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"Seafood in the Indo-Pacific Area" from Tactical and Technical Trends

The following report on seafood in the Pacific Theater was published in Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 15, Dec. 31, 1942.

[DISCLAIMER: The following text is taken from the U.S. War Department publication Tactical and Technical Trends. As with all wartime intelligence information, data may be incomplete or inaccurate. No attempt has been made to update or correct the text. Any views or opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of the website.]


The relative scarcity or abundance of food in the Indo-Pacific region is largely a question of the viewpoint and background of the person considering the subject. The average American in most cases would be convinced that in some localities there not only was a scarcity but actually a total lack of food, while a native of the area would find plenty to satisfy his requirements. To the taste accustomed to European forms of food, many items available locally might not at first seem palatable, in fact would probably be regarded as wholly unappetizing, yet they have the merit not only of sustaining strength and preventing starvation but also of being easily obtained. Seafood is an excellent example.


Throughout the Indo-Pacific area, shellfish (mollusks) form a large part of the food supply of the natives. This is particularly true of the marine mollusks. On inhabited islands and along the coasts of larger bodies of land, villages usually are placed near beaches. At ebb tide the native population will be found busily engaged in gathering the shellfish exposed on the surface or hidden under rocks and blocks of coral. There are hundreds of different kinds of mollusks in the region, and the supply appears to be inexhaustible. Practically all serve the local people as food.

Anyone stranded on a beach or shore should have little difficulty in maintaining himself for an indefinite period on this abundant source of food. All he need do is work along the beach when the tide is out and gather a supply. Shellfish can be eaten raw, as we eat oysters, and the juice coming from clams is not only nutritious but serves to quench the thirst as well. The shells can be crushed with a rock or a piece of wood and the animal extracted. Shellfish can be cooked by covering them with sand or earth and building a fire over the pile. When this is done they steam in their own juices. They can also be cooked by being dropped into a pot of boiling water. Some of the commoner types of mollusks or shellfish are shown in the accompanying sketches. They are found on reefs and beaches everywhere throughout the Indo-Pacific region.

The names of these various types are: (1) top shell; (2) horn shell; (3) turban shell; (4) conch shell; (5) cone shell (this and other members of the cone family are dangerous); (6) nerite; (7) cowry; (8) limpet; (9) moon shell; (10) corbicula; (11) cockle shell; (12) venus clam; (13) another venus clam; (14) bear's paw clam; (15) ark shell.

[Shellfish -- Indo-Pacific Area]

There is one group of mollusks, fortunately not common, that should be avoided. These are the cones, so named from the cone-like shape of their shells (see No. 5). Because of their characteristic form, they are easy to recognize. They have poisonous teeth, and their bite is similar to that of snakes. They should be left alone or, at least, be handled with considerable care.

Attention may be called to the fact that certain mollusk shells are important for other purposes. For example, the mountain tribes of the interior of New Guinea, especially in the western half of the island, regard cowry shells (No. 7) as the most valuable medium of exchange. They use the small shells, those that are about three-quarters of an inch long and look much like a large-sized coffee bean. A man with a pocket full of them could obtain from the pygmy tribes located in that region all the necessities required to satisfy his wants for many months. These people have little regard for any other articles that might be offered for trade purposes. The pygmy-like tribes of the central mountains in the Dutch half of New Guinea are a friendly and helpful people. Even individuals may appear among them in safety. They are industrious agriculturalists, with considerable surpluses of taro, yams, and sugar cane that could he obtained by use of the cowry shells in barter. On the other hand, except for limited areas near the coast, the larger Papuan peoples of the lowlands and the northern mountains are likely to be dangerous to small parties of strangers. The money cowry is a beautiful shell, light-straw color above, and white at the sides and below. Most of the shells used for that purpose come from the Malabar Coast in southwestern India and from the Maldive Islands.


Land and freshwater mollusks can also be used, but they are rather difficult to obtain. There are a great many forms, including the snails, occurring under different conditions. Some kinds are found only in the hills; others, in the valleys. Some prefer the recesses of the woods, and others the open meadows. Some varieties cluster around limestone rocks; others prefer sandy or clayey districts. Some live only in still or gently flowing waters, while others are never found except where the current is strong and rapid. All of these forms are edible and can be used in the same manner as the marine mollusks. It is safer if the freshwater forms are cooked before eating, as there is some possibility of pollution from the places that they inhabit. As a rule, however, the land and freshwater mollusks are so hard to find that unless a man happened to run across a concentration of them it would be a waste of time to try and locate them, especially since other forms of food are usually to be had.


In addition to the mollusks, crabs and lobsters are to be found in the crevices and among the rocks on reefs and rocky shores. Included among the crabs is a large swimming variety that is related to our Chesapeake Bay blue crab (they turn red on being cooked). This form is distinguished by the paddle-like shape of the last pair of legs. Crabs and lobsters can be caught at night, as that is the time when they generally move about. They may be stunned with stick or stone, caught in the hands, or trapped. Traps baited with fish or animal flesh are commonly used by commercial crab and lobstermen, but probably would not be practical except in the case of more or less permanently established shore parties. A dip-net, fashioned by making a hoop from a shoot or small branch and interlacing strips of palm leaves or fibers, or a net made from an article of clothing, is most useful in taking these creatures. Spiny lobsters or sea crawfish do not have large pincers on their front legs, but do have "thorns" or spines on their backs. These can produce severe lacerations if seized by the bare hand. Hence the hand should be protected, if possible, by stout glove or some equivalent. Spiny lobsters may be caught by placing a dip-net behind them and, with the foot, touching their antenna, the long flexible processes projecting from their heads. This causes the creature to move backward quickly into the net or bag, which must be yanked up immediately. Crabs also occur in freshwater lakes and streams, both in the mountains and on the plains, and frequently travel about on dry land. Some, such as the purse-crab of the East Indies, may be found on the trunks of trees.

As far as is known, all crabs and lobsters, whether marine, freshwater, or the land forms, are fit for human consumption provided they are fresh. Salt-water forms can be eaten raw with little likelihood of bad effects, but all land and freshwater crabs should be thoroughly cooked. The land crabs, particularly in Asia and the closely adjacent islands, are infected with lung parasites that are often fatal to human beings if the crabs are consumed in an uncooked condition. The best way to cook crabs and lobsters is to drop them alive into boiling water. Thus there is no danger of decay before cooking, and they become sterilized at the same time. The shells and pulpy gills are easily removed after cooking. Most people insist that the gills (sometimes called the deadmen's fingers) be removed immediately. Actually they are harmless and will cause no trouble if eaten. They have acquired a bad name because they are about the first spot to spoil, but all danger of this is avoided by immediate cooking and eating.


Another source of food is in the freshwater shrimps that abound in all the streams of the Indo-Pacific area. There are two major kinds, the larger forms with an elongated second pair of legs, often called crawfish by those not familiar with the proper technical terminology, and a host of smaller varieties averaging about an inch in length. Commercially, shrimps are taken in various kinds of traps baited with fish and meat scraps. They can be caught in other ways, however, in sufficient quantities to furnish an ample supply. Along larger streams, in the shallow places near the shore where water is nearly stagnant, masses of small shrimps may be found swimming about and be taken with hand nets. Best results are obtained by people working in pairs and standing in the water. One drives the hosts of shrimps towards the other, who dips them out with the net. In some areas the natives will dam a shallow, narrow stream, making a fairly water-tight barrier of branches, sticks, large leaves, mud, and sand. As the section downstream runs dry, the shrimps stranded there or hiding among and beneath rotten pieces of wood, branches, leaves, in the crevices between the rocks, and among roots or other debris, are collected. Fish and crabs are often obtained at the same time. The best yield, however, comes from bailing dry the many pools and puddles still remaining in the bottom of the stream bed. Anything that can be picked up to serve as a scoop is used to dip out the pools, or small dip-nets are made on the spot for that purpose. Where bushes grow along the edge of a stream, and the branches droop down so that some of the twigs and leaves are in the water, large catches are sometimes made by lifting the branches out of the water and catching the shrimps as they drop off the leaves. This produces better results if it is done at night, as the shrimps seemingly leave the bushes during the day.

Shrimps usually are cooked by boiling. In the larger forms only the abdomen (the tail end) minus its shell is eaten. The shell is easily removed after cooking. The small forms make good soups or stews when cooked whole, but if they form too great a part of the diet and are eaten continually over a period of time, the shells may produce diarrhea. This can be avoided by straining the soups or stews before using or before adding some other bulky food substance.

Other small shrimp-like animals (the mysids, sometimes called opossum-shrimps) occur on both sides of the Peninsula of India in brackish water, lakes, and estuaries along the coast. They are particularly plentiful in Chilka Lake on the Orissa Coast, the east coast of India. Similar species, though perhaps in not as large numbers, should-be found elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific region. The mysids swim in large shoals a short distance below the surface, keeping in the shadows cast by rocks or other objects. Each shoal has its own "beat" to which the majority of the members confine their movements. As a rule, each individual swims the whole length of the "beat" and turns when it comes to the end of it. Occasionally single members will turn at the halfway point, and some will now and then break away and swim out from the sides of the shoal, but they always return after going a short distance. The general tendency of the shoal is to move in an elongated figure eight. The "beat" is never more than one foot wide and may be from 3 to 6 feet long, its limits apparently being determined by the size of the shadows in which the shoal moves. The mysides can be caught by straining the water through a piece of cloth. The natives usually mix them with turmeric, obtained from the tuber or aromatic root of the turmeric plant, boil and dry the mass, and eat it with their rice.


Fishes are, of course, one of the most abundant types of food available on the reefs, in the lagoons, and in the sea. At night some species come close in-shore and swim along the surface. By remaining still, a person can hit them with sticks or spear them with a sharpened pole as they surface. The outer margins of reefs usually contain channels, and on the surface of the reef are pools among broken rocks and coral blocks. Fish frequently swim into these places at high tide and leave as the water recedes. It is possible to trap them at such times by blocking the opening with rocks, sticks, or leaves from palm trees. Stones also may be built into low walls extending out into the water and forming an angle with the shore. Fish can be driven into this neck or narrow channel, and into a pool at its inner end, and there be confined in the manner mentioned above. In many cases it may be advantageous to keep them alive until needed, a fresh supply without danger of spoilage thus being provided.

There are a few fish occurring along rocky and coral reefs, and along the muddy or sandy shores of tropical seas, that may be poisonous. Those of this nature most likely to be caught are the parrot fish and the puffers, shown in the following sketches. They apparently develop this condition by feeding on small poisonous animals or plant-like growths along the shores. The condition seldom, if ever, prevails in fish found in the open sea. To be on the safe side, the puffers and parrot fish should not be eaten unless it is certain that they are not contaminated. If it is known that people native to the area are using these fish, they may be regarded as safe.

[Parrot Fish and Puffer Fish]

Freshwater fish occur practically everywhere. Probably none are poisonous except for the spines in the lower front fins of the catfish, which are similar to the catfish in America. In Indo-Chinese countries, air-breathing forms of this fish are common and are found even in the ricefields, in areas where that grain is grown. As the dry season comes on, these fish bury themselves in the mud and go into a dormant state. They can live out of water indefinitely as long as they are kept slightly moist; often they are dug up with a spade from what appears to be completely caked soil. In most areas, fish can be seined not only from most of the streams but also from small, roadside ditches. Simple seins or dip-nets can easily be woven from palm leaves or even be made from a shirt. In some of the Solomon Islands, the natives have an ingenious method of catching fish. They make a hoop by lashing together the ends of a shoot or small branch, and then place the hoop in the forest where webs indicate the presence of large spiders. The spiders then weave a net in this frame, the web being heavy enough to serve the purpose. A large ant or grub is then placed in the frame, and it is floated on the surface of a pool. When wet, the strands of the web do not show. A fish seeing the "bug" floating on the water makes a strike for it, its teeth become entangled in the web, and it is caught. In parts of New Guinea, a somewhat different system is used. A larger frame is made, and the natives then go into the jungle where there are many large spider webs. By passing the frame back and forth through a number of these webs, enough of the strands become fixed to it to make a satisfactory dip-net.

