OCTOPUS FISHING IN TOKELAU

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By Anna Tiraa-Passfield Cook Islands News Online July 1, 1999

Feke tu ake auta ia pusi ma mango o ka kati ki te pito.

Squid, stand up because the eel and the shark will bite at your head

-- A song formerly sung by Tokelauan women to entice the feke from the hole.

Tuolo mai feke te pilipili kavei valu e tuolo, Mai tuolo mai. Ko nohonoho i lo kaoa Fakalongona ake pule kua, hoa, hoa, hoa.

Crawl out, little squid, with eight legs, Crawl out, crawl out. You stay in your hole When you hear the sound, hoa, hoa, hoa, of the crab, crawling. -- A song formerly sung by Tokelauan men to entice the feke from the hole.

Tokelau is comprised of three low-lying atolls. These atolls, Fakaofo, Nukunonu and Atafu, stretch in a northwesterly direction from 9° 23' S, 171° 14' W for a distance of 170 km to 8° 30' S, 172° 30' W. The southern most atoll of Fakaofo is 65 km from Nukunono, with a further 105 km to Atafu, the northern most atoll.

Women's Fishing

Several people on Fakaofo have commented that women's fishing is not as common today as it was in previous times. A household questionnaire done in 1998 revealed that women fished on average two hours per week. Gleaning for octopus (feke) is one of the few types of fishing activity practiced by women. Other types include clam and rod fishing in the lagoon area. Octopus fishing is a favored and skilful activity undertaken particularly by women of Fakaofo, though men and children also engage in this activity.

Octopus Fishing

There are several traditional methods of catching feke in Tokelau. One, once commonly practiced by men, was described to me by an elderly male informant. This method utilized an octopus lure (puletakifeke) made from cowry shells of genera Cyparea and Ovulum. The shells were somehow arranged in the shape of a rat. This stems from a famous Polynesian legend about a rat and an octopus. The lure was apparently used by towing from a canoe along the reef in the lagoon. Small pebbles are placed in the shell, which rattles to attract the feke's attention.

The common method of feke fishing is mainly done during the day at low tide on the reef. A gagie (Pemphis acidula) stick or a metal rod of about 1 m in length is pushed into a likely kaoa (coral hole occupied by octopus) which may house the feke. The stick normally works by drawing out the animal as its tentacles one by one wrap around the stick. Once the head appears, the gatherer works quickly seizing it around the head with their hand. Within seconds, the feke is killed by biting between the eyes or turning its head inside out.

If the stick or metal rod is unsuccessful in drawing the feke from its hole, the body wall of the sea cucumber, locally called loli (Holothuria atra), is rubbed around the mouth of the kaoa. The bitterness of the loli draws the animal out. The hand is never used to move pebbles from the hole for fear of being bitten by a moray eel. The collected feke are strung on a metal wire or kalava (the outer skin of the top surface of the leaf stalk of a coconut frond), which is poked between the two holes (inhalant and exhalant siphons) located on either side of the head.

One informant told me that the greater catches of feke are taken on fakaiva ote mahina - the ninth phase of the moon (nine days after new moon), though they are caught throughout the year.

IDENTIFYING FEKE HOLES

The feke blocks the entrance to its kaoa by using its tentacles to gather a collection of coral pebbles. An experienced hunter can identify potential feke holes by the arrangement and recently disturbed appearance of the pebbles blocking the entrance. The arrangement of the pebbles is also seen as an indicator of the direction the feke has taken if it has vacated a hole. For example, if the pebbles lie to the left of the hole, the feke moved in the right direction and visa versa. When a feke is removed from its hole, it is often reoccupied by another. Experienced hunters will memorize the location of the hole for subsequent visits to inspect for reoccupation by another feke.

If the water is disturbed by turbulence, coconut meat is chewed and spat out onto the water surface. The coconut oil smoothes the water surface, enabling the woman to view clearly beneath the shallow waters for potential kaoa.

Uses

Feke are caught for subsistence purposes and bait for catching certain fin fish. Preparation for consumption is done by baking in the umu (traditional out house oven), boiling by mixing with other ingredients for additional flavor (e.g. curry, coconut cream, onions, herbs) or boiling and then sun dried. Before cooking, the meat is tenderized by beating with the gagie wood or a stone. Another method for tenderizing the meat is by wrapping it in pawpaw (papaya) leaves and adding to boiling water.

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