Aboriginal people on the South Coast New South Wales come from a number of different groups. This fishing project included people who identified as Brinja-Yuin, Budawang, Jerrinja, Murramarang, Walbunja, Wandandian, Wodi Wodi, Yuin, Yuin-Monaro, and more.
The proposed south coast native title claim stretches from Bundeena, just south of Sydney, to the Victorian border, and extends three nautical miles out to sea.
If the history of Aboriginal fishing on the south coast could be summed up in one word, ‘adaptation’ would be a good choice.
Archaeological evidence shows Aboriginal people have lived in the area for at least 20,000 years. The sea didn’t reach its current level until 6,000 years ago; before that, it was 100-150 metres lower. Aboriginal fishers adapted to this dramatic change in their seascapes and also developed new technologies includingh bone-tipped spears 6,000 years ago, and shell fish hooks at least 1,000 years ago.
Both of these inventions revolutionised how they fished, allowing people to take more fish species from a wider range of habitats. Fish and shellfish became the most important part of their economies – being eaten and traded – and integral to their cultures.
Fishing became even more important to the Aboriginal peoples of the south coast once European colonists arrived and access to millennia-old Aboriginal hunting and gathering was lost.
Hunting and gathering wild foods became harder as people were forced onto missions and more and more land became privately owned, increasing people's reliance on fishing.
Many Aboriginal people used their traditional knowledge to carve out a niche for themselves in the new economy as fishers and whalers, and their skills were crucial to the establishment of those industries in the region. Stories are still told on the south coast of the times European colonists would have starved if not for Aboriginal fishers.
Adopting European tools, but using fishing skills and knowledge of their country passed down across thousands of generations, fishing continued to be one of the main livelihoods for Aboriginal families, both as a way to get a feed and a source of income.
In the late nineteenth century Aboriginal people on the south coast were the first to collect and dry mutton fish (now called abalone) for export to China. In those times mutton fish, a staple and culturally significant food, could be collected off the rocks at low tide, something not possible today. Whole families and communities would come together to haul schools of mullet off the beach, with everyone who helped a getting a share of the catch. This continues today.
As the New South Wales Government began regulating access to fisheries with licences, quotas and bag limits, and more fishers entered the industry, Aboriginal fishers were slowly squeezed out. In recent years Aboriginal people on the south coast, including the NSW Aboriginal Fishing Rights Group, have been campaigning to have their fishing values recognised and respected.
As saltwater people, the Aboriginal peoples of the south coast see fishing as an integral part of their culture. Some go as far as saying fishing is their culture. Going fishing is a way to connect with their country, and the catching and sharing of fish and shellfish is how culture is practised every day.
Fishing the south coast Aboriginal way is not just dropping a line or a net and then seeing what happens. People use knowledge passed down from their parents, grandparents, uncles and aunties, telling them what time of the year is best to get which species, which spots to visit to catch different species, and rules about what you can’t do.
‘Cleaning out’ a spot is strongly discouraged; you should only take what you need, and make sure you leave plenty so that there will be more when you come back next time. Taking small fish and shellfish is looked down on for similar reasons, but so is taking the biggest for many species.
‘With the abs [abalone] we were told, “Don't take them big ones boys, get them smaller ones, the big ones are your breeding ones; does a farmer sell his breeding cattle and sheep?”’ – Murramarang Elder Tom Butler
Another expectation that has been passed down is that you share what you catch. For every person who goes out to catch salmon, or dive for lobsters, there are more who simply can’t – Elders, small children, people who are sick or have a disability, or just family members who are too busy to go themselves.
Sharing is a cultural and social obligation, and often extended families and whole communities rely on a few avid fishers in order to get fresh seafood. Elders always get priority when you share the catch out. This creates a safety net for vulnerable people in the community who might need a healthy diet the most, and helps keep families and communities close with reciprocal sharing.
‘If I'm unwell, who’s going to get the feed for my aunties and uncles? I've got two brothers that are diabetic, and my sister, and mum's one as well. Luckily I've got a clean bill of health, so I'm the strong one – I've got to continue to do that.’
Taking marine resources has always been both cultural and commercial. While usually governments try to draw a line between the two, for many South Coast Aboriginal people fishing is both practising culture and a livelihood. In the past everything that was caught was eaten, shared or traded; the only thing that has changed now is that you can trade for money.
