Tangaroa. Atua of the oceans.

This is not a structured argument. It's not an informative 101 on fisheries management. It's an apology, and an expression of my own grief, and a love letter. Some humans have forgotten some things.

For the last few weeks our ship and her crew have been here out at sea, in your rolling domain, visiting longline fishing vessels and documenting the conditions and fishing practices on board. Rusting hulls filled with the frozen bodies of your children. Tuna are hauled aboard, their fins sliced off with deft, expert hands, their hot blood drained, a line threaded through their mouth and gills, their rounded bulk slung into the depths of a freezer. Fishermen work for inhuman stretches of time, reeling in more... and more... and more from your waters. Tuna, sharks, sunfish, marlin, turtles... whatever likes the look of a baited hook.  The freezers fill up, the boat becoming lower in the water from the weight. Hundreds upon hundreds of tonnes of stiff bodies. And then these go to shore, directly or via another ship, and the boat begins again. It is one of thousands.


Tangaroa, a tuna in your world is a living thing, a vital, hot-blooded, muscular, round-bodied, swift, silver flash of life. You are the guardian of the waters, but as a creature is dragged from them and into a boat, something happens. It stops being a living being and becomes a commodity, a resource, money in fishy form. It stops being your creature, your gift, our privilege, something to respect and honour. It becomes a quota. A stock. A fishery. An 'it'. Something to fill a can, a sandwich, a wallet, a report, a conference. What has happened to human eyes, that silver creatures are seen only as silver dollars? When did we forget that the same mauri animates us both?

Paul Hilton / GREENPEACE

This approach is not just to your sea-creatures, but other humans also. The fishermen on these boats are not treated as human beings, but as a resource – a disposable method to convert fish into cash. Too many of them are underpaid, overworked, deprived of sleep, some are abused, perhaps kept at sea for years at a time with no means of escape. We have heard stories of lost fingers, of beatings, of being locked in freezers, income stolen by corrupt agents after years of work, stories of distant families, of hardship and sacrifice. What hardening of the heart has happened to make some people treat other ones like this? And what damage does it do to a person to be effectively forced into commodity-killing for their work?

Fishermen Eating Onboard Longliner in Pacific Ocean

Who is doing this? Where does this culture come from? There are obviously some companies that are callously determined to strip-mine every wriggle of life from the sea – Mitsubishi, for example has for years been stockpiling endangered bluefin tuna for the day when extinction drives up the price (ref below). But this kind of madness happens within a cultural web that we all help construct: one that sees creatures as commodities, one that puts personal gratification above any other goal, one that takes but does not give back. A chronic, ravenous dissatisfaction. The way we eat teaches us how to see, and the way we see shapes how we eat. And it is forgetful. You are continuously teaching us the laws of nature but many of us have forgotten how to listen, how to live by them. 

Why should we remember you? What help would it be to acknowledge you as atua and guardian of everything in the oceans? Perhaps the act of honouring you could serve as a reminder that to take something from the ocean is a privilege, not a right. A reminder that the world is not ours. Even in well-meaning moments, we talk about looking after the ocean – for us. We talk about 'our oceans,' 'our fish,' looking after the sea for 'our children'. 

It's not our ocean. It's your ocean. 

This is what I understand about you. You keep on giving. You are generosity, you are wildness, you are creation and destruction, humourous, spontaneous and always changing. It is not in your nature to hold back, you give freely the food that becomes our blood in turn. You do not turn against people even in our heights of greed. But we seem not to notice, we keep on taking. At some point we stopped taking just what we needed and started to exploit you. Will we keep going until the oceans are empty, until the last and smallest creature has been sieved and boiled and canned and consumed? Maybe we will.

Tangaroa, mō taku hē, mō taku hē.

I am sorry.

Pacific Ocean