Fish Drugging In The Pacific

by Louis Becke


In an American magazine of a few months ago mention was made of the "discovery" of a method of capturing fish by impregnating the waters of slowly running rivers or small lakes with a chemical which would produce stupefaction, and cause the fish to rise helpless to the surface. The American discoverer no doubt thought he really had "discovered," though I am sure many thousands of people in the civilised world have heard of, and some few hundreds very often seen, fish captured in a somewhat similar manner, the which is, I believe, practised not only in India, Africa and South America, but in the islands of the North and South Pacific, and I have no doubt but that it was known thousands of years ago—perhaps even "when the world was young."

Nearly all the Malayo-Polynesian people inhabiting the high, mountainous islands of the South Pacific and North Pacific Oceans can, and do, catch fish in the "novel" manner before mentioned, i.e., by producing stupefaction, though no chemicals are used, while even the Australian aborigines—almost as low a type of savage as the Fuegians—use a still simpler method, which I will at once briefly describe as I saw it practised by a mob of myall (wild) blacks camped on the Kirk River, a tributary of the great Burdekin River in North Queensland.

At a spot where the stream was about a hundred feet wide, and the water very shallow—not over six inches in depth—a rude but efficient dam was expeditiously constructed by thrusting branches of she-oak and ti-tree into the sandy bottom, and then making it partially waterproof by quickly filling the interstices with earthen sods, ti-tree bark, reeds, leaves, and the other débris found on the banks. In the centre a small opening was left, so as to relieve the pressure when the water began to rise. Some few hundred yards further up were a chain of water-holes, some of which were deep, and in all of which, as I knew by experience, were plenty of fish—bream, perch, and a species of grayling. As soon as the dam was complete, the whole mob, except some "gins" and children, who were stationed to watch the opening before mentioned, sprang into the water, carrying with them great quantities of a greasy greyish blue kind of clay, which rapidly dissolved and charged the clear water with its impurities. Then, too, at the same time thirty or forty of their number (over a hundred) began loosening and tearing away portions of the overhanging bank, and toppling them over into the stream; this they accomplished very dexterously by means of heavy, pointed sticks. The work was carried out with an astounding clamour, those natives in the water diving to the bottom and breaking up the fallen earth still further till each pool became of the colour and something of the consistency of green pea-soup. Hundreds of fish soon rose gasping to the surface, and these were at once seized and thrown out upon the banks, where a number of young picaninnies darted upon them to save them being devoured by a swarm of mongrel dogs, which lent an added interest to the proceedings by their incessant yelping and snapping. As the slowly running current carried the suffocating and helpless fish down-stream the hideous noise increased, for the shallow stretch in front of the dam was soon covered with them—bream, and the so-called "grayling," perch, eels, and some very large cat-fish. The latter, which I have mentioned on a previous page, is one of the most peculiar-looking but undoubtedly the best flavoured of all the Queensland fresh-water fishes; it is scaleless, tail-less, blue-grey in colour, and has a long dorsal spike, like the salt-water "leather-jacket." (A scratch from this spike is always dangerous, as it produces intense pain, and often causes blood-poisoning.) Altogether over a thousand fish must have been taken, and I gazed at the destruction with a feeling of anger, for these pools had afforded my mining mates and myself excellent sport, and a very welcome change of diet from the eternal beef and damper. But, a few days later, after our black friends had wandered off to other pastures, I was delighted to find that there were still plenty of fish in the pools.

Early in the "seventies" I was shipwrecked with the once notorious Captain "Bully" Hayes, on Kusaie (Strong's Island), the eastern outlier of the Caroline Islands on the North Pacific, and lived there for twelve happy months, and here I saw for the first time the method of fish stupefaction employed by the interesting and kindly-natured people of this beautiful spot.

I had previously seen, in Eastern Polynesia, the natives drugging fish by using the pounded nuts of the futu tree (Barringtonia speciosa), and one day as I was walking with a native friend along the beach near the village in which I lived, I picked up a futu nut lying on the sand, and remarked that in the islands to the far south the people used it to drug fish.

Kusis laughed. "Futu is good, but we of Kusaie do not use it—we have oap which is stronger and better. Come, I will show you some oap growing, and to-morrow you shall see how good it is."

