Fishing with Hawaiian Plants



For the ancient Hawaiians, the ocean provided a source of beauty, recreation and most importantly, sustenance. Over generations, lawai’a (fisherman) honed their fishing skills with the help of tools such as a spear, net, trap, line, hook and plants for harvesting marine life.

In Old Hawai'i, fish trapped in tidal pools at low tide were sometimes caught with mild toxins obtained from the 'auhuhu bush, a legume known in many parts of the Pacific, and some 'akia, a group of endemic shrubs and trees. The whole 'auhuhu plant or the root and stem bark of 'akia species were crushed into bits, either with a mortar and pestle or with rocks found by the shore. The materials were then scattered in tide pools around the base of rocks and into holes where fish might hide. In a few minutes the small fish that were present would float to the surface and could be picked up.

This effect did not last more than twenty or so minutes, depending on the size of the tide pool and the speed with which fresh seawater entered it and diluted the toxin. Any fish that were washed out of the pools or overlooked in the gathering would recover and swim away, since the toxins merely stupefied the fish rather than killing them outright. In this sense, these old "poisons" more closely resembled modern fish anesthetics than the chemical rotenone, another plant derivative used to catch fish, from which fish do not recover.

Most fish were not killed by the toxic plants, which merely stunned them and made them easy to catch. The poison had no effect on human beings. No data suggest that 'auhuhu or 'akia toxins are transferred to humans through consumption of fish caught in this way.


'Auhuhu (Tephrosia piscattoria)


'Akia (Wikstroemia species)




Joseph Feher, 1969 Hawaii: A Pictorial History
Bernice P. Bishop Museum Special Publication No. 58

Isabella Aiona Abbott, 1992 La'au Hawai'i, Traditional Uses of Plants
Bishop Museum Press



Information compiled by Dino Labiste

Fishing with Poisons

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