Religious rites and other marks of respect were integral to the practice of fishing. Karakia (incantations) were offered to Tangaroa, god of the sea, and the other gods, inviting them to send an abundance of fish. Mohi Ruatapu of the Ngāti Porou tribe cites this karakia, chanted to inspire Tangaroa:
Kuku, kuku ika, kuku wehiwehi,
Takina ko koe nā, te iho o ika,
Te iho o Tangaroa –
Uara ki uta rā, uara ki tai rā.
Hold tight, hold the fish, hold tight with fearsome power,
You are led along, the essence of the fish,
The essence of Tangaroa –
Desired on the land, desired on the sea. 1
Te ika whakataki – the first fish
It was common practice to return the first fish that was caught to the sea. Many tribes also had sites on shore where fishermen would place their offerings of fish to Tangaroa, and recite karakia of thanks.
Māori also used a mauri (talisman) to attract fish. Near Mōkau, in the King Country, is the historic punga (anchor stone) of the Tainui canoe. The stone has long been considered the mauri of the fisheries in that region, assuring a bountiful supply of all varieties of fish. It also served to safeguard the fisheries. Not too far along the beach is Te Naenae, where local fishermen once made offerings of fish to Tangaroa.
Use of the waters was also regulated by customary law and practices. Catching many species was limited by season, as was the use of some fishing grounds. One form of prohibition was the rāhui, set up to conserve endangered species and protect certain fishing grounds from being overfished.
Tapu surrounded almost all aspects of fishing, as the fisheries were so closely linked to the gods. The success of an expedition depended on strict adherence to the religious restrictions that ensured the favour of the gods. It was believed that food, especially if cooked, could pollute the tapu, with distrastrous effects. The tapu remained until it was removed by a tohunga back on shore.
The 20th century
Traditional fishing customs were still being followed in the 20th century. This account from the 1950s describes the rituals used for fishing kahawai in the Waiapu River, in the Ngāti Porou tribal district:
When the net is complete, a fishing line is threaded through the outside loops of the net. This is known as the ‘heart of the fishing net’. After this the net is hung up and a weight placed in the bottom of it to help to tighten the mesh ties. Then a length of red mānuka pole is fashioned and some supplejacks. These are dried and made into an oval frame according to the size of the net. At this stage the new net is ready to be taken to the beach where it is fixed on to the framework.
Before entering the water, the fisherman performs a special rite by urinating on the net and sprinkling some too over his body. Only after this ritual will he enter the water. This ritual is still performed today.
When the first fish is caught, the head is broken off so that the blood spills over the net, after which the fish is hung up on a stake well ashore. That particular fish is not eaten. Then one may proceed to fish. Only after performing the above ritual is the tapu of a new net lifted. (With an old net the urination ritual only is performed.) Sharks and other destructive creatures of the sea will not enter the net.
After having fished the required number, the fish must not be scaled at or near the fishing area. Rather this must be done elsewhere. If scaling is to be done at home, then this must be done outside to avoid contamination by cooked food. 2
Many people believe that fishing was a task for men, while women collected shellfish. However, there is some disagreement about this.