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Te hī ika – Māori fishing

by  Paul Meredith

Traditional fishing was both a practical and a spiritual activity. There were many ingenious methods and tools, from complex calendars to iridescent lures and woven traps. But fish were also seen as the descendants of Tangaroa, god of the sea. Rituals and talismans were an important way to ensure his favour and protect the bounty of the ocean, lakes and rivers.

Tangaroa, god of the sea

Ko Tangaroa ara rau
Tangaroa of many paths

According to Māori creation traditions the god of the sea and progenitor of fish is Tangaroa, the son of Ranginui (the sky father) and Papatūānuku (the earth mother). Tangaroa’s son Punga was the father of Ikatere and Tūtewehiwehi. Ikatere went to the sea, where he and his children became fish. Tūtewehiwehi journeyed inland, and he and his offspring became reptiles.

In these traditions Tūmatauenga, the god of war, fought with Tangaroa. Their enmity explains why humans, the descendants of Tūmatauenga, go fishing: they are continuing the war against Tangaroa’s progeny, the fish.

Te Ika-a-Māui – Māui’s fish

Fishing features in many Māori traditions. Perhaps the most well-known story is that of the demigod Māui, who hooked the North Island of New Zealand with the jawbone of his grandmother, Murirangawhenua. As he fished, he chanted:

Give to me O ocean,
Weroti’s fish, Werota’s fish
Be it Nuku’s rock or not,
I shall lift you to the sky. 1

Known as Te Ika-a-Māui (Māui’s great fish), the North Island is shaped like a stingray. North Cape is known as Te Hiku o Te Ika (the tail of the fish) and Wellington as Te Ūpoko o Te Ika (the head of the fish).

Kupe and the octopus

In other traditions, the great explorer Kupe is credited with discovering New Zealand. While fishing in his homeland, Hawaiki, he was distracted by a giant octopus belonging to the chief Muturangi. He pursued it and eventually caught it in Cook Strait.

  1. Tāmati R. Poata, The Maori as a fisherman and his methods. Papakura: Southern Reprints, 1989, p. 3 (originally published 1919). › Back

Tools, grounds and methods

An array of Polynesian fishing equipment was adapted for conditions in New Zealand: the kupenga (net), aho (line), matau (hook), matira (fishing rod), pātia (spear), tāruke (pot), hīnaki (trap) and (weir).


The construction of nets was a tapu activity – certain rituals and restrictions had to be followed. Most nets were made of green flax, and they ranged in size from individual tītoko ika (hand nets) to very large kaharoa (seine nets). The base was weighed down with māhē (stone sinkers), and gourds or light woods were sometimes used as pōito (floats).

The largest net documented was made in 1886 by Te Pōkiha Taranui (also known as Major Fox) and 400 others of Ngāti Pikiao, at Maketū in the Bay of Plenty. About 1.6 kilometres long, it was used only once to procure tens of thousands of fish for a major tribal gathering. Handling such nets required community effort.

Lines, hooks and spears

Lines and hooks were very popular for catching hāpuku and kahawai. The lines were very strong, and made of dressed flax fibre that was twisted into cord.

Hooks varied in size and shape and were made from wood, bone, stone or shell. Sometimes a gorge was used. This was a sharp piece of bone on a line, which caught in a fish’s throat when pulled. To attract kahawai, iridescent pāua shell was used on lures.

Pātiki (flounder) were sometimes caught with barbed spears similar to those used for hunting birds.


Tāruke (pots) filled with bait were used to catch crayfish. The pots were made from young mānuka stems, which were bent around a frame of supplejack vine and mānuka, and then tied with flax and vines.

Traditional fishing grounds

All fishing grounds, banks and rocks were specially named. Some were several kilometres out to sea – the historian Rēweti Kōhere of the Ngāti Porou tribe wrote that his ancestors’ favourite ground was Hapurapoi, about 12 kilometres north of East Cape. Fishermen used prominent landmarks to identify these spots, taking their bearings by aligning one mountain or peninsula with another:

From the sea, look at the white cliffs on shore. A vein of quartz can be seen sparkling in the rocks. Now look towards your port side, the island of Murimotu appears to move and join the mainland. No sea-space is seen between. That is your spot. 1

Most fishing grounds were jealously guarded by tribes, who passed them down through the generations. To define family and hapū (sub-tribe) rights, they sometimes used rows of stakes, particularly in lakes, estuaries and other shoal waters.

When to fish

Experts knew all the signs for successful fishing, and used a calendar that listed favourable days. This is still in use today. Often, fishing would be directed by chiefs occupying prominent land points, identifying which grounds were to be fished.

