Mon 27 May

National Reconciliation Week: Exploring Aboriginal Fishing Practices

The tradition of eating seafood is as old as our country itself. National Reconciliation Week (held between May 27-June 3 every year) is a time for learning and reflection on the Culture and history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, making this week the perfect time to explore just some of the incredible fishing practices of our local Indigenous community. 


CULTURAL SIGNIFICANCE 

Before colonisation, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples lived sustainably off Australian waters for thousands of years, seeing fishing as both providing sustenance, and as a cultural practice informed by ecological knowledge passed down through generations.  

To this day, fishing is just one element of the deep spiritual connection many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have with their oceans or inland waterways. 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fishing practices are incredibly varied and have been honed over millennia, underpinned by a deeply held respect and love for Australia’s land, sea, and waterways.  


THE ABORIGINAL HISTORY OF BLACKWATTLE BAY 

Originally, Blackwattle Creek was a tidal watercourse, flowing from swampy lands that are now within the grounds of the University of Sydney through a valley thick with wattle trees and kangaroo grass, and then draining into Blackwattle swamp, at the head of Blackwattle Bay (near Glebe). 

Archaeological discoveries in the area have confirmed that prior to European settlement, this creek was a source of fresh water for Sydney’s Aboriginal people, and an important place for fishing and other activities. 

 
SEASONAL KNOWLEDGE AND SUSTAINABILITY 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders' fishing practices have always been underpinned by an intimate knowledge of seasonality, and a respect for Country. This means utlising natural signs – such as blooming flowers, wind and tidal changes, and algal blooms – to know when and where to fish.  

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fishers were also careful to take only what they needed, sustainably managing fish populations by throwing back fish that were undersized, or spawning or full of roe.  

This knowledge and these cultural rules are handed down orally through generations. 


METHODS 

For many years, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders not only foraged for a range of species, including pipis, oysters and cockles, but also developed sophisticated infrastructure such as traps, nets, and stone weirs to sustainably fish Australia's estuary systems. 

Most coastal areas of Australia have evidence of stone weirs – constructions which trapped fish in shallow lagoons using the tides. In other river systems, woven basket traps and nets were used, and still are to this day. Diving is also a traditional practice, used to collect species like abalone, particularly on the South Coast of New South Wales. 

In ۵ַ's local area, the matriarchal societies of the Gadigal and Wangal people were built around fishing, with women conducting the majority of this work. Colonial journals and old stories from Aunties and Uncles describe the garrigarrang (sea) of Warrane (Sydney Harbour) being filled with nawi (canoes) from morning till night, as women hook-and-line fished the harbour.  

Women would make sharp hooks from shells, and use plants or even their hair as the line. Often the women nursed their babies and sang while they fished, dropping their garradjun (bark fishing line) into the water, a crackling fire in the belly of their nawi as both a source of light and a means to cook freshly caught fish. 

Men would remain on the shore, hunting larger land animals and teaching older boys to spear species like Stingray from the rocks. 

Shell middens are also found all around our local area, including throughout Redfern and Glebe, revealing the areas that Aboriginal communities would gather to eat their catch. Middens in Leichardt, Balmain and Rozelle are dated at approximately 4,500 years old, and are recognised as significant by the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council and archaeologists.   

 
MODERN INDIGENOUS FISHERS 

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. 

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Aboriginal cultural fishing is defined in the Fisheries Management Act (1994) as "fishing activities and practices carried out by Aboriginal persons for the purpose of satisfying their personal, domestic or communal needs, or for educational or ceremonial purposes or other traditional purposes, and which do not have a commercial purpose".  

However, applications can be made to for permission to fish outside this definition, and as of January 2023, over 150 community events and cultural fishing activities (including NAIDOC week celebrations, youth camps, knowledge transfer activities, funerals, seasonal harvest of culturally significant species and a range of extended family and community gatherings) have been supported across NSW. 

While the Fisheries Management Act aims "to recognise the spiritual, social and customary significance to Aboriginal persons of fisheries resources and to protect, and promote the continuation of Aboriginal cultural fishing", some Indigenous communities feel that we have a long way to go in improving their fishing rights. . 

 

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