Many early European arrivals in New Zealand noted the teeming fish in coastal waters and commented on Māori expertise and industry in fishing. Captain James Cook, when comparing these skills to those on his ship, wrote in 1773: ‘[W]e were by no means such expert fishers as them, nor were any of our methods of fishing equal to theirs.’ 1
Theirs is bigger than ours
Fishing nets made by Māori could be gigantic. Joseph Banks, on Captain Cook’s voyage, noted on 4 December 1769 that Bay of Islands Māori were amused by the small size of the Endeavour’s seine net: ‘[A]fter having a little laught at our seine, which was a common kings seine, [they] shewd us one of theirs which was 5 fathom deep [9 metres] and its lengh we could only guess, as it was not stretchd out, but it could not from its bulk be less than 4 or 500 fathom [720–900 metres]. 2
Trade with settlers
As a trading economy developed with the emergent townships, Māori fishing continued during early European settlement. Initially Māori supplied nearly all the fish to the settlers of Auckland, Wellington and Otago. Attorney general William Swainson noted that during 1852, 1,792 canoes entered the harbour of Auckland, bringing to market 45 tons of fish, along with other produce.
Decline of Māori fishing
During the time of European settlement, Māori society was undergoing major change. Large-scale fishing became less common as tribes lost land adjoining tribal fisheries, and had greater choices for food and work. Contributing to this decline was the growing European focus on commercial fisheries, the decline of fish stocks, and laws that regulated fishing. Those Māori who worked as commercial fishermen were mostly part-timers, supplementing income derived from the land.
Fish remained a part of the Māori diet however – especially at tangi (funerals) and other special gatherings. Customary fishing continued, but on a reduced scale. Māori became increasingly displeased about the decline of their fisheries. In 1991 Mere Hutcheson of Pōrangahau recalled her childhood, when she would gather a wide variety of shellfish such as pūpū, kina, pāua and kuku:
The old people used to go or send us young ones to the beach … You used to get a lot of those things, but not today. Now we’ve got no karengo [edible seaweed], it’s hard to get kōura [crayfish]. We use to bring all those things home and Mum use to show us how to dry them. When we got a lot of fish we use to wrap it up in karamu [leaves] and put it in the hāngī [earth oven]. That’s what they use to do, dry eels and dry crayfish, but not today. As the years went by, everything changed – it’s not the same. 3