Of all the fauna of the reefs, the
fish living permanently in the coral environment of the islands of
volcanic origin or in the atolls are the predominant species. The
fish living on the reefs are the most useful creatures in the Polynesian
marine world, and of course, the most attractive for visitors exploring
the underwater depths.
700 of these same fish, excluding sharks and
reptiles, are to be found on the edge or the middle of the lagoon or on
the shelf on the ocean side of the reef. They represent the basic
protein intake of the local population, and the Papeete market alone sells
2,000 tons every year. The flesh of these fish does not have the
flavour of fish from colder climates and has a further disadvantage - it
can become dangerous for the consumer from time to time. You will
find a further reference to this phenomenon in the later pages of this
For specialists, the classification of fish
depends on recognizing certain characteristics like the number of spines
per fin or the number of scales along their sides. Without the added
gauge of colours and particular measurements, ichthyology could not
It is impossible to give
an exhaustive list of fish here, but nevertheless, let us mention a few
large families you will often come across in the lagoon; for example, the chaetodontidae,
little brightly-colored angel-fish that nibble at the coral in schools
of various sizes. The damsel-fish and clown-fish (pomacentidae), among
the pink anemones' most famous lodgers. The parrot-fish (scatidae)
whose 25 varieties, all brightly-coloured, are often eaten marinated in
lime-juice. The groupers (serranidae), sometimes reaching sizeable
proportions, are carnivorous predators who seem to tolerate man if he
approaches; the moray-eels (muraenidae) lurking in their holes in the
daytime or out in the water at night.
The soldier-fish (holocentridae)
who resemble their Mediterranean cousins. The strange little
box-fish (ostracidae) who move about like helicopters, and the
leopard-rays (myliobatidae) betrayed by their blotches when they hide in
You will also see some of the 17 species of jack
(carangidae) sometimes found in the open sea, or little sharks which
arejust as inquisitive as dogs. The lagoon-sharks are usually small
and not very dangerous. The three most common species are the
blackfin (Carcharius metanopterus), the whitefin (Triaenodon
obesus) and the grey shark (Negaprion acutidens). They
can swim in very shallow water to look for waste food products, and in the
Tuamotus you can see children riding on their backs in 30 cms of water.
Fish from the Ocean
If the Polynesian's
attitude to the ocean has undergone great changes since the time of the
great migrations, he has nevertheless maintained a close relationship with
the sea. The foreigner is amazed by his knowledge of the elements
and his ability to adapt to the marine world without seeking to dominate
These peoples have lived for centuries by drawing
on the ocean for most of their food, tools and ornaments. Today,
only fishing and leisure activities attract islanders to the sea.
Bonito fishing is the Polynesians' main
activity in the open sea. Their small boats, built locally, are as
typical of Tahiti as the famous "truck", or local bus. The
bonito, which has become a symbol of the Tahitian diet, can survive in
water 300 meters deep, and the annual catch is estimated at 1 200 tones.
Tuna fishing is not so important and only
involves yellow-fin tuna which is fished from the surface by bonito
fishing boats. The annual production in Papeete is 400 tones.
Two other species of tuna are found in Polynesia, the albacore and the
big-eye tuna. These are fished by small Asiatic fleets of fishing
boats who have made individual agreements with the Territory.
Other types of fishing are not specialized and
are carried on according to timeworn practices.
However, let us dwell for a moment on how marara
are caught. These flying fish, used as live bait, are taken from
a special kind of fishing boat steered by a control-handle. When the
season is right, these fishermen also capture the prized mahi mahi, or
dolphin fish which can attain sizeable proportions. From time to
time the local fishermen still bring in jack, barracudas or the delicious paru,
a large red perch, which lives in the ocean depths.
Big game fishing
After the big tuna, the swordfish and marlin are
the most sought-after game-fish. Six species live in local waters,
but three of them have become very rare: the sailfish, the striped marlin
and the black marlin. The blue marlin is the most frequently caught
game-fish. It is very large and can weigh up to a tonne, though the
average catch for Tahitians is 400 kg.
Sharks. French Polynesia has few
potentially dangerous shark species and they are not often seen.
The famous white shark, whose notoriety is
worldwide, does not frequent our waters. The tiger-shark, more
common than the former, stays in deep water during the day. This mao
is encountered more frequently in the channels at night.
The biggest group known here are the grey sharks,
or carcharhinus, which can vary from the timid to the aggressive,
like Longimanus which lives a fair distance from the coast.
The lemon shark, Negaprion acutidens, usually considered to be a
redoubtable species, is fairly rare, measures up to three meters and is
not aggressive. According to Polynesians, it is a timid creature
unless disturbed, when it can become very dangerous. Finally we
should mention two species of hammerhead sharks, which are theoretically
harmless, and the whale shark, 20 meters long, which seems to be
indifferent to everybody. The Cetacea. 24 species frequent
the Polynesian zone more or less regularly.
There are the solitary blue whales and several
related groups, spermwhales, and dolphins.
Porpoises do not exist in our tropical waters and
this name, which is often given to Polynesian dolphins, is no doubt due to
the widely held belief that a dolphin has to be blue and white. In
fact, only two of the eight species here are this color. These
mammals move about in groups offering navigators a wonderful demonstration
This poisoning is the
result of a complex bio-ecology involving many fish that constitute the
normal Polynesian diet.
Every year there are
about 1,000 people who fall victim to ciguatera poisoning after having
consumed fresh fish taken from the coral reefs.
The most frequently
affected species are sea-perch, emperors, grouper, parrot-fish, napoleon
fish and triggerfish. Fish from the open sea like tuna and bonito
are never toxic.
This form of
poisoning, which has been there for centuries, exists in tropical waters
all over the globe. It is a major preoccupation of the authorities
in French Polynesia, and a scientist from the research institute has been
working constantly on the ciguatera problem for many years now.
The poison has
finally been isolated, and research has proved that it is produced by a
microscopic organism living on seaweed growing on dead coral. Of
course, such algae do not develop on a reef rich in living coral.
However, if this environment is upset by man or natural disturbances, like
cyclones, a lot of coral dies and the resulting debris is then liable to
promote the development of toxic algae.
This poison, which is
produced in considerable quantities, is transmitted first to the
herbivorous fish and then to the flesh-eating fish that feed on the
latter. If man eats fish containing this toxin he becomes ill.
The symptoms of
ciguatera are a tingling sensation in the face and hands and vomiting and
diarrhea. If a doctor is not available, first-aid measures consist
of getting the patient to vomit copiously and then to take calcium as well
as vitamins B 1, B6 and BI 2.
See also the Fish Gallery
more general information
on French Polynesia, go to: