Please note: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website may contain images, voices or names of deceased persons in photographs, film, audio recordings or printed material.

Some material may contain terms that reflect authors’ views, or those of the period in which the item was written or recorded, but may not be considered appropriate today. These views are not necessarily the views of AIATSIS. While the information may not reflect current understanding, it is provided in an historical context.

AIATSIS logo

Our online exhibitions are best viewed on a larger screen.

Tap anywhere to continue.

A brief history of Indigenous fishing

“We’ve been doing it [fishing] in this country thousands of years more than white men put together have been doing it; we know how fish react, we know how they travel, we know where they travel, we know what time of year they travel. Our parents taught us, we were brought up living off the sea.” Tom Butler, Murramarang Elder and retired commercial fisherman, 2016

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, fishing is as natural and as necessary as breathing. It forms part of the deep cultural and spiritual connection many communities have with their waters and marine resources, whether saltwater or freshwater. Fishing is a matter of cultural practice, and is informed by traditional knowledge.

Today, these long-held traditions have become increasingly challenged. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have been marginalised from both commercial and non-commercial fisheries, and are often denied access to their traditional waters. But across Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fishers are taking steps to ensure their voices – and values – are heard in fisheries management planning, negotiating catch allowances and controlled access to their waters and marine resources.

While the importance of fishing as a way of life is obvious to many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, there have been few attempts to translate their experiences into a narrative that governments, non-Indigenous fishers and the general public can immediately understand and appreciate.

Through this exhibition, Indigenous people from across Australia tell their story of what fishing means to them.

Fishing activities of Aboriginal people and settlers near Ulladulla, New South Wales, approximately 1885, Mickey of Ulladulla. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia, nla.obj-135516869

Connected to country and community

Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a strong relationship with the oceans or inland waterways that form part of their country. For saltwater communities, the sea is integral to many people’s concepts of country and identity:

“This is who our family is. We are bound to the sea and we have fished together traditionally forever.” John Brierley, Yuin Walbunga self-employed fisherman, 2011

In northeast Arnhem Land, the Yolŋu peoples consider the land and the sea to be inseparably linked, both physically and culturally. Under Yolŋu law, traditional owners have an equal responsibility to look after the resources and environment of both their land and sea estates.

For thousands of years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have used fishing to build a livelihood for themselves, their families and their communities. A catch of fresh fish provides a community with immediate subsistence and future trade and sale options, as well as employment. In this way, fishing is crucial for the continued success of coastal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community economies.

In the Torres Strait, marine management arrangements provide Torres Strait Islanders with priority access to subsistence marine resources. Since 1985, new commercial licenses for fisheries such as trochus, pearl shell and crayfish have only been issued to traditional inhabitants.

For Wayne Carberry, a Walbunga man, fishing on country gives him his identity, sense of belonging to country and connection with both ancestors and family today. These relationships are strengthened by cultural fishing rights and access to traditional waters.

Unidentified men holding fish, strung together on a long line. The men traded the fish for tobacco, and the fish were used for dormitory children's meals. 1946 : Mornington Island, Qld. BELCHER.D01.DF-D00018770
Unidentified men holding fish, strung together on a long line. The men traded the fish for tobacco, and the fish were used for dormitory children's meals. 1946 : Mornington Island, Qld. BELCHER.D01.DF-D00018770

Fishing technologies and knowledge

“I think Aboriginal people have the common knowledge to know where they can fish and can't fish, it's in their blood, it's in their culture, it's been passed down from generations.” Sue Stewart, Yuin woman, 2016

Much coastal Indigenous fishing is done on the beach or in shallow pools. Shellfish such as cockles and crabs can be dug up from under the sand. Rock pools work as natural tidal fish traps to ensure that when the tide goes out fish are caught in the pools, ready to be speared.

On a larger scale, man-made stone weirs designed to trap fish in shallow lagoons with the falling tide can be found in most coastal areas of Australia. The construction of these traps over hundreds of years demonstrates the historical technological capability of Aboriginal people in these areas. In areas along river and creek systems, such as Maningrida in the Northern Territory, people developed basket fish traps and hand-held nets made of woven fibres. Basket traps could be placed into creeks for use during king tides, while hand-held nets could be used at any time.

On Murruŋga Island in the Crocodile Islands, fish traps made of twined pandanus palm leaf are still in use today. For the most part, though, modern nylon nets have become most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s marine technology of choice. The same weaving techniques can be used for both natural fibres and synthetic polymers to make and mend nets.

Fish trap - trap will be positioned in gate when tide turns and water begins to flow out, 1978 : Bulgai Plains, between Liverpool River and Tomkinson River, Arnhem Land, N.T. Courtesy of Peter Cooke. COOKE.P01.CS-000074171
Frank Malgurda weaving a sedge grass 'drag net', 1980 : Maningrida, Arnhem Land, N.T. Courtesy of Peter Cooke. COOKE.P01.CS-000074162

Another significant marine technology development is the use of rafts, canoes and boats along river systems and on open waters. Historically, dugout and bark canoes were used as transportation devices and as flotation aids while spear-fishing. Today, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people primarily take dinghies out to fish, and use nets, spears and fishing lines with metal hooks rather than kangaroo bones.

HORNSHAW.B01.BW-N06812_14
Group of men in a river with nets and spears fishing, c1920 : Darwin, N.T. Photgrapher: Bernard Leslie Hornshaw. HORNSHAW.B01.BW- N06812_14

Diving is also a traditional practice for collecting sea snails such as abalone, particularly on the South Coast of New South Wales.

Over the generations, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples living near the sea have amassed a great deal of traditional knowledge around the best times and places to fish:

“Tides will tell us [when to go out fishing]… the weather will tell us. Those balanda [white people], they’ve got fish radar but we don’t use that one. We know the places to get what we want, it’s there. What we don’t want, we just leave it.”Jonathan Yalandhu, Yolŋu man of the Gupapuyŋu clan, 2017

Yolŋu people describe this as seasonal knowledge. They know which season they are in from the natural signs around them: different flowers in bloom, changes to the colour of leaves, changes in tides and winds. The signs and seasons tell them which fish and maypal (shellfish) are big and fat, ready to be taken. Changes in the colour and smell of the sea brought by algal blooms tell them when there are yindi maypal (big shellfish).

Wayne Haseldine, a Kookatha/Mirning man, describes knowing which fish species to target on particular days as a ‘natural instinct’ made up of his ability to read the tide, winds and the moon. This is the knowledge he wishes to teach the next generation of his family.

With the advent of new technologies, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ means of engaging in fishing and marine resource management has changed a great deal. But the traditional knowledge of how, where and when to gather marine food resources such as fish and shellfish hasn’t changed.

Take only what you need

In coastal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, cultural rules about fishing are handed down orally through the generations:

“Fishing is actually sacred to us; it’s really part of our culture. So if people want to go fishing and if they want to do it our way, then they’ll learn the sacredness. You never take more than you need, for a start.”Sue Haseldine, Kookatha/Mirning woman, 2017

This rule is widespread, and often accompanies two others: don’t take undersized or pregnant fish and don’t overfish. When fish are allowed to breed and grow, their populations both are sustainable and can sustain a community when taken at the right time.

In Aboriginal communities where cultural fishing practices have been handed down for thousands of years, people express frustration at not seeing commercial and recreational catch and release fishing boats following the same rules, showing respect to the marine environment and improving their efforts at fishing sustainability. When people in these communities see examples of bycatch and discarded dead fish, they see this as disrespectful of their culture and their country.

Many Yolŋu peoples in the Crocodile Islands believe that there are fewer fish in their waters due to commercial fishing. In Ceduna on the Far West Coast of South Australia, people worry about the impact on the local fish populations of the thousands of recreational fishers who visit every year.

In Ceduna, the Aboriginal community would like to see the advent of a sea ranger program, where local Aboriginal people could enforce fisheries regulations in a culturally appropriate way. Sue Haseldine wants to start a cultural eco-tourism business which would teach people respect for the land and the sea. These programs would not only provide employment, they would provide new opportunities for Aboriginal people to explain to outsiders the sacredness of their connection to sea country and the importance of respecting the cultural rules of fishing.

 Previous
Next 

AIATSIS acknowledges the traditional owners of country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, culture and community.

We pay our respects to elders past and present.