Barriers and effects
South Coast Aboriginal cultural fishing doesn’t fit neatly into either recreational or commercial fishing; it can contain elements of both, while being separate from either.
Bag limits set for recreational fishers often aren’t high enough for a single cultural fisher who needs to feed 10, 20 or more people. While people might be intending to sell their catch, they are using traditional knowledge. Selling and trading fish has been a part of South Coast Aboriginal culture for generations – it’s both cultural and commercial fishing.
Anyone who helps the Aboriginal commercial fishers pull in their nets in return for a box of mullet could be prosecuted if they haven’t paid for their own commercial licence, even though it’s the way it’s been done for generations.
As a result people who want to follow their culture when they go fishing often end up breaking the law because the fisheries laws are designed around non-Indigenous recreational and commercial fishing, not cultural fishing.
People have been fined, had their assets seized, and been imprisoned for taking too many abalone, or failing to hold a commercial fishing licence when occasionally helping their family who do. Some refer to Aboriginal fishers and divers as ‘poachers’ because of this, and will alert fisheries officers if they see Aboriginal people fishing or collecting shellfish.
Many Aboriginal men have fallen into cycles of unemployment and incarceration. The people who fish for many others are often leaders in their families and communities and they are relied upon. When they can’t fish or are locked up, it can lead to social breakdown. People have to spend scarce money to keep their family fed.
People don’t want to be fined or jailed, or harassed and unfairly targeted when they aren’t doing anything illegal. So they go fishing less and less often, and they don’t take their kids fishing. Culture isn’t practised, knowledge isn’t passed on, and people miss out on healthy seafood.
The other major issue is getting access to culturally important fishing spots.
While South Coast Aboriginal people acknowledge the need for conservation measures, and are themselves worried about how many fish the large trawler boats are catching and how many abalone commercial divers are taking, many resent the way the two marine parks on the south coast were introduced.
Many people provided knowledge of their cultural fishing spots to the government during the planning phase, only to have them designated as protected zones where all fishing is prohibited. South Coast Aboriginal people often feel like their concerns aren’t listened to, that governments and non-Indigenous people don’t know – or don’t care – about what has happened to their communities and culture.
One of the greatest hopes for Aboriginal people on the south coast is that the current disconnect between cultural practices and fisheries regulations is fixed.
The NSW Aboriginal Fishing Rights Group (NSW AFRG) has been successful in making people aware of their rights and supporting traditional owners to challenge charges against them on the basis of their native title rights, but the problem is still there.
The NSW AFRG is pushing for changes to the Fisheries Management Act 1994 (NSW) which would increase or remove bag limits for cultural fishing; some of these changes have already passed both houses of parliament in NSW, but after years they are still yet to come into force.
For many South Coast Aboriginal people, their long history of selling and trading their catch is an obvious pathway for bringing more opportunities to their communities. Plenty of kids learn to fish and dive at an early age, and leveraging these skills and their connection to their saltwater country to create livelihoods is of huge interest.
And there isn’t a lack of ideas on how to do this. Beyond working with the NSW government to get more commercial licences into Aboriginal hands, people have floated bringing in a limited, family-based trading quota managed by the Local Aboriginal Land Councils (LALCs), getting LALCs that do have the funds to look into aquaculture ventures, and establishing a fishing co-operative.
Having a role in managing their sea country and resources is also prominent in many people’s minds. There are already Aboriginal ranger groups associated with the LALCs that do lots of voluntary work looking after country, and one day people hope to find the funds and support to set these up as paid jobs, like many programs in Northern Australia.
If they are better supported they could also be a valuable asset to NSW Fisheries, conducting sea country patrols and providing culturally appropriate fisheries enforcement and outreach. They would also be an incredible tool for passing on knowledge to the next generation.
The NSW Aboriginal Fishing Rights Group is looking to formally set-up a cultural-commercial fishing corporation, with a set of programs to address many of these aspirations.
They have already begun ‘fishing clinics’ for South Coast Aboriginal children, which provide kids with fishing gear and teach them how to fish the South Coast Aboriginal way, including lessons on safety and fishing sustainably.
Eventually they plan to set up an Aboriginal fishing co-operative and community licences, allowing small-scale cultural fishers to sell anything extra that they catch.