Tuna - customary fisheries

There is no argument regarding the importance of tuna in the lives of Māori: this taonga species permeates, for example, place names, whakataukī, legends, waiata and artwork.

In comparison to the biophysical science categorisation of tuna species in New Zealand, Māori have an extensive range of names for tuna related, for example, to appearance, colouration, season of the year, size, behaviour, locality, and even taste.

Historically, tuna were especially important to Māori because there were no native mammals in New Zealand (apart from two small bats). Eels were plentiful, widely distributed, and easily caught. More than any other food, eels provided fat and oil in the Māori diet. Tuna could be stored alive, in specially woven containers,  until they were needed. They could be eaten fresh, preserved by smoking or dried in the sun. Preserved eels could be kept for months in bags made from kelp or bark, and sometimes whale oil was poured over the contents to exclude the air and preserve the eels. The numbers of tuna eaten were sometimes very large, and one historian recalled a feast where 20,000 dried tuna were available.

Māori have an extensive knowledge of the ecology of freshwater eels, and have maintained their customary fisheries for several centuries. Both migrating eels and feeder (non-migrant) eels are captured in these fisheries, and they are an intimate part of traditional Māori practices to, for example, provide manaakitanga and koha. While there are no records of Māori harvesting quantities of glass eels when they enter fresh water from the sea, elvers were caught in large quantities when they congregated below waterfalls. 

Fishing methods

A wide range of fishing methods are used to catch tuna, with methods varying by area, season and habitat. Examples of customary methods include:

  • hīnaki (eel pots)
  • pā tuna (eel weirs)
  • toi (bobbing without hooks)
  • kōrapa (hand-netting)
  • rapu tuna (eel seeking feeling with hands and feet, then catching with hands)
  • takahi tuna (trampling then catching with hands)
  • rama tuna (using torch light)
  • patu tuna (eel striking)
  • matu rau (spearing)
  • kōumu (eel trenches).

While many of these methods are still practised today, many fishers now use modern equipment such as fyke nets.

Management of tuna

Access to tuna fishing areas has historically been of great importance to Māori, and many settlements were located close to such areas. Disagreements were had over the right to fish in disputed waterways, and one of the most common Māori grievances arising from land purchase or confiscation by European settlers was the loss of fishing areas and weirs.

As the most intensive harvest was of migrating eels, overfishing was probably not much of an issue historically. However, Māori sometimes used a concept of rāhui, which meant that an area was rested for a period to allow replenishment of stocks. Occasionally small eels were transferred above waterfalls, and into inland waterways or lakes for harvesting at a later date.

In recognition of the importance of tuna to Māori, a number of lakes have been set aside as exclusive Māori fisheries (or at least, commercial fishing is prohibited). Some of these agreements go back over 100 years, although the last 10 years have seen more lakes, and sections of some rivers, returned. As part of a redress process for past land confiscation, Māori have been given title to the beds of some large rivers and lakes, which means they can be more effectively involved in management of these areas.

References and further reading

Best, E. (1929). Fishing Methods and devices of the Maori. Dominion Museum Bulletin No 12. 92 p.

Downes, T.W. (1918). Notes on eel and eel-weirs (tuna and pa-tuna). Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute 50: 296-316. http://rsnz.natlib.govt.nz/volume/rsnz_50/rsnz_50_00_003470.html

Jellyman, D. (2011). Freshwater eels and people in New Zealand. Presented at the Eels and Humans, Eel Expo Tokyo 2011, International Symposium. The University of Tokyo, Tokyo, Japan.

Marshall, Y. (1987). Maori mass capture of freshwater eels: an ethnoarchaeological reconstruction of prehistoric subsistence and social behaviour. New Zealand Journal of Archaeology 9: 55-79.

McDowall, R.M. (2011). Ikawai: Freshwater fishes in Māori culture and economy. Christchurch, N.Z., Canterbury University Press. 872 p. http://www.cup.canterbury.ac.nz/catalogue/ikawai.shtml

Ministry of Fisheries (2009). Protecting our eels. The Bite. June 2009. Pp. 6-9. http://www.fish.govt.nz/NR/rdonlyres/BAD46EA4-7447-48A5-955A-66FF94FA5764/0/TheBite_ProtectingourEels.pdf 

Ministry of Fisheries (2009). FRESHWATER EELS (SFE, LFE, ANG). (Anguilla australis, Anguilla dieffenbachii, Anguilla reinhardtii). Tuna. http://fs.fish.govt.nz/Doc/21722/25_EEL_09.pdf.ashx  

Potangaroa, J. (2010). Tuna kuwharuwharu, the longfin eel. An educational resource: facts, threats and how to help. 26 p. http://www.rangitane.iwi.nz/education/attachments/169_tuna_vweb.pdf

Shortland, T., Nuttall, P. (2008). Ngā Tikanga mo te Taia o Ngāti Hine. Ngāti Hine Iwi Environmental Management Plan 2008. 89 p. http://www.Ngātihine.iwi.nz

Statistics New Zealand. (2005). New Zealand's Freshwater Eel Resource. Site accessed 27/01/09. http://www.stats.govt.nz/NR/rdonlyres/E0089E2A-7FDD-48E1-9EA3-6896D3F8AE8B/0/freshwatereels.pdf.

Strickland, R.R. (1990). Nga tini a Tangaroa. A Maori-English, English-Maori dictionary of fish names. New Zealand Fisheries Occasional Publication No. 5. MAF Fisheries,Wellington. http://www.cawthron.org.nz/coastal-freshwater-resources/downloads/nga-tini-a-tangaroa.pdf

Other links

Unbaited fyke net set in the Wainono Lagoon. You can read more about the results of this survey in Jellyman (2012) - Survey of tuna in customary areas of ANG 14. Credit: NIWA
Tuna being prepared at Moeraki Marae. Credit: Erica Williams
Learning how to prepare or pawhara a tuna during a workshop held at Moeraki Marae. Credit: Erica Williams
Adding some salt and pepper to the de-boned tuna in preparation for a feast at Moeraki Marae. Credit: Erica Williams
Preparing tuna harvested from Lake Wairewa. Credit: Don Jellyman