These experts knew the movements and seasons of the various fish species. Tāmati Poata of the Ngāti Porou tribe recorded that on the East Coast during March, April and May the seasonable fish is tāmure (snapper). In June and July it is the warehou and moki. In August, September and October it is tarakihi, pōrae (trumpeter fish), rāwaru or taipua (rock cod), kehe (marble fish) and kumukumu (gurnard).

South Island fishermen would troll for barracouta, catch small sharks in large nets, big sharks with large baited hooks, and conger eels at sea with a bob made of dressed flax around a bait called a whakapuku. Crayfish were caught in open-mouthed net bags called poraka, and whitebait in a koko – a close-weave net.

  1. Report of the Waitangi Tribunal on the Muriwhenua fishing claim (Wai 22). Wellington: The Tribunal, 1989, p. 35. › Back

Traditional practices

Religious rites

Religious rites and other marks of respect were integral to the practice of fishing. Karakia (incantations) were offered to Tangaroa, god of the sea, and the other gods, inviting them to send an abundance of fish. Mohi Ruatapu of the Ngāti Porou tribe cites this karakia, chanted to inspire Tangaroa:

Kuku, kuku ika, kuku wehiwehi,
Takina ko koe nā, te iho o ika,
Te iho o Tangaroa –
Uara ki uta rā, uara ki tai rā.
Hold tight, hold the fish, hold tight with fearsome power,
You are led along, the essence of the fish,
The essence of Tangaroa –
Desired on the land, desired on the sea. 1

Te ika whakataki – the first fish

It was common practice to return the first fish that was caught to the sea. Many tribes also had sites on shore where fishermen would place their offerings of fish to Tangaroa, and recite karakia of thanks.


Māori also used a mauri (talisman) to attract fish. Near Mōkau, in the King Country, is the historic punga (anchor stone) of the Tainui canoe. The stone has long been considered the mauri of the fisheries in that region, assuring a bountiful supply of all varieties of fish. It also served to safeguard the fisheries. Not too far along the beach is Te Naenae, where local fishermen once made offerings of fish to Tangaroa.


Use of the waters was also regulated by customary law and practices. Catching many species was limited by season, as was the use of some fishing grounds. One form of prohibition was the rāhui, set up to conserve endangered species and protect certain fishing grounds from being overfished.

Tapu surrounded almost all aspects of fishing, as the fisheries were so closely linked to the gods. The success of an expedition depended on strict adherence to the religious restrictions that ensured the favour of the gods. It was believed that food, especially if cooked, could pollute the tapu, with distrastrous effects. The tapu remained until it was removed by a tohunga back on shore.

The 20th century

Traditional fishing customs were still being followed in the 20th century. This account from the 1950s describes the rituals used for fishing kahawai in the Waiapu River, in the Ngāti Porou tribal district:

When the net is complete, a fishing line is threaded through the outside loops of the net. This is known as the ‘heart of the fishing net’. After this the net is hung up and a weight placed in the bottom of it to help to tighten the mesh ties. Then a length of red mānuka pole is fashioned and some supplejacks. These are dried and made into an oval frame according to the size of the net. At this stage the new net is ready to be taken to the beach where it is fixed on to the framework.
Before entering the water, the fisherman performs a special rite by urinating on the net and sprinkling some too over his body. Only after this ritual will he enter the water. This ritual is still performed today.
When the first fish is caught, the head is broken off so that the blood spills over the net, after which the fish is hung up on a stake well ashore. That particular fish is not eaten. Then one may proceed to fish. Only after performing the above ritual is the tapu of a new net lifted. (With an old net the urination ritual only is performed.) Sharks and other destructive creatures of the sea will not enter the net.
After having fished the required number, the fish must not be scaled at or near the fishing area. Rather this must be done elsewhere. If scaling is to be done at home, then this must be done outside to avoid contamination by cooked food. 2

Many people believe that fishing was a task for men, while women collected shellfish. However, there is some disagreement about this.

  1. Anaru Reedy, ed., Nga korero a Mohi Ruatapu: the writings of Mohi Ruatapu. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 1993, pp. 70; 174. › Back
  2. Koro Dewes, ‘Fishing for kahawai in the Waiapu River.’ Te Ao Hou 23 (1958), (last accessed 12 January 2006). › Back

Communal sharing and gifting

Tribal expeditions

Traditional Māori fishing included large-scale tribal expeditions. One expedition in 1855 by the Te Rarawa people, led by the chief Popota Te Waha, involved more than 1,000 individuals in 50 canoes, and lasted over two days.

The fish caught from such communal efforts were divided by the leading chief among each whānau (family). The fish were then either steamed in a hāngī (earth oven) or hung up on a scaffold to dry in the sun, and saved in pātaka (storehouses) for future consumption.

