The Art of Aboriginal Saltwater Fishing: An Interview with the Legendary Ron Ardler and family

At one time there were 16 Aboriginal fishing companies supplying the Sydney fish markets from Wreck Bay south of Sydney. Now there is only one. All up and down the NSW coast we must ensure for environmental, cultural and economic reasons that Aboriginal fishing enterprises prosper into the 21st century and beyond.

Let us not beat around the bush we need a plan to ensure that NSW and Australian fishing enterprises flourish and prosper into the future.

There is so much for the mainstream community to learn and understand about Aboriginal fishing practices. The interviews with John Brierley and Andrew Nye and now Ron Ardler and family are just the beginning of that learning. Ron has been fishing for many decades, his son, father and grandfather and many generations before them have fished the Jervis Bay, South Coast areas.

Ron and his family do not use power boats or trawlers, they use row boats. They make and repair their own nets by hand. For many days they watch the seas for the movements of fish up and down their beaches. They fish for only four months of the year to ensure that fishing stocks replenish. Grandfathers have handed on to grandsons the knowledge of where to fish and not to fish, of where the fish nurseries and hatcheries are. The understanding of the patterns of weather, sea conditions, winds, clouds and all of the resources of a fishery are something that governments, including the Department of Fisheries, should be learning from and respecting. Instead it is the view of most Aboriginal fishing enterprises that the Departmenf of Primary Industries wants to close them down. Even worse many Aboriginal individuals face fines and jail for catching non-commercial feeds for their families.

There has never been free, prior and informed consent for the myriad of regulations that now apply to Aboriginal saltwater and freshwater people when it comes to their rights to natural resources which they have guarded and maintained in pristine condition for 40,000 years.

We need to agitate for not only traditional rights and native title law to apply to sea resources but we need to understand that the fishing industry is an area where Aboriginal communities can flourish culturally, economically and socially in the 21st century and in so doing they will protect the environment and sea resources for all of us.

There are some clear points that need to be considered:

1) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have native title rights to fresh and saltwater resources which entail environmental and guardianship obligations that carry over many generations.

2). Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a fundamental role in protecting and regulating saltwater and freshwater environmenrts and resources  that must be formally and economically understood and abided by governments and their agencies.

3). Far from suppression and harassment, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fishing businesses should be a place of significant investment and support in the form of start up capital funds, inter generational development, education led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait elders, cross cultural understanding exercises and trainiing that targets young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

4). None of the current Commonwealth and State government laws and regulations that apply to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fishing rights have ever been properly discussed with the elders and representatives of the communities concerned. There has been no free, prior and informed consent pertaining to the granting of fishing licences for example or the exercise of laws on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander catching fish or  other seafood resources to feed their families. All court decisions that have been applied to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people need to be comprehensively reviewed in this light.

5) As has occurred in North Queensland communities, elders of relevant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities need to have a primary say in the regulation of traditional fishing rights and should be consulted by national parks and fisheries officers and they should have the right to make recommendations in relation to the protection of fishing resources including making recommendations for prosecutions of those who damage the environment.

6). It should be a fundamental right for an Aboriginal person who can demonstrate their traditional rights to land and sea estates that they have a right to collect food for their families in accordance with traditional protocols protecting the environment and sea and land estates.

7). There should be a concerted effort to record and honour the traditional living knowledge of Aboriginal elders about saltwater and freshwater resources and estates. 

8) There should be Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives appointed as board members, consultants and advisors to all Commonwealth, State and local government agencies that make decisions about saltwater and fresh water resources and estates.

9) Primary and Secondary schools should be encouraged to take part in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fishing experiences including talks about the cultural and environmental dimesnions of these practices so we can avoid the ignorance and poor decisions that have occurred in the past and so that future generations of Australians can benefit from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and understanding,

10) Significant university funding should be allocated to studying and working with the freshwater and saltwater knowledge and understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander elders in all Aboriginal nations across the Australian continent. it is vital that this knowledge is captured, enhanced and preserved both internally and for the greater good of the Australian nation and the world.

Please listen to the interview with Ron and family.

Click here to listen to the interview.