Fishing and Canoes


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 this isolated atoll, with a variety of fish species that fill the lagoon. 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.


Canoes are important not only for fishing, but also in preserving the knowledge and skills for canoe building. Although modern boats are available, the traditional canoe is still favourite choice of raft for fishing, due to its flexibility and maneuvering when fishing. Another important aspect in peoples preference for using the traditional canoe is because of its reliability and safety on the open ocean.

Atafu is the only island, that still builds traditional canoes, and one will discover it a common site to see many canoes on the island. Atafu has been blessed with the abundance of the Kanava tree (Cordia subcordata), the wood which is used for building the canoes, that is lacking on the other atolls. The Kanava tree is sufficiently thick, durable, water resistant and hard, and canoes built from the Kanava can last over a hundred years.

Because of the complexity in building a canoe, traditional rites in canoe building are still maintained, with the master carpenter or tohuga requested to perform the task in building the canoe. The tohuga is the master carpenter and the designer and overseer of the project.