The enigmatic ature

Saturday 8 May 2021 | Written by Emmanuel Samoglou | Published in Features, In Depth


The enigmatic ature
Casting a net for Ature in Avatiu harbour. (PHOTO: Emmanuel Samoglou). 21050714

Ature are mysterious. They are annual visitors to our islands, where they are caught, shared, and then devoured. But sometimes they don’t make an appearance, and it is not understood why. Journalist Emmanuel Samoglou spoke to fishermen and scientists to learn more about these small, yet revered fish.

For weeks, seasoned fishermen, hungry members of the public, and curious onlookers have gathered around the harbours of the nation’s islands to catch Ature – a fish with cultural significance.

Yet little is known about these fish, which are known in English as the bigeye scad.

They are described as a coastal pelagic fish, which means they spend their lives swimming along reefs and coasts, and can also be found in the open ocean.

And every year, they visit a number of islands in the South Pacific, including those in the Cooks.

Except some years, they don’t come.

The truth is, little is known about Ature amongst local scientists

On any given day over the past six weeks, fishermen have been casting their nets at Avatiu harbour to catch Ature.

After pulling in their nets, the fish are placed in a bucket before being handed out. They are never sold.

Local fisherman Don Beer has been out there taking part in the harvest. “We didn’t see them last year, but they have returned. It started about six weeks ago, when we started to see them come through,” he says.

“We get them normally each year, or every couple of years around April to May. They are brought in by the big Dogtooth (tuna) and the Giant Trevally. They come into the harbour to evade predators.”

Beer, who also holds the role of president of the Cook Islands Fishing Association, says he has been catching Ature around Avatiu Harbour and just off the reef. Roughly two weeks ago, he said he found a huge school at the shallow water fish aggregation device (FAD) off the coast near Trader Jack’s.

There have been reports of catches throughout the Cook Islands this year, he says.

Atiu, Mitiaro and Mangaia have seen plenty in their harbours, he says.  “And there’s always plenty up north, there are heaps of them.”

“Strangely, Mauke hasn’t seen any this year, it could be because of the ocean currents,” he says.

Ature have been caught using rod and reel, or a simple bamboo rod with line. Casting and gill nets have also been used.

Beer said he has used small lures early in the morning, with a piece of fish as bait.

With an aim towards conservation, this year residents in Mangaia have been using pole and line to catch them, as opposed to nets.

Once they’re caught, the feast begins. Ature are said to have firm flesh and a texture similar to Mackerel.

In this file photo, Tourism's Kia Orana Ambassadors Aunty Nane and Aunty Lydia were among the grateful who showed up on time for some freshly caught Ature at Avana harbour. (PHOTO: Cook Islands Tourism) 20041731

They’re a favourite locally, throughout the Pacific, and beyond, and they’re often are eaten raw or pan-fried.

“There is a rule that you don’t sell this fish,” Beer says. “It’s a rule that has been brought down by our elders over the years. They say this is a blessing from God; that the Ature are here, you enjoy them, and you give them away.”

Yet for such a revered fish, there is little scientific information about them that is readily available.

“It is an important food source for locals, not just here but throughout the Pacific.” says marine biologist Dr Teina Rongo. “But there’s not much known about them.”

Even the cultural practice of sharing and how it came about is somewhat murky, he says.

“Traditionally, this fish was not caught the way it is caught today,” says Rongo.

“They are not the smartest fish out there, they get caught very easily. When you’re catching them, you can catch the entire school if you do it right. And it’s an instinct that if you’ve caught all of this fish, you should share it.”

Ature on the grill. (PHOTO: Phillip Nordt) 21050720

Gerald McCormack, director of the Cook Islands Natural Heritage Trust, says he also reached a dead end after setting out to do some research. “I’ve looked into them a little bit in the past but I haven’t find any information about them,” he said.

As the first week of May comes to a close, fishermen in Rarotonga are reporting declining catches of Ature, indicating they may be moving on to their next destination.

As to where, nobody Cook Islands News spoke to for this story knows with certainty. But when they do come back, fisherman will once again be ready to share their catches.

“We don’t have a local university that does much work on these things and other topics that are important locally,” says McCormack.

“There are just some things we don’t know about.”