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Indigenous fishing tradition in danger of disappearing

8 June 2011 No Comment
The number of indigenous fishermen on the NSW south coast has fallen to just eight and the 125 year old tradition is now in danger of disappearing. Daniel Walsh writes.

Current fishing laws could mean a 125 year old Indigenous fishing tradition may be in danger of disappearing. Image: Túrelio, Wikimedia commons

At dawn most mornings, you’ll find fisherman Craig Nye sitting amongst the dunes of Barlings Beach on the south coast of NSW. He braves the morning chill to hunt mullet, garfish, or if he’s lucky, whiting.

His eyes scour the water for a flash of movement, a glint of silver underbelly, a churning or splash, darting across the surface with the skill and knowledge that’s been running through his family for some 40,000 years.

They say all it takes is for one of those fish to smile, and Nye will easily find them.

The mullet usually run along the Eurobodalla Nature Coast in early April, so it’s into Nye’s tiny rowboat to head across Broulee Bay. If he was after lobster or abalone, he’d be straight off the side of the boat with nothing but a facemask. For today though, patience, a keen pair of eyes and a hand sown net are the tools of the trade.

Nye skilfully anticipates the pull and drag of the catch, and before long the net is swarming with fish. The haul is quickly brought in to the beach to be put on ice and sent off for processing.

And despite five generations that have passed since his ancestor Francis Butler first fished on the far south coast of NSW, the only thing Nye does differently is drive to work in a ute; there’s still no motor on the boat, still no radar or sonar and Nye’s still out there every morning.

When asked whether he would do anything else for a living, Nye laughs. “Nah mate. I’ll always be fishing. I’ve got scales on me,” he says.

With or without scales, Nye is one of the last of a dying breed. Indigenous fishermen say they are being forced to give up their traditions and cultures by stringent fishing laws and over policing.

Where there were once 40 or 50 licensed Koori (Indigenous Australians in NSW) fishermen between Batemans Bay and the Victorian border, there are now only eight on the 320 kilometres of coastline.

Nye’s father, Andrew ‘Sam’ Nye, and Francis’ grandson, Tom Butler, are respected local Aboriginal elders, and both agree that current laws make it near impossible for Aboriginal people to teach younger generations about traditional fishing methods.

Currently only crew members officially endorsed and recognised as crew can be involved in any commercial fishing activity. “Under these licensing laws, the young fellas who are curious about what their uncle or their dad is doing can’t go anywhere near the boat,” Nye says. “They can’t learn how to fish or be taught how to fish because we get fined for having illegal crew. They’re not allowed to get in the boat, pull on the nets or row the boat; you can even get done for sitting up here [in the sand dunes] and spotting the fish.”

Butler explains that having family members involved in the fishing activity does not allow extra fish to be caught, but is simply part of Aboriginal culture.

“If there’s extra people helping to pull our nets in, it doesn’t mean we catch extra fish, it just makes things easier for everyone,” he says. “The concepts of family and kinship are such a huge part of being Aboriginal, and you’ll never break those family ties, you’ll just drive the Kooris out of the industry.”

Also affecting indigenous fishing is the nature of licensing and quota systems, which Nye believes does not account for the seasonal nature of Aboriginal fishing.

“We have never fished according to quotas, we fish according to the actual fishing seasons, which is more environmentally friendly than just targeting one species,” he says. “When Fisheries started to divide the catches into certain species and started to sell the property rights, the boys can’t fill the quotas because they’re not chasing one species and overfishing it, so they can’t afford a licence for each species, and now there’s no one left.”

Those who have quit the industry, says Nye, are now on the dole.

According to the Indigenous Fisheries Strategy and Implementation Plan, which was drafted in 2002, a number of projects have been implemented to protect and enhance the Aboriginal cultural connection to fishing.

Legislation changes made in 2009 have seen the introduction of a definition of cultural fishing to the Fisheries Management Act, and the establishment of the Aboriginal Fisheries Advisory Council (AFAC), which held their first meeting in March.

Laura Best, Senior Manager at NSW Fisheries Resource Management, accepts there is cause for concern, but that there is also now greater recognition of the importance of fishing in Indigenous culture.

“The recognition of being able to pass on knowledge and ‘show the ropes’ so to speak is there, as there is some flexibility in terms of nominating crew and fishers,” says Miss Best. “But at the same time the rules that are in place are there for everyone, it doesn’t matter whether you’re Aboriginal or not, if you’re operating in that commercial sense the rules apply across the board.”

Close consultation with the newly formed AFAC will be critical to determining initiatives that help maintain Indigenous traditions whilst not disadvantaging anyone else in the commercial sector, says Best.

UTS Professor of Marine Ecology David Booth says a fine balance must be struck between the need to responsibly manage the ocean’s resources and fulfill commercial and cultural interests. In reference to Indigenous fishing, Professor Booth says: “There is the argument that local fishers looking after a smaller crop do a better job of sustaining their environment . . . but the larger enterprises also have the means to put more back into the environmental side of the fishery.”

Professor Booth explains that Indigenous people rightly hold grave concerns about losing their culture and traditional practices, but that their biggest threat is not from stringent rules and regulations.

“Over the next 80 years, the NSW south coast is going to be hardest hit by climate change,” he says. “And unless we find a way to curb the sea temperature increase that is caused by humans, a number of cold water species such as abalone, lobster and many types of fish are going to be pushed further south.”

Professor Booth continues, “. . . it would be an absolute shame to lose any part of Indigenous culture, but at the same time we’ve got to embrace the various forms of sustainable management. These methods aren’t designed to prevent people from fishing and pursuing their livelihoods, but as a means of making sure these practices can be continued for generations to come.”

The AFAC has a lot resting on it’s newly formed shoulders, with fisherman such as Nyes as well as NSW Department of Primary Industries hoping the council will provide a much needed platform for discussion and change.

As the south coast’s delegate to the AFAC, Danny Chapman is also Tom Butler and Craig Nye’s younger cousin.

Chapman recognises the potential that marine parks and crackdowns on illegal fishing could have on the rejuvenation of the south coast’s fishing resources. He is an advocate of specific Indigenous licenses to be established once stocks such as abalone have been replenished.

“Kooris have fished properly for years and years, and we’ve always managed the ocean responsibly, so why not give us a specific license to fish responsibly, and not just for special cultural events like we’ve got now and not just recreationally with very strict limits, but legitimately culturally,” he says.

Amidst concerns that an Indigenous cultural catch could be exploited by a burgeoning black market, Chapman was adamant any new allowance could be policed.

“We’ve got to step up and be responsible. It’s on us here,” he says. “If I see blackfellas (sic) going and selling our cultural catch, and exploiting our culture, then that’s when you prosecute them. That’s when you throw the book at them, and that’s when these ideas like circle sentencing come into it.”

Chapman has previously rejected notions of circle sentencing, where local Aboriginal elders are involved in the sentencing process, as a punishment of Indigenous people caught fishing illegally.

In order to encourage Aboriginal people to join the fishing industry, Chapman says efforts must be made at both the government and community levels, and says the AFAC is committed to achieving this.

“We’ll be recommending to Primary Industries a number of measures, and hopefully these will be brought in as soon as possible,” he said. “There’s got to be a ton of training, there’s got to be a relief on current Indigenous fisherman to let them teach their kids and grand kids, and there’s got to be a lot more awareness of our culture in general.”

“We want to stop the prosecutions; we want to be able to give elders the right to have a feed whenever they want to have a feed,” Chapman continued. “We want to give our young people the ability to go out and dive and fish for their entire family without being harassed and prosecuted, and we want to see Aboriginal people at the forefront of the industry”

No matter what happens over the next couple of years however, Nye will still be up in the dunes at Barlings Beach every morning. After all, the man’s got scales.

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