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Indigenous Banabans (Ocean Island) were known as the 'greatest fishermen in the Pacific'

By Stacey KingPublished 2 years ago Updated 2 years ago 11 min read
Traditional Banaban fishing is still practised today on Banaba (Ocean Island)


Written by Puputi Sunema and Temamira Terubea won first place in the Banaban Literary Prize, 1994, called Te Karaki Nikawai (Stories of the Past). The annual event encouraged students from Rabi High School, Fiji to talk with their Elders and submit entries based on Banaban Cultural practices.


To provide information on some types of our traditional methods of fishing in order to help us know and understand them and preserve these skills for future generations.


The sea always has been and is still very important in the lives of the Banaban people originally from Banaba or Ocean Island. Fish was and still is part of their everyday diet on Banaba. The survival and livelihood on the tiny island of Banaba depended more on the sea as the land is too small to support a variety of food crops. Because almost all Banabans are part I-Kiribati, the traditional methods consist of both I-Kiribati and Banaban. These traditional fishing methods are being taught from generation to generation. In this project, we have attempted to describe the traditional fishing methods employed by the Banaban fishermen.

Te Bororo fishing

Te Boboro

A piece of lead or iron is tied at the end of the fishing line. A length of about 6 inches is allowed before the first hook is placed. There can be three to four hooks as indicated by the diagram below. The best bait is the soft part of the hermit crab (the part in the shell, not the claws). Hermit crabs are easily found on the shore or among coastal vegetation. The best place for fishing is just beyond the coral reef. When fishing, the canoe or boat is best left to float and not anchored as is a common way with most fishermen. The line is then lowered to reach the bottom. A canoe is left to float so that it enables the line to move around more and hence quickly capture the attention of the fish below. Fishermen still use this method and have been quite successful with it, for one can catch as many as three or four fish (depending on the number of hooks) at one go.

Te Kabara fishing

Te Kabara

In this method, the hook and bait are placed on a flat stone. Tin fish or fish in very tiny pieces is spread over the stone A breadfruit leaf, or other similar size leaves are used to wrap the hook, bait and stone then the fishing line is wound loosely around the leaf.

The fishing line is then lowered into the sea till it reaches the bottom, where the one is pulled up. Usually, if there is no catch, the length of the fishing line is increased ten times measuring horizontally from one hand to the other. The length of the line continues to increase ten times if there is no catch. This increase in length stops when there is a catch. The best time for fishing is early in the morning.

Te Karaiti fishing

Te Karaiti

In this method, a fishing line is attached to the hook with a feature as bait. At the end of the fishing line, a thin wire is tied to it, while the other end of the thin wire is a piece of lead tied to a thicker wire and to the fishing line. Then the line is dropped, and once it touches the bottom, it is pulled up, then dropped again. This process goes on if there is no catch. The best time for fishing is early in the morning and late in the afternoon.

Te Katiki fishing

Te Katiki

This method is suitable for outboard engines. A wire is attached to the fishing hook, and the fishing hook must go right through the bait, preferable Cardinalfish, which is cut on both sides in such a way as to imitate a living fish while it is being dragged in the water. At the end of the wire is a swivel and the fishing line is fixed to the other end of it. The line is then dropped in the deep sea, and the boat or sailing canoe begins to travel very fast once the fishing line is dropped, but travelled slowly when the fish is caught. Early in the morning and late in the afternoon is the best time suitable for fishing.


The method is similar to the Gilbertese method te katiki. The difference is that te katiki needs fast boats, while this one is ‘still’ fishing. The bait is the flesh of a fish cut in such a way to resemble the shape of a fish. Fishermen go out fishing either early in the morning or late in the afternoon because these are the cool hours of the day and they believe that it is these times bit fish feed on small fish near the surface of the water. They usually go out fishing on the first three days of the new moon, or when there is a half-moon, that is when the tide is normal between low and full tide.

Banaban traditional te kiika, octopus fishing Ocean Island (Banaba) early 1900s

Traditional Knowledge

The villagers possess a variety of traditional knowledge about fishing. As mentioned earlier, all knowledge whether it be traditional medicine or personal beauty and even about fishing is kept within the immediate family and very confidential. There are certain hours of the days where it is best for fishing. Fishermen, through their own skills and traditional knowledge, can sight fish from a long way off. On Ocean Island (Banaba), the islanders usually go out looking for te kiika (octopus) when a particular tree, which is called, teitai is in full blossom. This is the time when te kiika come out of their holes into the open.

Traditional Fisheries Management

There is really no traditional management that we are aware of. However, because the Banabans are very secretive and reluctant to share knowledge on anything relating to tradition, this could be regarded as traditional management. For example, a Banaban fisherman upon returning from fishing with a large catch will not reveal the fishing grounds even though he is asked by many. This applied to the fishing grounds on Rabi whereas on Banaba with such a small population of the island and surrounded by vast deep water and abundance of fish the fisherman only go out when needed. These two aspects prevent overfishing.

Ice plant built in Nuku village, Rabi, Fiji 1993

Past and Present Fishing Development on Rabi

At present, the Rabi Council of Leaders has invented an Ice Plant building with the help of the Fisheries Department. The Ice Plant was built in Nuku beside the Wholesale building in 1993. The purpose of the Ice Plant is to sell the cubes to fishermen in order to keep their catch fresh. The cubes are sold by the kilogram at the cost of about four dollars. It has been seen that this new development has been beneficial to the people in Rabi. In the past, two launches were used for communal fishing. They were from Buakonikai and Tabiang. The one in Buakonikai is no longer operating due to mechanical problems, while the one in Tabiang is still used. Also at present, another new launch is now in operation from the village of Uma. This launch is also used for fishing.

Banaban boys with a catch of Barracuda, Ocean Island (Banaba)1902

Roles of Men and Women

There is a marked difference in the roles of men, women and young boys in the village. The woman’s role is centred in and around the house. She is also involved in collecting shellfish on the reef. Young boys are heavily involved in plantations and prefer spearfishing. It is the man who mainly does fishing. They go out very early in the morning for fishing and return late in the evening or leave late in the afternoon and return in the early hours of the morning. Young sons are not involved with traditional fishing. They are usually taught the methods to prepare them for the future when they have a family of their own. However, it is interesting to note that there is a season of fishing when all ages are involved. For example, the season of Tawatawa when the mackerel and tuna come near to the coral reefs or in the bay in large shoals swimming together. Fishing for mackerel and tuna is done only at night, and it is common and pleasing to find the young and old alike return full handed.

Banaban fishermen heading out to sea Ocean Island (Banaba) 1900s

Discussions and Conclusion

If there is any sound future for rural development to be set up on Rabi, it has to be fishing. It is the one area the Rabi Islanders are naturally skilled in. Many have suggested that the first major development on the island (Forestry) was a failure economically, socially and environmentally. With this Forestry development, skills were taught to the locals, and these skills disappeared when the logging operations ceased.

The following are recommendations that we feel will start a small commercial fishing enterprise:

  • Environmental awareness programmes throughout the villages. On the island, the coastline and beaches are dumping sites for both human and domestic waste.

  • Small markets could be established in each village to encourage local fishermen. On the island, there is almost no selling of produce or fish caught on Rabi with the other Fiji islands.

  • To improve the nutritional status of the Banabans tinned foods such as canned fish and corned beef should be restricted on the island, as more and more islanders are becoming dependent on tinned food to supplement fish. Restrictions would encourage and allow the islanders to go out fishing and provide an essential source of protein for the daily diet.
Banaban 3-seater tewaa outrigger


Skipjack tuna is a type of deep-sea fish that is very popular with the Banaban people because it can be eaten cooked or raw. Traditionally Banabans fish for skipjack at dawn.

The skipjack tuna school moves from place to place following the warm sea currents. The waters around Ocean Island (Banaba) are usually warm throughout the year so this is one reason why there are such large schools of skipjack in the area.

The skipjack schools are usually found about a mile (2.2 km) offshore with flocks of birds travelling above them. The birds drop down to feed on the scraps of fish that the tuna are feeding on.

The Banabans build slender tewaa (canoes) that can carry up to 3 people. No outboard motors are used.

The skipjack tuna is traditionally caught with slender 5 foot (1.5 metres) fishing poles with the fishing line made of coconut sinnet. The hook, te kanati, is carved from a piece of stalactite or stalagmite found in the island’s bangabanga (water caves). At one end of the hook, a hole is drilled and used to attach the fishing line. On the other end a piece of bone, usually taken from one of the ancestors is attached as the hook.

Te kanati fishing hook, carved from stalactite or stalagmite from Banaba (Ocean Island) water caves, bangabanga. The bone of an ancestor is attached as a hook.

When the fisherman’s canoe reaches the school of skipjack, he moves to the back of the canoe and stands. He holds the fishing pole to his mid-waist and then flips the hook over the water. The tuna see the reflective colours of the hook as a lure, resembling a shiny fish skipping over the water. The skipjack will jump after it and swallow the hook. The fisherman must ensure that the fishing line is fully stretched before pulling the fish aboard. If the line is slack then the fish will fall off, as the hook is more a lure.


1. First published Banaban/Ocean Island News Issue No. 12 Nov/Dec 1994. Te Karaki Nikawai – Stories of the Past, an annual literary prize for students of Rabi High School. The competition encouraged students to talk with their Elders and submit entries based on Banaban Cultural practices. These awards were sponsored by Stacey King through the Banaban Heritage Society, and this winning entry in 1994 won $100 prize money.

Judges: Professor Grant McCall for South Pacific Studies, University of New South Wales and Ms Jemima Garrett, Freelance Journalist and Writer, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Sydney.

Judges Comments on this entry:

This project has been assessed already by a teacher. Good, clear explanations, with simple illustrations to ease comprehension, although some entries are a bit too short to be entirely clear. There also is a thoughtful conclusion about future developments on Rabi. Perhaps planners in government should listen? The authors of this essay have presented some meticulous, original research and covered their subject comprehensively. They discuss a wide range of traditional fishing methods and demonstrate a rare ability to set this project in its historical, social and economic context.

The discussion of the history of the fishing industry on Rabi. The comparison with the logging industry, the discussion of the relative impact of fishing on men and women, the recognition of the need for fishing to be developed in an environmentally sustainable manner, and its potential value in improving people’s nutritional status reflects a broad vision and a mature judgement. Altogether a work of a very high standard.

2. Traditional Fishing for Skipjack Tuna by Retanima Karakaua, Form 2R, Rabi High School, Rabi, Fiji. Entry in Te Karaki Nikawai – Stories of the Past, annual literary prize.

Original drawings were provided by Puputi Sunema and Temamira Terubea as part of this project.

Photographs appearing in this article are from various archival and family collections held by S. King.

Republished: Banaban Voice Blog, 3 Sept 2019.

Get the Book!

Read more about the epic history of Banaba (Ocean Island) and the Banaban people (The Forgotten People of the Pacific) as they try and seek justice to save their island, their culture, their future, "Te Rii ni Banaba- backbone of Banaba" by Raobeia Ken Sigrah and Stacey M King, available on Amazon here.


About the Creator

Stacey King

Stacey King, a published Australian author and historian. Her writing focuses on her mission to build global awareness of the plight of the indigenous Banaban people and her achievements as a businesswoman, entrepreneur and philanthropist.

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