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To catch a pair of mating turtles

By Raquel Bagnol

Long before turtle fishing was banned in most Pacific island countries, Tokelau practiced cultural traditions that guided the catching of this marine animal. It involved a meticulous process and was surrounded by superstitions.

Turtle used to be part of the native diet until Tokelau officially prohibited turtle fishing in 2009 to curb its population decline.

Nevertheless, the Tokelauan elders recorded the customs and traditions associated with turtle fishing in order to preserve the indigenous knowledge and share it with the younger generation. These traditions are recorded in the book “Echoes at Fishermen's Rock: Traditional Tokelau Fishing."

In Atafu, the smallest atoll in Tokelau, the turtle fishing season usually ran from September to November. This is the mating period for turtles. Tokelauans believed the best time to catch turtles was when they were mating. However, it was considered extremely dangerous.

According to “Echoes at Fishermen's Rock," it was the elders’ duty to choose the man who would handle the male turtle. He would be assisted by a nephew. In total, four men were chosen to perform the task.

When mating turtles were spotted in the sea, the elders would be notified so they could select the turtle catchers. The man tasked to handle the female turtle would give the signal for others to go in. The men would dive underwater and emerge only when they were alongside the mating turtles.

The man assigned to the female turtle would slide his arms under the turtle's front flaps, holding them close to his armpits. He would give the go-signal to separate the mating pair.

If the turtles were unsettled and wild, they would dive down deep when they saw the diving party. The group would then encircle a spot where the turtles were expected to surface to catch some air.

No one among the diving party was allowed to wear a litua belt of sennit fiber around his waist because this would increase the danger of being taken down by the turtles. Sennit is a type of cord with plaited strands of dried fiber or grass.


A man with a pregnant wife was not allowed to join a fishing party because it was considered bad luck. The elders also believed his presence would cause the turtles to be shy and timid.

The people of Atafu regarded turtles as sacred marine resources. They had a system called "inati," which required the equal distribution of turtle meat among all of the households within the inati system.

Residents of every village are assigned to an inati group, usually based on relationships, among other considerations. Under the inati system, members get an equal share of certain types of caught fish that they consider sacred including sea turtle, billfish or marlin, and skipjack tuna.

But again, this was a thing of the past. Several species of turtles have since been listed as either threatened or endangered. For conservationists, keeping turtles away from destructive human activity is a sacred thing to do.

Raquel Bagnol is a freelance journalist. She worked as a reporter in Palau and Saipan. Send feedback to

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