Barracuda played significant role in Hawaiian fishing traditions


The great barracuda, also known as ‘opelu mama or kaku, played a significant role in Hawaiian fishing traditions. Fishermen would work together with the kaku to find and net schools of ‘opelu. -- Maui Ocean Center photo

The lawai’a (fisherman) rises before dawn to prepare his equipment, but does so quietly to avoid disturbing the spirits.

He does not discuss where he is going to fish because it would result in a poor catch. It is kapu (forbidden) for others to observe or speak to the lawai’a during preparation as he readies his nets and canoe for a day at sea.

Lawai’a were highly skilled and greatly respected in Hawaiian society, a role traditionally reserved for kane (men). He was trained to understand cloud formations, ocean currents and wind direction, moon phases and star patterns. But the lawai’a did not always look to the sky to find fish — the answer would often come with the aid of the ‘opelu mama.

The ‘opelu mama is known as kaku, or great barracuda (Sphyraena barracuda). Growing up to 5.5 feet in length, the kaku is recognizable by its elongated, silver body, dark grey vertical bars and black spots, large toothy mouth and distinct protruding jaw.

There are three common species found in Hawaii, and while some may school together, the kaku is generally a solitary predator that feeds on fish including ‘opelu (mackerel scad, Decapterus macarellus).

‘Opelu has been a staple in the Hawaiian diet for centuries and continues to hold high value today. Shaped like a silver torpedo with a blue-green back, the ‘opelu is a schooling fish found near the surface down to depths of 650 feet. At the start of ‘opelu fishing season in early Hawaii, ceremonies were performed and the lawai’a prepared his wa’a (canoe) and fishing nets. He brought pala (fern) to the temple where he would ask his ancestral deities for protection at sea.

Fishing for ‘opelu was done by canoe and was often a two-man job with the po’o lawai’a serving as the head fisherman or spotter. At the ko’a (fishing ground), the po’o lawai’a would rhythmically knock on the canoe’s hull to attract the ‘opelu while throwing pala’ai pu (squash) as bait. More importantly, knocking the canoe was done to call in the ‘opelu mama to help the lawai’a locate the ‘opelu.

The presence of the ‘opelu mama was critical for lawai’a to be successful. ‘Opelu form loose and scattered schools, making it difficult for the fishermen to net them. By calling in the kaku, the ‘opelu would defensively school in a balled-up fashion, making it easier for the lawai’a to net them with ‘a ‘ei ‘opelu (a large net). The scene is similar to a shepherd herding in a flock of sheep. In return for its helpful services, the kaku was hand-fed a portion of the catch.

Today, the ‘opelu mama faces many challenges. The great barracuda is a popular target for game fishing and spearfishing due to its large size and predatory instincts. The concept of trophy fishing was foreign to many Hawaiians, who would hanai (nourish) resources like the ‘opelu for sustenance, not social recognition. The ‘opelu mama was typically left alone to ensure the future presence of ‘opelu.

Over time, ‘opelu fishing evolved with new technology: nets became smaller and more efficient, fish finders are used to locate schools of fish, and the dependence on the ‘opelu mama began to diminish. But for many families that still fish for ‘opelu in traditional ways, the presence of the kaku is a lucky sign that indicates ‘opelu would soon follow.

As early lawai’a would teach their sons how to fish, they would also speak of the importance of not removing the ‘opelu mama. The relationship and harmony between the lawai’a and ‘opelu mama exemplifies the Hawaiians’ understanding of how relationships within nature can be used to create sustainable resource management.

For many, the ‘opelu mama was Kaku Nui, a great companion with a strong connection to the lawai’a. They knew that without the ‘opelu mama, there would be no ‘opelu, a lesson that still bears meaning today.

* Evan Pascual is the marketing and public relations coordinator at Maui Ocean Center. “Ka Mo’olelo Moana,” or “the Ocean Story,” is a monthly column submitted by Maui Ocean Center staff members. The center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily in Maalaea. For more information, call 270-7000.


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