind and are used as handles in the small nets. The fore edge of the large nets is weighted with shells to hold it to the bottom when the net is open. The netting of the small scoop is made of fau or sennit in a close mesh like the small Samoan scoop (28, pl. XLII, A). Nets of the large scoops are made of fau in an open mesh, like the Samoan large scoop nets (28, pp. 470–472).

The small scoop nets (kalele) are placed at ends of little channels between the lagoon and the outer reef through which fish travel at low tide, from pool to pool. The fisherman holds the small scoop at the crossing of the frame and sets the two outer ends against the bottom on either side of the channel. By tossing small stones into the pool above the channel he startles the fish, which dart down the channel and into the net. The fisherman closes his net by holding his thumb over the fulcrum of the crossed sticks and squeezing them together with his fingers. As he closes it, he scoops it out of the water and drops the fish into a deep basket.

Large scoop nets are worked on the same principle in larger passages of water. One or two men hold the net while several others form a semicircle some distance from the net and drive the fish into the passage leading to the scoop.

Large O Scoop Net

At Atafu a large scoop net made of sennit cord (pl. 1, C) is used for catching o, a tiny fish on which the bonito feed. The scoop (kupenga ta o) is a broad bag narrowed to form a pocket in the bottom of the net. One end is left open; the closed end is seamless. The open end and sides are edged by a heavy sennit rope under which the lashing to the frame is passed. A loop of this rope is left at each end of the sides, and the poles are run through them. Two heavy ropes are seized to the middle of the open end. When the net is filled they are pulled up and wrapped around the frame so that the fish will slide into the pocket of the net.

When the shoals of o move toward the reef of the island, the bonito fishermen in their canoes wave their paddles as a signal to the people on shore. Then the men and boys run from every part of the village to help page 96 take down the large o scoop net from the beams of the meeting house where it is kept. Directed by one of the canoes following the course of the shoal, they carry the net across the reef and give it to the men in a canoe, who carry it out to sea and float it in the course of the shoal. Swimmers form two lines diverging from the net and, as the fish approach, plunge the far end of the net under water. Upon the signal of a leader who constantly watches the approach of the fish, the lines close in, driving the thousands of tiny fish to the net. The swimmers close the two poles of the frame together and pull up the two heavy ropes to close the fore end. The canoe comes alongside and the crew throws the catch from the net into the hull. Meanwhile the swimmers circle about the school of fish, trying to halt its progress. The fish come in such numbers that it is often possible to fill three or four canoes with them before the shoal has passed. The catch is always brought to the malae and divided among the entire population.

Dip Nets
Small O Dip Net

A dip net of fine mesh on a handle 5 or 6 feet long (pl. 2, B) is used for scooping the small o fish from the surface and for scooping other small fish from shallow water.

The frame of the net is made of two arms 3 feet long which diverge from the handle 14 inches above the end in a V-shape. They are held rigid by being lashed to a crossbar 1 foot long, under which they pass. The crossbar is lashed with sennit cord in figure-of-eight turns across the lower end of the stout handle. A fau net of very close mesh shaped in a truncated triangle is stretched between the arms of the frame. A sennit cord is threaded through the marginal meshes on three sides and passed along the open end of the net. It is twined three times around the end of each arm, secured with a half hitch, and brought up the sides, making several turns around the arms and at the corners of the narrower end. It is then lashed about the crossbar and arms to prevent the net from sliding off the frame.

Flying-Fish Nets and Fishing

Long-handled dip nets are used to catch flying fish, abundant off the reef at night.

The net is made of twisted fau bark knotted in 1.5 inch mesh. The frame is oval, made by lashing together the butts and tips of two peeled ngangie. The greatest diameter of the frame is near the supple tips at the outer edge. A crossbar about 12 inches long is lashed across the frame 10 inches from the butt end, flush with the end of the handle. The handle, 6 or 8 feet long, is lashed over the butt ends of the frame and under the crossbar. The net is tied to the crossbar at the ends and laced to the frame on the sides by a cord running through the marginal meshes and around the frame arms.

The usual time for catching flying fish is between dusk and moonrise or between the setting of the young moon and sunrise. The canoes set out at page 97 sunset but wait along the reef on the lee side of the island for full darkness. Then a pair of canoes starts out. The bow paddler in each stands with the dip net, and the second paddler stands with a torch, made of dead coconut leaves and lighted with a smouldering piece of coconut husk. The canoes travel abreast and about 20 yards apart. When they have gone between a fourth and a half mile, a second pair light their torches and start out along the same course. The fish rush to the light, and skim the surface blindly around the canoes, frequently striking against the hulls. As a fish flies or swims into the net, the fisherman gives a quick turn to the handle with his wrist, catching the fish in the loose bag and taking up any rebound from the impact. With a second snap of his wrists he carries the net behind him and flicks the fish into the narrow hull of the canoe. The crews shout directions and cheer excitedly. The canoes travel along the reef until all the torches are expended. Then guided by lights of the village fires or the first glow of the rising moon, the canoes return to the passage in the reef, over which they plunge on a high coasting wave to the beach.


Seines (talitali) with wooden block floats and shell sinkers (pl. 2, C) are more commonly used than any other nets. They are used for casting, as barriers across a channel or inlet, and as traps in a fishing weir. They are made in various lengths; the shorter ones are used for seining and casting, the larger ones, usually 5 feet deep, for big fish drives.

In casting the net is folded evenly in the right hand with the upper edge partly turned down and its ends tied together. It is swung back and forth three or four times, gaining momentum from the hanging shell sinkers. It is heaved, as in discus throwing, with a motion that swings the whole body and extends the arm. A twist of the hand and arm at the finish of the throw swings out the sinkers and drops the net in a circle about the shoal of fish.

The boys and younger men of a family often fish with a seine on the reef when the tide is at the proper depth. They set up their net across a small inlet with the lower edge lying closely against the sea bottom. One person stands at each end of the net. The others form a line at the opposite end of the inlet and, by shouting and splashing the water with sticks or their arms, drive the fish toward the net. The men at the net force the fish to the middle of the net. The others dive to catch with their hands the fish not enmeshed. The net is brought up and emptied, and the party moves on to another channel.

Seines are also placed around the coral heads or piles of large pieces of coral built in shallow water. Small fish enter the crevices to feed or hide; these are searched and the fish there driven into the net.

page 98

V-shaped weirs for fish drives are built of coral blocks in certain broad shallow parts of the lagoons where the water is seldom disturbed. These are found particularly on the south side of Atafu where the reef scarcely rises above the water line. At low tide when the tops of the walls are above water, a fishing party assembles above the opening of the V, some of the party forming a great semicircle and the rest forming two lines that continue the walls of the weir. The semicircle slowly closes in, driving the fish into the weir by shouting and splashing the water and probing the hiding places in the coral. A winged net with a deep purse or sack in the middle of it is set at the fork or point of the weir. Two men stand beside the mouth of the net and signal when the driving must go more slowly. When the purse is filled, the man at its mouth closes the net by tugging on the cord which runs around the mouth of the purse and signals the drivers to stop. The fork is blocked with a small net while the long purse is emptied into a canoe and reset. The drivers move closer and closer until they reach the ends of the weir and all the fish are hemmed within.


In olden days a net was not used without the proper invocation to the gods to bring good fortune to the fisherman. When a new net was completed, the maker invited another fisherman of the village to take it and fish with it. This was the rite of dipping the net and making the first catch. When the fisherman returned, the owner gave a feast (te auata) for all the fishermen of the village. The net was tapu until these initiatory rites had been performed and the feast given. A net not properly recognized would bring misfortune and ridicule to its owner.