Turning off to our right, we passed through a grove of screw-pines, and then came to the foot ot the high mountain range traversing the island, where vine and creeper and dense jungle undergrowth struggled for light and sunshine under the dark shade of giant trees, whose thick leafy branches, a hundred feet above, were rustling to the wind. Here, growing in the rich, red soil, was a cluster of oap—a thin-stemmed, dark-green-leaved plant about three feet in height. Kusis pulled one by the roots, and twisted it round and round his left hand; a thick, white and sticky juice exuded from the bark.

"It 'sickens' the fish very quickly," he said, "quicker than the futu nut. If much of it be bruised and thrown into the water, it kills the largest fish very soon, and even turtles will 'sicken.' It is very strong."

I asked him how the people of Kusaie first became acquainted with the properties of the plant. He shook his head.

"I do not know. God made it to grow here in Kusaie in the days that were dark" (heathenism) "and when we were a young people. A wise man from Germany was here ten years ago, and he told us that the people of Ponapé, far to the west, use the oap even as we use it, but that in Ponapé the plant grows larger and is more juicy than it is here."*

     * The "wise man from Germany," I ascertained a year or two
     afterwards, was the well-known J. S. Kubary, a gentleman
     who, although engaged in trading pursuits, yet enriched
     science by his writings on his discoveries in Micronesia.

Early on the following morning, when the tide was falling, and the jagged pinnacles of coral rock began to show on the barrier reef opposite the village, the entire population—about sixty all told—were awaiting Kusis and myself outside his house. The men carried small, unbarbed fish-spears, the women and children baskets and bundles of oap.

From the village to the reef was a distance of two miles, which we soon covered by smart paddling in a dozen or more canoes; for had we delayed we should, through the falling tide, have been obliged to leave our stranded crafts on the sand, half-way, and walk the remainder.

I need not here attempt to describe the wondrous beauties of a South Sea coral reef at low tide—they have been fully and ably written about by many distinguished travellers—but the barrier reef of Strong's Island is so different in its formation from those of most other islands in the Pacific, that I must, as relative illustration to this account of the fishing by oap mention its peculiarity.

Instead of the small clefts, chasms, and pools which so frequently occur on the barrier reefs of the mountainous islands of Polynesia and Melanesia, and which at low tide are untenanted except by the smallest varieties of rock-fish, here were a series of deep, almost circular, miniature lakes, set in a solid wall of coral rock with an overlapping edge, which made the depth appear greater than it was, especially when one stood on the edge and looked down to the bottom, four to six fathoms below.

In all of these deep pools were great numbers or fish of many varieties, size, and colour; some swimming to and fro or resting upon the sandy bottom, others moving upwards and then downwards in the clear water with lazy sweep of tail and fin. One variety of the leather-jacket tribe was very plentiful, and their great size was excelled only by their remarkable ugliness; their ground colour was a sombre black, traversed by three broad bands of dull yellow. Some of the largest of these fish weighed quite up to 20 lbs., and were valued by the natives for their delicacy of flavour. They would always take a hook, but the Strong's Islanders seldom attempted to capture them in this manner, for their enormous, hard, sharp, and human-like teeth played havoc with an ordinary fish-hook, which, if smaller than a salmon-hook, they would snap in pieces, and as their mouths are very small (in fact the leather-jacket's mouth is ridiculous when compared to its bulk), larger and stronger hooks could not be used.

Another and smaller variety were of a brilliant light blue, with vivid scarlet-tipped fins and tail, a perfectly defined circle of the same colour round the eyes, and protruding teeth of a dull red. These we especially detested for their villainous habit of calmly swimming up to a pendant line, and nipping it in twain, apparently out of sheer humour. Well have the Samoans named the leather-jacket Isu'umu Moana—the sea-rat.

In one or two of the deeper pools were red, bream-shaped fish that I had in vain tried to catch with a hook, using every possible kind of bait; but the natives assured me that I was only wasting my time, as they fed only upon a long thread-like worm, which lived in the coral, and that a spear or the oap was the only way of capturing them. So far I had never actually handled one, but on this occasion we secured some dozens. Here and there we caught sight of a young hawk-bill turtle darting out of sight under the ledge of the overhanging walls of coral, putting to flight thousands of small fish of a score of shapes and colours.

