Spear Fishing in American Samoa

WorldTeach volunteers get the opportunity to try many new activities in their host communities. In American Samoa, WorldTeach volunteer Matt Hoffman has spent some of his free time outside of teaching learning how to spear fish. Read on to hear about one of Matt's experiences going spear fishing with fellow community members...    

My life on Ta’u is split into two parts – school and home. The divide is geographic; we have to walk up half a mountain to go to school, whereas home is just off the beach. At school, I usually wear an aloha shirt and ie faitaga (so, a manskirt). At home I wear, at most, shorts. That’s really not too different from the states. But other parts of that divide are. For most of the things I do at school, I’m the one who knows what I’m doing (or at least I should be; see math teacher, English degree). At home? I can husk a coconut, but less efficiently than most 5-year olds here. I got yelled at (only a little) for hanging laundry from our porch railing. While I can cut up a banana tree that fell over and heave it back into the bush, I look as out of place as, well, any white dude while doing it on this island.

I’m an ok spear fisherman. I can feed myself, and, with a stroke of luck, a few other people. Last week, I saw what excellent spear fishing looks like.

I was walking past the store just after dark when I got invited on a spear fishing expedition in Faleasao. I had quizzes to write, chores to do, and a bag to pack for a mini-vacation to Ofu and Olosega (the islands just across the water). Of course, I went.

I usually spear fish during the day. This isn’t normal; most people that fish the reef go at night. It’s harder to shoot fish during the day because most are more alert, even if there are more swimming around. But I can generally get some smaller stuff, enough for my dinner.

However, for someone fishing for their family, my catch isn’t going very far. But at night several fish are sleepy, if not asleep. It’s easier to sneak up on them; if they’re just poking out of a reef crevice, they’ll all but hold still. Fishing at night is way more efficient. You can usually get more fish, and bigger fish.

I’ve gone out a night a few time, but usually don’t get anything much larger than I do during the day. When I find a fish, they’re easier to shoot, but they’re harder to find. The other big advantage of going out at night is lobster. The reef here is populated by a clawless breed that tastes delicious. I’ve shot two thus far, one of which was a monster that looked like an alien sea cockroach.

So, I’ve got experience spear fishing. But not much at night, and not much in a group. And not much in Faleasao, which is where we were going.

I was the lone palagi in our group; a friend who’s on Ta’u studying birds for a few months tagged along, but a nasty leg wound is keeping him away from most physical activity. We picked up another couple guys in Faleasao who were about to go out, bringing our group to 6.

Ilo (spelled like it sounds? Ee-low) helped me out with some English summaries of what the plan was. We’d swim out the Ava (a natural channel in the reef), swoop along the right side for about a quarter mile, then reverse and come back in through the wharf. We chilled on the rocks for a bit, or rather, everyone else talked in Samoan while I tried not to act completely clueless. I know enough of the language to pick up the topic of conversation at times when I recognize individual words, but sentence construction largely escapes me.

A can of coke circled around to clean masks (good to know soda is an excellent cleaning chemical!). Then Ilo said a short prayer (which lasted about 2 minutes, a standard short prayer here). Everyone else had tow lines – a spike tied on to a rope connected to a buoy. One holds the spike, which is fed through a fish’s gills then mouth, and they’re pushed into a bunch near the buoy, which is trailed behind. This is preferable to circling a rope around your waist for the fish, because humans are not the only creatures in the water that enjoy eating fish. If a shark takes a big off a tow line, you lose some fish. If a shark takes a bit off a rope tied around your belly, you’ll lose some weight.

I had no rope of any sort, so Ilo said I could mooch off his. We set off, drifting into the channel and letting it pull us out. I expected the real fishing to start near the reef’s edge – I was wrong. Mode (Mote?) immediate started plunking fish, flushing them from coral. I almost got in on the action, but missed a goatfish, all but holding still, near a coral. He pelted away, dodged shots from a couple other guys. Way to go, white kid.

As we got further out, the dives got deeper. Peering under coral turned into sweeping through reef crevices. During the day, the flurrying fish and colored corals splatted the reef. At night, the muted brown and gloom creates a solemn structure; a mountain instead of a rainforest.

This isn’t to say there weren’t fish. A smaller red species, malau in Samoan, is everywhere. One the whole, they’re too quick for me. However, I saw Mode dive, shoot, miss, shoot two more times, miss, and still end up getting his fish before surfacing. The guy is amazing.

