Fishing: Customary harvest or a threat to be managed?

In People on Country: Vital Landscapes, Indigenous Futures (Atman and Kerins (eds), 2012), Geoff Buchanan and Katherine May write about how customary activities like hunting fit with Indigenous Ranger programs that now exist Australia-wide:

“Indigenous rangers employed through Working on Country and other programs provide valuable support through activities that manage feral species, protect bush food species, and thereby support food security. However, customary harvest itself is seen predominantly as a recreational or cultural activity performed outside of the economy, outside of work hours, rather than being recognised or supported as a legitimate form of labour by the state or the market. In contrast to an Indigenous view of customary harvest as being central to caring for country, the state tends to view it as marginal to conservation or as a threat to be managed” (p71).

I live on Aboriginal land, where my partner works as a coordinator with the local Indigenous rangers. Just this afternoon the Rangers set out in a Ranger boat and our personal boat to visit some islands and scope out an upcoming project. On their way back, after 4 o’clock (knock off time), my partner set some rods to trawl in one of the Rangers favourite fishing spots.

Soon they hooked two huge mackerel, bringing one of them in. On their return the fish was brought to our house for cutting up. One Ranger expertly instructed how to cut the fish; we marvelled at its size and the beautiful patterns within its flesh, and remarked on what an amazing animal it was. It was a big fish and there was enough meat for 7 Rangers and plenty left over.

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Just as Buchanan and May suggest, harvesting is not an explicitly accepted ‘ranger job’, and this group made sure they’d passed knock-off time before throwing in a line. This does make sense to my logical, time-captured mind, which tentatively agrees “Surely people can’t get paid to fish, that’s not real work is it?”. However this event and another similar event that I witnessed recently have unsettled this notion and caused me to think again about what caring for country means.

The second event was another hunt that happened at the end of a work day in the desert. We were travelling in convoy and our 2-way radio crackled to life. The women in the troupy in front were speaking and I saw a gun poking out a window. “We’re gonna go and get some bush turkey” they said and veered off into the scrub. The rest of our party stopped and waited, heard shots fired and soon inspected their catch of two bush turkeys (Australian Bustards). The Australian Bustard (Ardeoits australis) still inhabits most of northern Australia and is relatively common, although the story is different in south east Australia where the historical population is much reduced. Despite this, the bird is not considered threatened (www.dec.wa.gov.au).

That afternoon in the desert I was proud of the women who took home a healthy hearty meal to their families. I am also proud of the local families here that continue to fish and hunt, supplementing their diets with nutritious fresh fish and other marine animals. This use of the land and sea must represent one of the fundamental threads of Aboriginal people’s relationship to country; that country will provide for the needs of its people if the people take care of country. Fishing, hunting, gathering are one part of a timeless reciprocal arrangement between Indigenous Australians and country.

Back in 1986 the Australian Law Reform Commission began an inquiry into whether Aboriginal customary law should be applied to Aboriginal people, with the inquiry covering criminal law, traditional marriages, responsibility for children, and hunting and fishing. In relation to traditional hunting, fishing and gathering, the ALRC report states “Access to the country of one’s forebears provided substance for the Dreamtime experience and an identity based on the continuity of life and values which were constantly reaffirmed in ritual and in use of the land. Economic exploitation of the land to support material needs, and its spiritual maintenance were not separate aspects of people’s relations to country, but rather each validated and underwrote the other. The land was a living resource from which people drew sustenance — both physical and spiritual.”

Thus the inquiry found that use of land (and sea) reaffirms identity and values, and validates connection to country. For Rangers, knowledge that country can be relied on to provide food for self and family must feed motivation to take care of it. In a practical sense, hunting and gathering means being on country, which is the best place to see what is going on, make sure everything is right way and have time to think about what is needed or what should be done.

Should Indigenous people be expected to ‘fit in’ hunting, fishing and gathering after work and on weekends, in the same hours that non-Indigenous Australians indulge their outside work interests and hobbies? Or should we have a deeper think and talk about the real benefits of customary harvesting.

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