National Resources

Fishing for Centuries: Indigenous Fishing

Dr Melissa Nursey-Bray.

Fishing has been an important aspect of traditional hunting by indigenous Australians for centuries. 

A fish trap, Hinchinbrook region, North Queensland (Photo courtesy of Girringun Aboriginal Corporation

Indigenous people have been fishing Australian waters for centuries. They harvest a wide diversity of species, from animals such as the green turtle and dugong in northern waters, to various fish, and species such as abalone, rock lobster and beche-de mer. A national survey in 2000 (DAFF 2001) highlighted that about 37,000 Indigenous people fished at least once in a 12 month period.  The study concluded that over 3.3 million aquatic animals were harvested from the waters of northern Australia alone and included finfish,  shellfish,  small baitfish, mullet, catfish, sea perch/snappers, bream, barramundi, mussels, cherabin, other bivalves, prawns, oysters and mud crabs (DAFF 2001). This study also showed that Indigenous people harvest more than 50% of their take from inshore waters. Core harvesting methods used include line fishing (53% of the time), hand collection (26%), nets (12%) and spears (9%).

Spear fishing is still very current as a harvesting technique and involves using a multi prong fishing implement, which the fisher will use while wading into shallow water. Fish will be caught as the fisher throws and stabs the water just ahead of the fish (so as to adjust for refraction). While prohibited today, fish traps were also another commonly used technique for taking marine species. Such fish traps were created by the organisation of rocks to temporary seal fish in and allow the fisher enough time to catch them. Many examples of previous fish traps are seen today, such as this one in Hinchinbrook, north Queensland, and are now cultural heritage sites. Many Aboriginal people also used toxins and poisons to catch and then either stun or kill the fish in situ. Poisons would be extracted from plants, and then put into the site where fish would be located.

Fishing has always been a very important aspect of traditional hunting and resource use as highlighted by the Guugu Yimmithirr people, who are now based in the community of Hope Vale, north-west of Cooktown, North Queensland. Here, Captain Cook and Josef Banks saw Aborigines spearing fish in the Endeavour River in 1770. Dilly bags were used to carry fish hooks, lines shells to make them of, points of darts and resins, all of which were used when out fishing. Fish hooks were made of shell and rope was used that was the hair of some vegetable. Once the mission was established, fishing became a very important way for locals to add to their income and diets. A number of fishing nets were purchased over time by and for the mission and this was an important resource for the community (Nursey-Bray 2000).

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Above: Hunting for blue mullet, Hope Vale (image courtesy of Andrew Smith)

In sum, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have harvested marine species for millennia. They still do so, and via a combination of modern and traditional harvesting techniques. What is important to remember is that the cultural responsibilities and rights to harvest remain and that Australia’s coasts and seas are an integral part of ongoing Indigenous connection to country and culture.


Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, 2001

Nursey-Bray, M 2000, Usage of Marine Resources by the Guugu Yimmithirr The History of Fishing and Gathering, James Cook University publication, Cairns.

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