The Fisherman’s Net

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Story by Teya Penniman | Photography by Bob Bangerter, Ryan Siphers, Forest and Kim Starr; historical photos courtesy of Hawai‘i State Archives

hawaiian fisherman nets

Every day I weave. I weave my nets in the morning. At night I weave my nets. My nets is my love.”

James Sagawinit is at his kitchen table in one of the two houses he built in Ha‘iku, but everything about him speaks of the sea. His hair sweeps back from the sides of his face like the crest of a wave blown by offshore winds. His gaze is distant, not in this room, scanning the horizon for where to place his net, find his fish. His voice is slow and measured, like a low, unhurried swell telling an ancient, recurring story.

I ha‘aheo no ka lawai‘a i ka lako i ka ‘upena
The fisherman may well be proud when well supplied with nets.

Ka po‘e kahiko, the old Hawaiians, had an intimate knowledge of the haunts and behaviors of their favored fish and employed a variety of net types and strategies to catch them. Inshore, a single man could handle a scoop net, while a deep-water expedition might require a flotilla of twenty canoes with dozens of helpers. Some forays called for “matured-nose” or experienced fishermen. Many canoes would paddle to the fishing grounds, where the lead fisherman spat chewed kukui nut onto the water to calm and clear the surface. He would lower a blackened hardwood stick rubbed with coconut meat, kukui-nut oil and other strong-scented materials. After many curious fish gathered to nibble the tasty stick, he would signal to the canoes to drop the large net; other men would slip into the water to corral the fish.

In shallow-water net fishing, the technique called for many people to pa‘ipa‘i, or slap the water to chase the fishes.

In kaka uhu fishing, a line tied through the gill opening and mouth of a live uhu (parrotfish) turned it into a seductive decoy. While keeping his canoe pointed into the wind, the fisherman lowered his hapless siren into the water to entice other uhu. When he saw that his trickery was working, he carefully positioned the dip net, a rectangular piece of mesh tied to arched ends of two crossed sticks suspended from a line. When the net was pulled up quickly, the weight of the catch formed a bag around the unsuspecting fish.

hawaiian fishing nets throw

Regardless of the type of net, all who participated received a share of the catch. Writing in 1869, Samuel Kamakau explained why the lead fisherman’s wife received her own share: “Over her chafed thighs the cords for the nets had been twisted.”

Traditionally, fishing skills passed from grandfather to grandson. The custom had waned by the time of Sagawinit’s youth, but he found teachers. His mentor was an old man whose sons weren’t interested in fishing. After school, the two would walk from Sagawinit’s home to the Pa‘uwela Lighthouse, some 2.5 miles distant, not returning until night. While he learned fishing techniques from this neighbor, his godfather taught him how to make nets. On weekends, his brothers and sisters headed to the old Ha‘iku theater, but not Sagawinit. “I just stayed home and learned how to weave my nets.”

His craft still occupies much of the family home. A lobster trap, his own design, dangles from the ceiling; a hanging net drapes the entry wall, dried and decorative sea creatures stuck in its mesh. A throw net in process dominates a corner of the living room. Sagawinit crafts most of his own tools, but uses modern materials such as aluminum for shuttles and recycled lead for weights. The monofilament line he employs for the mesh is no doubt less expensive than the old standard, olona.

Ua niki‘i ‘ia i ke olona o Honopu
Tied fast with the olona cord of Honopu

The fiber of the olona plant (Touchardia latifolia) ranks among the strongest in the natural world. It doesn’t kink or soak up water, and is salt resistant; some fifty-year-old nets are still in excellent condition. Maui ethnobotanist Cathy Davenport studied the plant’s elongation capabilities against hau and coconut, two other fibers also used for cordage; olona outperformed both. Davenport says, “A quick snap will break cordage, but cordage that can stretch will not break as readily. From royalty to fisherman, all greatly valued the fiber. [It is] soft and strong at the same time for the feather capes of royalty handed down through generations, yet stretching when wet just enough to counter the lunges of large fish caught by the fiber.” According to Davenport, “Olona needs cold running streams and rivulets where its roots can ramble, but the streams have so little water in them now. The natural wonders of Hawai‘i are losing their unique habitat and becoming scarce. It’s very difficult to duplicate the environment that olona needs to grow.”

So favored was this plant, Hawaiians once venerated it as a lesser deity. Never abundant, the unassuming shrub grows sparingly in deep, cool, moist places, and, like taro, its patches acquired individual names and were passed from father to son. In the 1870s, King Kalakaua collected taxes inolona and sold it at high prices to Swiss climbers. Olona has another royal connection. According to legend, Alapa‘i, the ruling chief of Hawai‘i Island, had ordered the infant Kamehameha killed to avert a prophecy that the child would one day usurp his rule. Kamehameha was secreted to the mountains, where he was suckled by a woman whose daily task was to scrape the plant’s fleshy pulp from its outer bark. To avoid suspicion that might arise from nursing two newborns, she hid her own child in a huge pile of olona fibers, thereby helping to secure the destiny of Hawai‘i’s first king.

hawaiian fishing nets

The old ways of net making required more than just the right material and skill. Before a fisherman placed a new net in the water, he prepared a feast, with prayers to the gods or ‘aumakua (deified ancestors). As described by Kamakau, after such a feast the fisherman’s dreams would foretell the next day’s fortune: hopefully canoes laden with fish. After a successful harvest, the fisherman went first to the fishing shrine (ko‘a), offering some of his catch to the ‘aumakua.

Sagawinit maintains the tradition of sharing. “I don’t go out and sell my fish. I’m more happy giving it to my children, family, friends.” A net might take him six to seven weeks to complete and could fetch $600; he is as likely to it give away to fundraisers in Hana or Ke‘anae as he is to sell it.

But he objects to limitations placed on his historical gathering rights, an issue that engenders heated debate even among traditional practitioners. Today, monofilament line, powerboats, winches, and longer, deeper nets than those used by ka po‘e kahiko help define a fisherman’s success. Current regulations specify mesh size, net length and depth, prohibit night fishing with lay nets, and establish quotas for certain species. The restrictions are designed to halt declining fish stocks and reduce unintended by-catch, but may conflict with customs practiced for generations.

Like olona, the tough and resilient Sagawinit seems resolute. “I’m a shoreline fisherman,” he says. “My culture tells me that is who I am.” And like the once-revered plant, now made scarce by an altered environment, his world has changed, but his nets will continue to tell an ancient story.


Hawaiian sayings from ‘Olelo No‘eau: Hawaiian Proverbs & Poetical Sayings by Mary Kawena Pukui.


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