Fish Food: Fishing Samoa Style
Date: 1st June 2005
Subject: Fish and Food: Fishing Samoa Style
Place: Albatross Island, Salouafata, Upolu, Samoa
What would you like for dinner?
“Would you like fish or chicken for dinner?”
“Umm chicken sounds nice, I’ll go for that.”
“Sorry there is no chicken.”
“Oh right. How about fish then?”
“Right. I’ll have fish then.”
“Would you like chips or rice with that?”
“Rice it is then.”
Drawing fish in the sand
There’s a game that kids play in Samoa. First they get a stick and draw a fish in the sand. Any shape and any size they want. Then they colour it in, with coral, stones, shells or flowers. Any colours they want. Then they go swimming to try and find it. And with countless varieties of fish living in the waters around Samoa, there’s a good chance they might.
Fa’a Samoa – traditional ways
But trawling is not allowed. Fishing here is a mostly traditional affair involving an outrigger canoe, a paddle and a short line. You catch your fish one at a time, working the local lagoon with a dozen or so other villagers. Many villages have laws which prohibit the use of nets, fishing boats or other modern methods. The village chiefs make the laws and police them too, and by and large the villagers comply, or else. Retaining these traditional ways is not just a throw back to the past, it’s a way of maintaining the Fa’a Samoa, ensuring traditions live on and protecting fish stocks for future generations. There’s a kind of inbuilt sustainability.
Experiments have not always worked
That’s not to say Samoans haven’t experimented with alternative fishing methods. At one time a fashion developed for fishing with dynamite. Apparently fish yields were good but the accident rate was not. And then they realised dynamite was not only indiscriminately killing fish it was also destroying the delicate coral reefs and having an irreversible impact upon marine ecosystems.
Another initiative saw locals swapping canoes for powerful motorised fishing boats, enabling them to head off-shore for better fishing. Trouble was it was dead easy for fishermen to head far out to sea but not so easy for them to find their way back once out of sight of land and without any proper navigational equipment or training. Quite a few fishermen were lost at sea or paid unexpected visits to Fiji before the need for proper training and regulation became obvious. Development can be a treacherous business. No wonder elders can be suspicious of it.
Do you know what zebra fish eat?
Matthew really loved the fish game, snorkelling for hours with his bum sticking out of the sea, his face stuck down below. He quickly cottoned on that the game was easy if you always drew a black and white ‘zebra’ fish and then went to find it. It’s impossible to paddle around here without a procession of the hungry little things following you. When the islanders used to pump raw sewage into the lagoons these little fish were known as the poo eaters, recognising their important role in cleaning up the mess. These days there’s no raw sewage but these fish still flourish; kids love to watch them thrash around after food scraps and no-one wants to catch or eat them because of their reputation. Once you’ve been told about their past it’s hard to put one in your mouth.
Feeding the zebra fish is a safe pastime though and a way of saying thank you for the dirty work they did. And while they will eat almost any food you throw, the best thing for a feeding frenzy is a whole slice of bread. Even before the bread hits the water you’ll see lines of fish converging on the approaching missile, estimating its’ point of entry and preparing for battle. When the bread lands, the water boils; fish thrash, splash and jump around, tearing the bread apart, butting one another to grab a piece of the action. After thirty seconds of outright war they disperse as the best of friends, in a peaceful procession, hundreds of eyes on the lookout for more. You can’t do this too often though. Bread is too hard to come by.
So, what’s for dinner?
“Could I have a couple of slices of bread please?”
“Yes, some bread. I’m feeling a lot better now, but not yet ready for a full dinner.” The woman looked at me as if I’d just asked her to take off her lavalava and dance on the table.
“Yes, you know? Bread. Plain bread.”
“Plain bread?” She stood and stared.
I’d met this reaction before. Asking for bread is one of the surest ways I’ve come across to confuse a Samoan. Maybe it’s a religious hang up, you know, ‘man shall not live by bread alone’ and all that.
“Yes please. Plain bread. To eat. It’s all I want.” I continued.
“Just bread?” she asked again.
“Please. Bread. With butter if it’s easier.” Something seemed to click and she looked a little happier.
“You need to eat? Maybe fish and chips? I get the menu for you now.”
If we sound a little obsessed by food then it’s because we are. We’ve either been sitting in front of mountains of food we don’t like, or we’ve been choosing from extensive menu cards where only one dish is available; fish. And after a month of feast and famine, we’re feeling ready for the land of plenty and a few days of bucket sized everything.