Māʻohii fish traps

Name of case study

Māʻohii fish traps

Location

The Society Islands. French Polynesia: Tetia’roa, Borabora, Taha’a, Maupiti, Huahine, and Tahiti

Year

Exact date unknown, possibly as early as the 1600s, as the villages developed. 

Scale

suburb/neighbourhood scale

Area / size

size varies across different islands

NbS employed

Traditional Fish Aggregation Devices

Type of NbS

Engineered interventions (not using vegetation)

Initiator

The Māʻohii people of the Society Islands

Funder

N/A

Budget

N/A

Design group

The Māʻohii people of the Society Islands

Huahine Fish Trap. Photo by Anita363, Sea Garden Collective
Fish Traps of Maeva, Huahine, Society Islands. Photo by Paul Wallin. Sea Garden Collective
Climate change benefits
  • Changes in phenology
  • loss of food production

As climate change threatens the health of fish species and changes their breeding and migration patterns, Māʻohii methods can be a way to fish responsibly and sustainably. 

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Societal / socio-cultural benefits
  • empowerment / equality

Many of the ancient fish traps and weirs remain today, and can be used as exemplars to revitalise Indigenous knowledge of the islands’ traditional fishing methods. These traditions have been passed down through generations and are unique to this archipelago. The fish aggregation strategies of the Māʻohii people allowed them to manage their own natural resources completely, as kaitiaki (guardians) of the oceans and its species. This is a powerful form of empowerment, and one that has been lost for some Te Moananui Oceanaia communities over time as globalisation, colonisation, and commercial fishing has come to Pacific waters. The traditional Māʻohii methods can be used by local people in the islands, to improve their catch rate, food sources, and empower the next generation. 

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Ecological benefits
  • Education and knowledge
  • Food production
  • Habitat provision
  • Mana (pride), whakamana (empowerment), tino rangatiratanga (sovereignty)
  • Species maintenance

The Māʻohii people developed a method that not only increased their fishing yields, but respected the natural environment and its limits. The communities’ fish traps and weirs used local knowledge of the ocean, the native fish species and the tide patterns. They were able to create traps that still exist today, and manage a reliable, healthy food source. Beyond that, the rāhui (prohibition/restrictions) placed on fishing in the islands maintained a healthy ocean environment, where overfishing was prohibited and species were maintained. 

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Summary of case study

The Māʻohii are the Indigenous people of Tōtaiete mā (The Society Islands) in Mā’ohi Nui (French Polynesia). Their ancestors arrived around the 11th century AD (Pacific Sea Garden Collective, 2022). The Māʻohi people developed methods to aggregate and catch fish on various islands in the archipelago, including Tetia’roa, Borabora, Taha’a, Maupiti, Huahine, and Tahiti. 

Fish weirs, which are structures placed in the water to influence the movement of fish, were built at the mouths of streams using local materials of stone, coral, wood and leaves. The weirs trapped the fish, and were then caught with scoop nets (Oliver, 1974). 

Aua i’a (fish ponds) were also built to trap fish, made of fences, stakes, gates and stones. On Huahine, the stone structures trap schools of fish travelling to the sea from a shallow lake at low tide. The stones are laid in a v-shape, pointing downstream, and the tide pulls fish downstream and traps them inside the pond (Oliver, 1974). 

The Māʻohii people were conscious of the need to live in balance with the natural world, and like other Indigenous People in Te Moananui Oceania, they had early systems to control harvest of both land and sea (see: customary management). The term rahui (restriction/prohibition) was used by Māʻohii to create restrictions on overharvesting (Bambridge, 2016). The Māʻohii’s rahui system balanced demand with the local traditional ecological knowledge (Pacific Sea Garden Collective, 2022). Māʻohii communities and their traditional resource management systems have been heavily impacted by climate change and colonisation (Pacific Sea Garden Collective, 2022). While the traps are still in use in some areas, they are not being used to their full potential, and there is an opportunity to redevelop and adapt the fish aggregation methods to increase food security in Tōtaiete mā (The Society Islands).

Fish traps of Maeva, Huahine, Society Islands. Photo by Paul Wallin. Sea Garden Collective

References
  • Bambridge, T. (2016). The law of rahui in the Society Islands. The Rahui: legal pluralism in Polynesian traditional management of resources and territories, 119-135.
  • Oliver, D., 1974. Ancient Tahitian Society. 3 vols. Honolulu: The University Press of Hawai’i. 
  • Pacific Sea Garden Collective. (2022). Sea Gardens Across the Pacific: Reawakening Ancestral Mariculture Innovations. Version 1. Washington Sea Grant at the University of Washington. https://doi.org/10.6069/ZJB9-CG30

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