As we trolled along the right edge of the reef, I started to get used to swimming in a group. We were usually spread out decently, but sometimes bunched up. It was disconcerting to turn to see a tow line full of fish a few feet away from me, and putting several people in a small space with sharp objects rarely ends well.

But to watch a diver’s silhouette trail behind a pillar of blue light streaming down into a valley in the reef is both serene and exciting. The only sound penetrating the soft whosh of waves was the occasional plink of metal on reef.

Soon, tow lines were filling up with fish and lobster, none of which I’d contributed. I was not putting up a good show for palagis. But what I lacked in quantity, I soon made up in quality.

Part of the reason I didn’t get as many fish is that I couldn’t see them; the slivers of movement that were homing beacons to guys like Mode and Ilo escaped my notice. My solution to this was to find a big old fish, preferably holding still.

When I found him, he didn’t quite hold still. My light worked over a reef ridge and scanned the base where it met pale sand. Interrupting the sand was a fish – a nice, big fish. Seeing big fish in reasonable shooting range is somewhat rare for me. I’ve conditioned myself to basically disregard whatever other pursuit I was on and put all my energies into that fish.

In this case, that entailed diving down to the seafloor (25, 35 feet? I don’t think it was more than 45) without a second thought and barely pausing to take a last gulp of air. During the day, most big fish will scram if humans, especially those who want to kill them, get close – you have to hope they come to you. But at night, one gives chase.

I shot (perhaps exaggerating) down toward the fish, which was strolling along toward deeper water. Near the floor I took a more parallel track, creeping up on the fish from a few feet above. He didn’t seemed overly perturbed by my light, but I still tried to keep the main beam slightly off him. As I got closer, I had to pick a moment to shoot.

This is a delicate balance, especially with bigger fish. Too close, and the fish remember that they, in fact, have fins, whereas you are merely wearing them, and leave you in the dust (bubbles?). Too far, and a spear might not penetrate the fish far enough to hold them; bigger fish can fish especially hard. The larger malauli I shot zoomed around in tighter and tighter circles while I wrenched him to the surface.

This time, I aimed for the gills, swooping down within a couple feet, closer than I’d dare during daylight. I ended up shooting a bit high, but deep enough to hold the fish’s initial thrashing. As I turned toward the sky, it occurred to me that I hadn’t breathed for a while, and it wasn’t really comfortable. By the time I’d dragged the fish to the surface, where my spear flexed under its weight, my face probably resembled some of the finish line shots from my distance running days.

I managed to group up with the others, and Ilo brought over the spike for his tow line. When I’d used one in the past, I’d fed the spike through the fish’s gills and mouth. Ilo stabbed the fish in the head until the spike went through. I realized that a thrashing, foot-and-a half long fish probably isn’t what he wanted to deal with tugging around. So, the fish was put out of its misery and my dinner for the next month was secured.

So my Filoa (fee-low-a, an emperor fish of some sort) joined a host of lobsters, malau, parrotfish, and other stuff. That was all I caught for the night – everything else I saw, like alogo (the pretty blue and black fish with yellow stripes) or pone (boring brown fish like alogo) hiding in reef crevices, eluded me. I also missed a nice sized lobster, who then cannon balled down a reef hole.

By the time we swam back around through the wharf, I was bushed, and got out about 10 min ahead of everyone else. They were still working the last bit of reef, adding more to their lines. In the end, Mode and Ilo each had dozens of fish, including some almost as large as mine – Ilo in particular had a beautiful parrotfish. The other two younger guys didn’t have as many, but still a good catch.

I’ve read about how spearfishing doesn’t exactly help reef health. Tutuila was severly overfished several years ago when spearfisherman started using scuba gear, so badly that scuba gear was banned. On Ta’u, with all of 800 people (and really, probably more like 600-700), overfishing isn’t a huge issue because there’s just not that much fishing pressure, period. But seeing a team of five guys vacuum up everything in sight, and seemingly out of sight, I can definitely see why there is concern.

Getting dropped of in Ta’u, Ilo plucked my fish from the line, then grabbed another three fish and two lobsters, deaf to my protests about how I already had too much fish. I elected to clean the fish that night. Between that and packing for Ofu, cleaning up, and writing quizzes, I was up way too late.

But I’d make the same choice in a heartbeat. It was awesome for me to get schooled on how to fish (see what I did there? Schooled, fish?), and I think everyone got a laugh out of the fact that the one fish the palagi caught was the biggest of the night.

-Matt Hoffman, WorldTeach American Samoa 2013-2014

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