Gift exchange

Sometimes fish were caught for gift exchange with inland tribes. Coastal people gave dried fish, dried edible seaweed and shark oil to those who lived in forests, who reciprocated with preserved birds, rats, hīnau berry cakes, and other food from their domain.

Occasionally the gifting of fish took place as part of a feast, which could be particularly grand when different tribes came together. At a feast prepared by Te Waharoa of Ngāti Hauā in 1837, 20,000 dried eels and several tonnes of fish were presented to the guests. In 1844, 9,000 sharks were laid out at a feast given by the great Waikato chief Pōtatau Te Wherowhero at Remuera.

In the South Island, where similar exchanges occurred, an account of the Ngāi Tahu people who lived on Banks Peninsula has been recorded:

At Pigeon Bay they used to catch large numbers of fish which they suspended in the sun to dry. Shark was one of their favourites. It was customary in the ‘forties’ [1840s] for the Pigeon Bay and Port Levy Maoris to carry tons of these dried fish inland, meeting halfway the Natives from Little River laden with eels. On the summit both parties held a kōrero, and after exchanging their burdens, returned respectively to their homes. 1
  1. Ngāi Tahu Sea Fisheries Report, 3.7.2. (last accessed 9 February 2006). › Back

European contact and impact

Many early European arrivals in New Zealand noted the teeming fish in coastal waters and commented on Māori expertise and industry in fishing. 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 Cook’s first 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
    • J. C. Beaglehole, ed., The journals of Captain James Cook on his voyages of discovery. Vol. 2. Cambridge: Hakluyt Society, 1961, p. 169. › Back
    • Banks’s journal: daily entries. 4 December 1769 (last accessed 12 January 2006). › Back
    • Quoted in Mira Szaszy, Te tīmatanga tātau tātau: early stories from founding members of the Māori Women’s Welfare League, edited by Anna Rogers and Miria Simpson. Wellington: Māori Women’s Welfare League and Bridget Williams, 1993, p. 55. › Back

Fisheries management and practice

Settlements: 1989 and 1992

Māori are the largest group in the New Zealand fisheries, controlling over a third of the industry. This is primarily due to two Waitangi Tribunal settlements:

  • a 1989 interim agreement that awarded Māori 10% of the fishing quota, and a cash settlement
  • a final settlement of Māori claims to commercial fisheries in 1992. Known as the Sealord deal, this granted Māori a 50% share in Sealord Products, New Zealand’s largest fishing company.

Sealord Products was to hold 22% of the total quota under the Quota Management System, by which New Zealand’s commercial fisheries are run. In addition, the final settlement guaranteed Māori 20% of all new species brought into the Quota Management System.

The Māori Fisheries Commission, established under the 1989 settlement, became the Treaty of Waitangi Fisheries Commission in the final settlement. It was charged with facilitating Māori entry into the fishing industry, and allocating fishery assets to tribes. How this was to be achieved has been the subject of much litigation.

Māori Fisheries Act 2004

The matter was finalised with the Māori Fisheries Act 2004. When this was passed it was anticipated that tribes would receive around half of the estimated $750 million of settlement assets.

The act disbanded the Treaty of Waitangi Fisheries Commission, allocating its assets to a new company, Aotearoa Fisheries Limited, and its sole voting shareholder, Te Ohu Kaimoana. This second body manages and oversees:

  • Aotearoa Fisheries
  • Te Putea Whakatupu Trust (which promotes Māori interests in the fishing industry)
  • Te Wai Māori Trust (which promotes Māori interests in freshwater fishing)
  • the distribution of assets to tribes.

Contemporary tribal fishing

Many tribes are already in the fishing business, including the Tainui affiliated tribes Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Raukawa and Waikato, partners in the deep-sea fishing company Raukura Moana. The South Island tribe, Ngāi Tahu, operates one of New Zealand’s leading seafood companies, Ngāi Tahu Seafood Group.

Māori continue to take fish and other seafood for personal consumption and traditional gatherings. At a hui at Ōkahu marae, Kāwhia, in the early 2000s, visitors were presented with a variety of traditional Māori delicacies, including pātiki maroke (dried flounder) and kōkī (shark-liver sausage), from fish caught in Aotea Harbour. The local Ngāti Te Wehi tribe there is committed to retaining knowledge of such traditional foods, and to safeguarding the harbour and its fisheries.

The 1992 settlement also recognised Māori fishing for customary purposes, as opposed to commercial use. There are now a number of statutory enterprises, such as the Taiapure and Mahinga Mātaitai reserves established with the Fisheries Act 1996. Subsequently, the Kāwhia–Aotea Taiapure was set up in 2000. Such measures give Māori better access to local fisheries, and greater involvement as kaitiaki or guardians.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Paul Meredith, 'Te hī ika – Māori fishing', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 June 2024)

Story by Paul Meredith, published 12 June 2006