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Tokelauans are master fishermen, and many of the traditional methods for fishing are still a common practice. Schools of fish are attracted to feed at these isolated atolls, with a variety of fish species that fill the lagoons. Fishing is the prerogative of men and their knowledge of fishing lore has been handed down through the generations. The making of lures, fish traps, nets (of different types), seines, noose fishing is still common practice.


A variety of different fishing activities include turtle fishing, angling, trolling, ruvettus and other fishing game. Knowledge and speciality of techniques for other fishing practices are carried out in conjunction with the understanding and knowledge of the lunar calendar, important for understanding fish migration patterns, and favourable periods in catching certain species of fish. Most fishing techniques require skill and knowledge, and certain people are recognized for having these qualities, who the community depends on when there is a fishing expedition. One can enjoy spear diving of the reefs, or collect clams for personal consumption.


Conservation is an important issue in Tokelau, and this is recognised through the banning of certain fishing activities, in certain parts around the lagoon, and banning certain fishing practices mainly those using long nets.  Certain fish species are ika-ha, or sacred, such as the swordfish, turtle, and whale. When caught it is brought to the village pa to be distributed among the villagers, through the inati system. Inati is the equal distribution of food, mainly fish for all the families on the island.


Source: Tokelau Government

The English language book Echoes at Fishermans Rock: Traditional Tokelau Fishing which was written by Atafu elders who  gathered at Matauala community hall in Porirua to share their memories is available as a PDF version for you to read.  There are also videos of Fishing Equipment and the Atafu Reefs.

Caption: The artwork "TE TAUMANU or TE INAHO, E Poto le Tautai ae sese lana Atu I Ama" is reproduced here with the permission of Atafu artist Faraimo Paulo, who is now based in Australia.  His work can be seen on Facebook and Instagram.  A 2021 radio interview with Faraimo Paulo is featured below.

Writing about this work, Faraimo said: "We Polynesians or Pacific people love this way of fishing because we use the horizon as our guide, and when we see hundreds of bird's on the horizon we know there are fish there. Then the men prepare their canoes as quickly as they can to chase the birds before they flee. Underneath the birds, swimming in the water are thousands of small fish and squid, tuna, blue fin, yellow fin, and sharks. So using their beautiful fishing lures Te PA the men bait and catch as many fish as they can fit in their canoes to feed the village."

Hikuleo i te Papa o Tautai

In 2008 ‘Hikuleo i te Papa o Tautai’ (pictured) was published.  It records in Tokelauan, the traditional fishing lore of Tokelauan elders who immigrated to New Zealand from Atafu atoll in the 1960s and 1970s. The elders gathered at Matauala community hall in Porirua to share their memories, which were written down by hand. These memories form the basis of this book, which is currently out of print. 

The elders involved are pictured  first row (left to right) Amusia Patea, Elia Tilielu, Niu Sila Taupe, Taula Atoni, Lua Kava Lepaio.  Second row (left to right) Malo Koena Elia, Erupi Gaualofa, Patuki Isaako, Pio Kuresa, Teliu Timoteo, Lotomau Fao. ​


Not present in the photo: Loimata Iupati, Kalamelu Nouata, Teaku Petaia, Iuta Elia Tinielu, Afa Setu Faavae, Sakalia Tavita, Tausaga Apineru, Samuelu Sakalia. 

Fishing Equipment (2019)

In this video Auckland ,Tokelau elders Fofo Pou Poasa and Sio Sio share their knowledge about some of the Tokelau meahina (taonga) held by the Auckland in their collections.  The video includes fishing equipment and was released during Tokelau Language Week in 2019.

Fishing Lore

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Atafu atoll is located at the northwest end of Tokelau, the part of Tokelau farthest away from Samoa (600 km).  Atafu is the smallest atoll in Tokelau, both in lagoon size and land area.


The only village is on an islet at the north-west corner of the atoll. The village is at the southern end, known as “Fale”, while the north end is called “Vao”, and the middle portion “Malae”.  Atafu’s other 41 islets are uninhabited (see picture above).

In Tokelau, traditional fishing lore and knowledge was closely related to the tautai title system. This title was a status that could be achieved only by men. It can be translated as “master fisherman” — someone who has a considerable amount of expertise in the entire spectrum of fish-catching methods and also the leadership skills and experience necessary for directing and managing fishing expeditions.


In the course of acquiring skills to become a tautai, a young man had one or two older tautai to act as teachers. Traditionally, until achieving tautai status, a young man was not supposed to take the stern seat in a canoe, the position from which all operations were directed. After years or decades of instruction, he would be eligible for a kau kumate ceremony in which the title of tautai was conferred. Details of the kau kumate ceremony are described by Hooper (1985) and in other documents (e.g. Matagi Tokelau 1991).


