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A Brief History of Spearfishing
Written by Fifi Tseng | September 1st 2020
The ocean is a treasure house for us today to explore the secret of earth and our origins as 70% of our planet’s surface is covered by the ocean while what we know about it is rather limited—95% of this mysterious world still remains unexplored. In the past, the ocean plays an even far more critical role to certain ancient groups for a pragmatic reason, to feed their empty stomach with marine creatures. To better foraging in the ocean for larger, faster preys, the early prototype of a spear pole was then developed, opening a new chapter in the history of human fishing—the activity of spearfishing began.
The early practice of spearfishing can be dated back to over 16,000 years old according to the cave art in Cosquer Cave in Southern France1 as the drawings of seals appear to have been harpooned. A person who spearfish is called spearfishman, or spearo. Early spearos utilized the materials that they could easily obtain to create gears they needed. In many regions, spearfishing has been practiced for a long time until today and has developed into unique cultures. A famous example in recent years goes to the Sea Gypsies, the Bajau tribe. Thy are sea nomads of Austronesian ethnic group from Southeast Asia who live off the sea, and their relatively larger spleens allows them to be able to freedive underwater to harvest shellfish and food at depths of up to 60 meters for as long as 13 minutes2. This innate ability makes Bajau people develop their own way to spearfish. They dive and walk on the ocean’s floor to hunt fish and octopi with homemade spear-guns by simply wearing wooden goggles and no fins3. However, not everyone are born with such gift to spearfish with the Bajau skills. The rest of us might could really use a modern spearing equipment to increase our efficiency in spearfishing.
Polespear, Hawaiian Sling, and Speargun are the most common gears for spearing fish and each is with different purpose and function. More information about spearfishing equipment can be found in Equipment & Permit. With the awareness of sustainable fisheries resource management, governments in various countries pose limits on spearfishing activities with permit control. In some regions, the gear a spearo could use is limited as well. For example, in Maldives, a speargun is forbidden by the laws and only a Hawaiian Sling or a polespear is permitted. In conserved areas, it is often strictly not allowed to do spearfishing except for local residents or aboriginal inhabitants. For instance, in Moalboal, the Philippines, foreigners are not allowed to spearfish with the local people. Even when one spearo is equipped with skills, equipment and permit, they must face the risks such as strong currents and shark attacks (they can smell blood from the speared fish) brought by this activities. Thus, spearfishing is not only about freediving and hunting, but also including culture differences, regulations, equipment choices, spearing know-hows, ocean experiences, crisis management, knowledge to fish kinds and the cleaning of your fish.
Before spearfishing, it is essential for us to know that it is a respectable way to live in a self-sufficient life, especially for those communities who have been practicing this lifestyle for thousands of years. Spearfishing is much more eco-friendly compared to capture fishery or other methods of fishing because it is highly selective, having no by-catch, causing no habitat damage, nor creating pollution or harm to protected endangered species4. As many spearos may be familiar with this saying, one breath for one kill. Being in the wild ocean, every life is equal, and we could be both a hunter and a prey—the nature selects, the fittest survives. For freedivers who spend most of their lives in city and would like to try spearfishing, it would be an experience of a lifetime because many of them may never face the death of a life before it is served in their plates. Always remember, be responsible to your prey and never kill for nothing. Most importantly, be humble while being in the wild nature, we are deeply connected to and affected by the many lives down there. If you make an abundant harvest, it is serendipity. If you make nothing, you might want to be grateful because you bring your life back.
 Guthrie, Dale Guthrie (2005) The Nature of Paleolithic Art. University of Chicago Press.
 Sonny Tanabe (2011) The Evolution of Freediving and History of Spearfishing in Hawaii Booklines Hawaii, Ltd
 Melati Kaye & Brian Orland (2012) Indonesia’s last nomadic sea gypsies aljazeera.com
 Smith, Adam; Nakaya, Seiji (2002) Spearfishing – is it ecologically sustainable? 3rd World Recreational Fishing Conference.