REVIEW: R. M. McDowall, Ikawai: Freshwater Fishes in Māori Culture and Economy, Canterbury University Press, Christchurch, 2011, 832 pp, ISBN 978-1-877257-86-5.

Ian C. Duggan[1]

Bob McDowall was known to every freshwater ecologist in New Zealand, owing to an extremely productive career that included many highly utilised books and journal articles. While environmental historians may have known McDowall best for Gamekeepers for the Nation: The Story of New Zealand’s Acclimatisation Societies, for biologists his major work was New Zealand Freshwater Fishes a: A Guide and Natural History. Within this latter book, McDowall penned a chapter entitled ‘Traditional Māori fisheries’, from which Ikawai: Freshwater Fishes in Māori Culture and Economy found its genesis. Retiring from NIWA in 2000, Ikawai, at close to 800 pages in 38 chapters, was what he described as his ‘retirement’ project. It was McDowall’s final work, completed before his passing in 2011.

The main purpose of Ikawai was to provide a synthesis of written information regarding the knowledge and importance of freshwater fish to Māori, to allow more ready access to this scattered material. In the book, McDowall has trolled through various accounts of written history, and critically examined these works using his own vast biological knowledge of New Zealand freshwater fishes, to make sense of the writings. As McDowall argues, the quality of the information in these writings is variable. This is particularly the case for problems caused by varied nomenclature. For example, although inanga is today applied as a common name for one particular fish species (Galaxias maculatus), historically it has been used for a number of different species, varying among iwi. This, we find, has likely come about due to the name being translocated to New Zealand from Polynesia, with the tag subsequently applied to different fish species. Confounding this, the reliability of material from many sources can not be guaranteed, with some of this information considered ‘mystical and invented nonsense’. By examining the available information through a fish biologist’s eyes, McDowall has attempted to tease apart the fact from the fanciful. In all, McDowall was not shy to heavily criticise authors where he believed their interpretations to be incorrect. Information has been collected from varied, and sometimes obscure, sources. Commonly used writings include texts by Elsdon Best, Herries Beattie and Atholl Anderson, among others, which have been supplemented by snippets obtained from more obscure literature.

Following initial chapters that set the scene, chapters three and four provide overviews of the fish available to Māori. The first of these details species present following Māori arrival, while the latter chapter includes fish introduced by Europeans, which were utilised in the decades following European colonisation. This is followed by fourteen more in depth chapters on different individual fish species, covering topics such as value to Māori, archaeological finds, Māori knowledge of the species, fishing protocols, knowledge of cooking and preservation techniques, and their mention in myths, legends and proverbs. The most extensive among these is a chapter on tuna (freshwater eels), to which almost one hundred pages are dedicated. Such a prominence within the book reflects the disproportionate importance eels had to Māori, being widespread, abundant, of large size, and energy rich, relative to other New Zealand freshwater fishes. Throughout these chapters the coverage of cooking methods commonly left me salivating. One of the most interesting chapters from this section, for me, was that on the lamprey (piharau or kanakana), and in particular the stories of how overeating this species has lead to death through poisoning due to the toxins deposited in their skin. I am sure stories in other chapters will similarly attract the interest of others.

McDowell often refers to the lessening importance of freshwater fisheries to Māori in the years following European arrival. Throughout the book he uses this decline in the usage of species, and the causes for this decline, as a central theme. Traditionally among the most important of foods for Māori, McDowell illustrates a move from fish to more easily obtainable Pākehā foods, and a reduction in the availability of fish due to deterioration in water quality and the adverse impacts of introduced fishes. A major surprise regarding this was a chapter I thought on first glance would be the least interesting, and perhaps even outside the scope of the book: that of the impacts of introduced trout in New Zealand. This chapter covers not only the direct biological impacts of this predatory fish on native species, but demonstrated the effects that legal restrictions on fishing for trout (e.g., the requirement for fishing licences) had on Māori. This is well argued, absorbing, and shocking reading. McDowall clearly shows in this chapter how the taking of trout by Māori became a crime, despite this collection occurring within their own lakes, and regardless of the fact that permission was never given for these fish to be released there (e.g., in Te Arawa lakes). Examples are provided of Māori being prosecuted for capturing trout even as by-catch (i.e., incidentally), while in the process of fishing for native species using traditional methods.

Overall, many of the stories contained in Ikawai are enormously interesting, but there are a lot of pages to wade through; at 800 content pages it is encyclopaedic. However, I am not sure the intention of the book was for it to be read, as I did, from cover to cover. There is a fair element of repetition of information between chapters, and the presentation of a lot of similar stories within chapters, as McDowall has seemingly tried to fit every piece of accumulated information into this book. For example, six pages are dedicated solely to the capturing of eels by hand. This can commonly make the book feel laboured, but it does make it extremely valuable in that if something is of interest to the reader, it is not simply condensed. As such, this repetition may be due to an intention for the book to be used as a one-stop resource, where the reader might focus on individual chapters and not on the book in its entirety. Despite this, when read cover to cover, the reader is regularly rewarded with an interesting little gem that helps maintain the interest. Adding interest throughout is the enormous variety of pictures, including both historic and contemporary images. There does seem to be some contradictory material within the book, particularly with the regional importance of freshwater fisheries to Māori. For example, while McDowall argues in the earlier chapters for a greater importance of freshwater fish in the south of New Zealand, where other foods were less easily grown, it is argued later in the book that there was no regionalism in their importance. Unfortunately, a number of typographical errors throughout the book also provide some distraction.

All up, Ikawai is an incredibly valuable book, collating information from an enormous variety of sources that would otherwise have been largely inaccessible. Adding value to the book is that, for the scientific community, the information given provides numerous hypotheses that can be tested. For example, stories of the sources of historic translocations of fish into waters where their natural passage was blocked by waterfalls, such as into Lake Taupō and the Te Arawa lakes around Rotorua, could be tested using modern genetic techniques. Whether reading from cover to cover, or casually browsing, readers will find much in this book that is of interest. I believe it will be an essential part of the library of New Zealand freshwater ecologists for years to come.


[1]Dr. Ian Duggan is a senior lecturer within the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Waikato. His main interests are invasion biology and zooplankton ecology.