Tokelauans use the term faiva to refer to the capture of all edible animals; the most important of these activities is fishing.


Traditionally, a great range of fishing techniques was employed in Tokelau, including various methods of angling, netting, trapping and spearing. Gillett (1985) reported that since the 1980s, some traditional fishing methods, such as skipjack trolling with pearl shell lures, were no longer used in Tokelau. On the other hand, some new and modern fishing methods and gear are widely employed.


Three main types of fishing zones are identified on Atafu and other Tokelauan atolls: offshore (tuakau), reef (uluulu) and lagoon (namo). Although each is characterised by a set of distinctive fishing methods, there is considerable overlap in the types of fish that are commonly caught in them.


In addition, land and beach zones are also recognised as part of fishing areas on Atafu (Mafutaga-a-Toeainao-Atafu-i-Matauala-Porirua 2008), particularly for fish bait, as important bait species such as coconut crab (ugauga) are caught ashore.

Source: SPC Traditional Marine Resource Management and Knowledge Information Bulletin #26 – December 2009

Reef to Offshore Fishing

In Atafu offshore fishing is more important than reef or lagoon fishing, because of the relatively small size of the lagoon. In fact, the book written and published by the Atafu-born elders living in New Zealand (Mafutaga-a-Toeaina-o-Atafu-i-Matauala-Porirua 2008) reported 47 methods of offshore fishing on Atafu, compared with 29 methods for lagoon fishing and 45 for reef fishing.


The number and variety in methods are largest for the offshore fishing zone. 

Trolling with a hook or lure for atu (skipjack) and kakahi (yellowfin tuna) has probably been the most important single type of fishing practiced traditionally on Atafu, both economically and socially. This pattern continues today. Skipjack fishing is called alo atu, or just alo. Decades ago this involved paddling through a group of shoaling fish while trolling with a hook and lure. Today, aluminium boats with outboard engines are commonly used for outer reef to offshore fishing, including alo atu, although some Atafu fishermen maintain the tradition of using wooden outrigger canoes (with outboard engines). Fishing for skipjack and yellowfin tuna is traditionally a communal, family or fishing crew based activity, involving a number of boats, and the catch is distributed among the people in a process called inati (only when the catch is large) or simply by family or person who owns vessel.  Click on the video above to learn about inati.

Hahave (flying fish) are caught usually at night in waters close to the shore, using scoop nets called heu and torches. This fishing is called lama hahave (lama = torch) on Atafu, and traditionally coconut leaf torches were used.

Noosing pala (wahoo) is also a well-regarded traditional fishing method in Tokelau (Matagi Tokelau 1991) and is called takiulu. A small baitfish, such as a flying fish, is towed behind a canoe to lure the pala into a prepared noose, which catches the fish by the tail. Groups of hakula (marlin), kakahi (yellowfin tuna), and mago (sharks) were also occasionally caught using this method. Among these, hakula is traditionally regarded as one of the sacred fish (ika ha) by the Atafu people and its meat is distributed equally to each household within the inati system.

Today turtle fishing is officially prohibited throughout Tokelau but traditionally Sea turtle (fonu) was considered one of the important catches.  Although there were different methods for catching sea turtles, the most popular is to catch a pair of mating turtles, usually as two men swim to approach the turtles seizing each turtle. There were also many traditional restrictions (lafu) for turtle fishing, such as a man whose wife was pregnant was not allowed to join a fishing party since his presence with the team would make the turtles timid and shy (Matagi Tokelau 1991). Turtle was regarded as one of the sacred marine resources (ha) by Atafu people, and the meat was equally distributed to each household within the inati system similar to other sacred species such as skipjack tuna and marlin. The season of turtle fishing is closely related to the turtle’s mating period, usually September to November on Atafu.

Source: SPC Traditional Marine Resource Management and Knowledge Information Bulletin #26 – December 2009

Atafu Reefs (2015)

A 15-mintue video of Atafu Reefs from 2015 by Warren B.  No further information is available on the YouTube description.

Echoes at Fishermen's Rock

In 2008 the ‘Hikuleo i te Papa o Tautai’ was published recording the traditional fishing lore of Tokelauan elders who immigrated to New Zealand from Atafu atoll in the 1960s and 1970s. The elders gathered at Matauala community hall in Porirua to share their memories, which were written down by hand. These memories form the basis of the book which was then published in English as Echoes at Fishermans Rock: Traditional Tokelau Fishing. A PDF version of the book is available for you to read.  

Faraimo Paulo Interview (2021)

Radio 531pi interviewed Faraimo Paulo, a Tokelauan traditional painter, carver and designer in 2021, about an exhibition in Australia.  He's joined by Dave Parker who helped promote his exhibition. 


Faraimo's work is featured as the main artwork on this page of our website. 

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