The flesh of any freshwater fish should not be eaten raw because it may contain intestinal parasites that will have ill effects on human beings. The fish can be broiled over open coals if nothing is available to cook them in, or, of course, can be fried or boiled.

When more fish are caught than are required to satisfy immediate needs, it is possible to preserve them for a time by cutting the flesh into small, thin strips, washing them with salt water, and hanging them in the wind and sunshine to dry. Another method, suitable for varieties a foot and less in length, is to slit open the fish, remove the entrails and boney structure, wash with salt water, and cut diagonal slits about an inch apart across the sides of the fish, preferably from the inside where it has been laid open. If salt is available it is rubbed into the cuts, if not they may be washed with salt water. The fish is then hung in the sun or placed on the surface of a rock with the cut portions exposed. If dried on rocks they should be watched and guarded against ants and other vermin. Under ordinary conditions these methods should preserve the catch for several days.

On the open sea, it is often possible to attract fair-sized fish to a small boat or raft by means of a light at night. They can then be picked up in a dip-net, speared, or sometimes be struck with an oar or boat hook. Of course, the most satisfactory way to catch them would be by means of a hook and line, and these items might well be included in the material placed in kit boxes in boats or on rafts, or a person could make a practice of carrying a short piece of line and a hook in one of his pockets. Frequently a pearl button (or some other kind of light-colored button) placed on the hook is all that is needed in the form of bait. Failure to catch larger fish need not be too discouraging, however, because small edible fishes and crabs can usually be found in masses of floating seaweed. If the seaweed is lifted carefully from the water and shaken over the bottom of the boat or raft, the fish and crabs will fall out. The uncooked flesh of any fish when fresh and caught in the open sea, out of sight of land, is edible. Their blood is drinkable, and the juices in the flesh are much less salty than sea water. This helps considerably when the supply of drinking water is limited or has been used up. Even shark flesh may be eaten. Although they are likely to be somewhat salty and have a tendency to increase thirst, the thick fleshy weeds floating in the open sea can be chewed, furnishing some moisture and nourishment.


Eels of various kinds are edible. However, snake eels, moray eels, and some other types resemble sea snakes that are found in certain tropical waters. The sea snakes are very poisonous and should be left alone. They are easily distinguished from eels because they have boney plates (scales) - see accompanying sketch No. 1 - covering their heads and bodies, while the eels (No. 2) do not. This characteristic is shown in the sketches, which compare the two forms. In swimming, the eels glide easily through the water, while the sea snakes tend to wriggle as snakes do when moving on land.

[Sea Snake and Eel]
NO. 1: SEA SNAKE -- NO. 2: EEL


Sea turtles breed on sandy shores and little islands. By following the obvious trail that they make across the land, their eggs may be found. They are reputed to be delicious when cooked for half a minute in boiling water. They will not hardboil like fowls' eggs, regardless of how long they are cooked. If it is not possible to boil them, they can be placed in the sun until thoroughly warmed and then be eaten. In eating them, one bites a hole at one end of the "elastic" shell and squeezes the contents into the mouth. The turtles themselves are a source of good food, but some equipment is needed to prepare them. If it is a small specimen, it can be handled by one man. They can be caught with a fish hook or by tossing a noose around the neck. When this has been done, the creature should be held in place by putting a foot on its back; the neck is drawn tight over a piece of wood or a rock and severed with a knife or ax. The head retains life for some time and can still bite viciously after it has been removed, so it should not be handled carelessly. The body is then turned on its back, and the thin shell and heavy skin which connect the bottom and top parts of the shell are cut through. During this operation one must guard against being clawed by the moving feet and legs. Remove the entrails. If it is a female with developing eggs, toss them into the pot. After the viscera have been removed, cut off all of the meat left on the body and legs, or simply remove the legs and toss them into the pot, as cooking will loosen the flesh. Then cut through the unfused portion of the ribs at either side of the center of the upper or back shell (the carapace), remove the central spine, and obtain the good meat concealed behind it. This whole process is greatly simplified if the turtle or tortoise is one of the smaller forms and can be dropped whole into a pot of boiling water. The cleaning and cutting is much easier after cooking. In the case of the large specimens, two or more men would be needed to do the work but the procedure would be the same.