We waited until the tide had fallen still lower and until the whole surface of the great sweeping curve of reef stood out, bare and steaming, under the bright tropic sun. Westward lay the ocean, blue and smooth as a mill pond, with only a gentle, heaving swell laving the outer wall of the coral barrier. Here and there upon its surface communities of snowy white terns hovered and fluttered, feeding upon small fish, or examining floating weed for tiny red and black crabs no bigger than a pea. Eastward and across the now shallowed water of the lagoon was our village of Leassé, the russet-hued, saddle-backed houses of thatch peeping out from the coco-palms and breadfruit-trees; beyond, the broken, rugged outline of the towering mountain range, garmented from base to summit with God's mantle of living green; overhead a sky ot wondrous, un-specked blue.

We were all sitting on the rocks, on the margin of the best and largest pool, smoking and chatting, when at a sign from Kusis, who was the head man (or local chief) of the village, the women took their bundles of oap and laying the plants upon smooth portions of the reef began to pound them with round, heavy stones, brought from the village for the purpose. As each bundle was crushed and the sticky white juice exuded, it was rolled into a ball, used like a sponge to wipe up and absorb all the liquid that had escaped, and then handed to the men and boys, who leapt into the pool, and dived to the bottom, thrusting the balls of oap underneath every lower ledge and crevice, and then rising quickly to the surface and clambering out again. In less than five minutes the once crystal water had changed to a pale milky white, thousands upon thousands of tiny fish, about half an inch in length, and of many hues, began to rise to the surface; then others of a larger size, which the women at once scooped up with small nets; then presently, with much splashing and floundering, two or three of the handsome red fish I have described, with a great leather-jacket, came up, and, lying on their sides, flapped helplessly on the surface. Other kinds, of the mullet species, came with them, trying to swim upright, but always falling over on their sides, and yet endeavouring to lift their heads above the water, as if gasping for air. Then more big leather-jackets, some of which shot up from below as if they had been fired from a mortar, and, running head-on to the rocky wall of the pool, allowed themselves to be lifted out without a struggle. It was most exciting and intensely interesting to witness.

Presently up came a half-grown hawkbill turtle, his poor head erect and swaying from side to side; a boy leapt in and, seizing it by its flippers, pushed it up to some women, who quickly carried the creature to a small pool near by, where it was placed to recover from the effects of the oap and then be taken ashore to the village turtle-dock to grow and fatten for killing. (The "turtle-dock," I must explain, was a walled-in enclosure—partly natural, partly artificial—situated in a shallow part of the lagoon, wherein the Leassé people confined those turtle that they could not at once eat; sometimes as many as thirty were thus imprisoned and fed daily.)

Out of this one pool—which I think was not more than fifteen yards across—we obtained many hundredweights of fish and three turtle. All fish which were too small to be eaten were thrown into other pools to recover from the effects of the oap. The very smallest, however, did not recover, and were left to float on the surface and become the prey of large fish when the incoming tide again covered the reef.

I must here relate an incident that now occurred, and which will serve to illustrate the resourcefulness and surgical knowledge of a race of people who, had they met them, Darwin, Huxley and Frank Buckland would have delighted in and made known to the world. I shall describe it as briefly and as clearly as possible.

I had brought with me a knife—a heavy, broad-backed, keen-edged weapon, which the Chinese carpenter of our wrecked ship had fashioned out for me from a flat twelve-inch file of Sheffield steel, and Kusis had, later on, made me a wooden sheath for it. In my excitement at seeing a large fish rise to the surface I used it as a spear, and then, the fish secured, had thrown the knife carelessly down. It fell edge upwards in a cleft of the coral rock, and Kinié, the pretty twelve-year-old daughter of Kusis, treading upon it, cut her left foot to the bone. Her father and myself sprang to her aid, and whilst I was tying the one handkerchief I possessed tightly round her leg below the knee so as to stay the terrible flow of blood, he rapidly skinned a large leather jacket by the simple process of cutting through the skin around the head and shoulders and then dragging it off the body by holding the upper edge between his teeth and then with both hands pulling it downwards to the tail. In less than five minutes the sheet of tough fish-skin was deftly and tightly wrapped round the child's foot, the handkerchief taken off and replaced by a coir fibre fishing-line, wound round and round below and above the knee. The agony this caused the poor child made her faint, but her father knew what he was about when he ordered two of the women to carry her ashore, take off the covering of fish-skin, cover the foot with wood-ashes, and bind it up again. This was done, and when we returned to the village an hour or two later I found the girl seated in her father's house with her injured foot bandaged in a way that would have reflected credit on a M.R.C.S.

