Issue 10.2: April / May 2007

Sacred Schools

story by Roland Gilmore
photo by Wayne Levin

In her highly respected Native Use of Fish in Hawaii (co-written with Hawaiian historian Mary Kawena Pukui and first published in 1952), Margaret Titcomb refers to the aku and the ‘opelu—the bonito and the mackerel scad—as “almost sacred” to early Hawaiians. This is no idle claim. The two fish are often found linked together in the precontact era, appearing in everything from ancient mo‘olelo (oral histories) to various restrictions on when each could be caught. For instance, one early story tells of the navigator Pa‘ao, who sailed from the ancestral land of Kahiki to Hawai‘i. Along the way he was beset by a series of supernatural storms—but each time the waves threatened to swamp his canoe, large schools of aku and ‘opelu took turns in appearing and calming the waters. In some parts of the Islands, the fish were protected under alternating kapu times—while these restrictions were mostly likely timed to the spawning periods for each species, the net effect was to allow for only one of the two to be caught at any given time of year.

At the same time, there are some important differences between the two: Aku are a deep water fish, caught in the open ocean beyond the reefs; ‘opelu are found in near-shore waters. The methods for catching the two also varied greatly, though both were done via canoe and required multiple hands. Aku were generally caught with poles and hooks fashioned from wood, bone and mother-of-pearl, using a trawling technique that, on days when there was no wind, could require a crew to not only paddle a canoe several miles to the fishing grounds, but then to move it along with enough speed to keep the fishermen’s lures running through the water. ‘opelu, meanwhile, were caught using large nets, which would either be set along with bait in anticipation of a school’s appearance, or laid out as soon as the fish were sighted.

In those areas that observed what amounted to a six-month kapu for each fish, the ‘opelu restriction would go into place at about the time of the makahiki, in late January, and run through the end of June. May was thus the time of year when the ‘opelu fishermen began to mend their nets, in anticipation of the coming season.