Drinking water may present as serious a problem as any that may rise when one is separated from the usual source of supplies. Low sand islands in the Pacific area often rise from the beach to an elevation of 35 to 40 feet, and from this high point slope inland toward a central basin which may or may not include a lagoon of salt water. By digging near the foot of the inner slope, water often may be found at a depth of from 3 to 5 feet. If no supply is obtained from such places, it is well to try digging a hole some distance from the beach. Do not go deeper than the first water found. Fresh water, being lighter than sea water, has a tendency to remain on the surface of the salty water when rains soak down through the soil. Thus the surface water is fresh, or nearly so, and drinkable. The well should not be dug too deep or it will strike salt water. Care should be taken not to stir up the water at the bottom of the shallow well. As a last resort, a hole can be dug at low tide just below the high-tide mark. This will yield water that may be brackish and discolored, but it can be used. Limited quantities should be taken the first day or sickness may result. Some relief can be obtained by resting for an hour or two in the salt water of the sea with the body covered to the neck. When this is done a certain amount of moisture is absorbed through the skin.

On islands covered with jungle, there often are many air plants in the trees. The bases of the leaves of these air plants hold water for a long time. It is necessary to strain out bugs, wrigglers, and an occasional frog, but the water is good. Where there are coconut palms, there is always a source of drinking water in the nuts. Green nuts are best but the fluid is good in any of them. Trim off the husk on the free end to a point, chop off the point so as to cut the top of the shell inside, and there is a cup containing coconut water ready to drink. A heavy bush-knife or machete is really essential for this operation. In the last extremity, blood of sea birds will furnish a certain amount of fluid.

The strongly flowing streams and springs of the upper parts of the mountains on the larger islands and portions of the mainland are quite safe to drink unless, of course, a hill village is somewhere upstream in the vicinity. In the lowlands, which may be densely populated, the water in all streams is likely to be polluted. Standing water anywhere is dangerous. Where there are settlements or small villages, one can drink from a well in an emergency. If possible use the water from a well located some distance from the center of the village. The safest procedure, where it is at all practicable, would be to boil the water or to treat it with some of the chemicals provided for that purpose.


Mention of the need to cook the shrimps, crabs, and other sea food raises the question of what can be used for a container. Where bamboo is available a section cut from a bamboo stem, the cuts being made below two of the nodes occurring at intervals along the stem so that one end of the section is left closed while the other is open, furnishes a suitable vessel for improvised cooking. The bark or rind on the green bamboo is so durable that water can be heated in it sufficiently for cooking before the fire chars and burns it through.

Stone-boiling, a form of cooking formerly common among the American Indians, might also be used. When this method was employed, hard flat stones, approximately the diameter of an ordinary saucer, or round ones a little larger than a baseball were heated in a fire until very hot and then were dropped into a container holding water. Vessels used for this purpose were water-tight baskets, containers made from bark, and skin bags or pouches. In most cases the system followed was that of partially filling the vessel with water and dropping in a few hot stones. When the water was hot, more was added together with other hot stones. This continued until the desired amount of water was ready. The food to be cooked was then dropped in and other heated rocks were added as needed to keep the "pot" boiling. Sticks or rudely fashioned tongs were used to handle the heated stones. Frequently a small branch, bent in the middle to function in the manner of a nutcracker, was used for the purpose. Whether or not this method of cooking would be applicable would depend on the availability of hard, compact stones and of a piece of canvas or some other fabric that would hold water. By digging a hole in the ground and lining it with some such material, a usable container would be provided. In compact, clayey soils the earth itself would hold water sufficiently long for such purposes, although anything cooked in it would tend to taste "muddy". In emergencies, however, even that might not be wholly unpalatable.

Note: The foregoing article was prepared at the Smithsonian Institution from memoranda submitted by members of its staff.


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