After exploiting the large pool we turned our attention to some of those which were wider, but comparatively shallow; and in these, the bottoms of which were sandy, we obtained some hundreds of mullet and gar-fish, which were quickly overpowered by the oaf juice. In all I think that we carried back to the village quite five hundredweight of fish, some of which were very large: the weight of three of the large banded leather-jackets I estimated at fifty pounds.

In after years, in other islands of the Pacific, when I saw the fearful and needless havoc created by traders and natives using vile dynamite cartridges and so destroying thousands of young fish by one explosion, I tried hard to get them to use either the futu nut or the oap plant, both of which under many names are known to the various peoples of Eastern Polynesia.

But the use of dynamite has an attractive element of danger; it is more sudden and destructive in its effect; it makes a noise and churns up and agitates the water; its violent concussion breaks and smashes the submarine coral forest into which it is thrown; and its terrific shock kills and mutilates hundreds of fish, which, through their bladders bursting, sink and are not recovered.

Only a few years ago an old and valued American friend of mine—an ex-ship captain settled in the Gilbert Islands in the North Pacific—became annoyed at what he deemed to be the excessive prices the natives charged for fish. The "excessive price," I may mention, meant that he was asked a half-dollar for a basket of fish weighing, say, fifty or sixty pounds. A half-a-dollar is equal to an English florin; but no coin was handed over—four sticks ot tobacco costing the trader about ten cents, was the equivalent. So my friend decided to show the natives that he could do without them as far as his fish supply went. He bought a box of dynamite, with fuse and caps, from a German trading schooner, and at once set to work, blowing off his right hand within twenty-four hours, through using too short a fuse.

That wretched box of dynamite proved a curse to the island. The natives, despite my friend's accident, bought every cartridge from him, singly or in lots, and they then began to enjoy themselves. Every hour of the day for many weeks afterwards the sullen thud of the explosive could be heard from all parts of the lagoon, followed by applauding shouts. Vast numbers of fish were blown to pieces, for no native would ever think of dividing a cartridge into half a dozen portions and using only one at a time; the entire 6-oz. cartridge was used, and sometimes so short were the fuses, that explosions would take place on the surface, to the delight of the children, who said, "it was as good to hear as the cannons of a man-of-war." In the short space of eight weeks there were five serious accidents, two of which ended fatally. I was thankful when the last charge had been exploded, and although the natives begged me to import a fresh supply, I always declined—not on their account only, but because of the wanton destruction of fish involved.

One day I decided to try and ascertain if oap would affect fish by being swallowed. I prepared twenty or thirty small balls of the plant, wrapped each one up carefully in thin strips of fish flesh, so as to thoroughly conceal the contents, and took them out to the "turtle dock." The dock, although it was a safe enclosure for turtle, yet had many small passages through the coral rock which permitted the ingress and exit of moderately-sized fish, particularly a variety of black and red-spotted rock-cod.

Throwing in the balls, one by one, I watched. Three of them were at once swallowed by a lively young hawk-bill turtle, and the remainder were soon seized by some yellow eels and rock-cod, before the larger and slower-moving turtle (of which there were about twenty in the dock) discerned them. I waited about on the reef in the vicinity for quite three hours or more, returning to the pool at intervals and examining the condition of its occupants. But, at the end of that time, the oap had apparently taken no effect, and, as night was near, I returned to the village.

On the following morning, I again went to the "dock," lowered my line, and caught six rock-cod. In the stomachs of two I found the undigested fibres of the oap which, through expansion, they had been unable to dislodge; but that it had not had any effect on them I was sure, for these two fish were as strong and vigorous when hooked as were the four others in whose stomachs there was no sign of oap.

The young hawkbill turtle, however, was floating on the surface, and seemed very sick.

Here is a point for ichthyologists. Are the digestive arrangements of a turtle more delicate than those of a fish?