Living off our waters

Living off our waters

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have developed resource utilisation and management regimes for marine, riparian and estuarine habitats and incorporated cultural, ritual and social rules and practices governing use and harvesting to ensure the sustainability of these resources as a major component of their traditional ecological knowledge systems.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have lived off the resources provided by the coastal and inland waters of Australia for tens of thousand of years.  These resources supported many diverse groups of people across the country and allowed the development of a range of technologies to assist in resource utilisation and management.  The vital importance of these resources is also reflected in their incorporation into significant cultural elements which document the locations and capacity of the resources, as well as describe techniques for the sustainable management of the resource.

The coastal and inland waters of Australia provide an extensive range of food sources which included not only the fish and shellfish resources but plant, animal and bird life associated with the various types of water environments.  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been utilising these resources for many thousands of years and have therefore developed many practical techniques for harvesting these resources.  Many elements of these resources feature in significant cultural practises and songlines.

Connection to water and food resources

The following statement is a wonderful summary of the cultural importance of fishing beyond simply as a food source1:

Hunting, fishing and gathering are fundamental to our peoples’ contemporary and traditional cultures, help to define our identity, and are at the root of our relationship to the land.  Hunting, fishing and gathering continue to provide a significant part of the diet of many of our people, and also provide a range of raw materials.  As cultural activities, hunting, gathering and fishing are important vehicles for education, and help demonstrate to our succeeding generations our understanding of our place in the world.  

(Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Environmental Policy 1994)2

Examples of this cultural connection and use as a practical tool include the shark singing ceremony practised by the Barngarla (Malkaripangala) people at Whyalla in South Australia.  In quite a unique practise for southern Australia, women and men engaged in dance and song ceremonies to encourage shark and dolphins to herd schools of fish to the shores of Weeroona Bay, where they could be caught in the shallows3.

Many cultural aspects of the environment and food sources of the lower reaches of the Murray River environment are described in Clarke (2002)4.  For example, Ngarrindjeri people believe that several  deep lagoons and banks along the river were created by Thukabi (a large river turtle) during her search for places to lay eggs.  There are several other ancestral beings involved in the creation stories of the river and lakes areas, and most of these connections are used for not only utilising but  to sustainably manage the food resources.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are currently highly engaged with the management of natural resources, including food sources, through several State and Federal strategies.  An outcome of this is the growing recruitment of  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as Rangers on their country.  This has been especially prevalent in the Top End of Australia, where active involvement in land and sea management, including the food resources, has ensured a strong cultural connection to country is maintained, as well as providing a means for continued intergenerational transfer of knowledge.  Further details of recent evaluations of the Top End experience can be found in Bevlyne et. Al. (2002)5.

Food resources

An extremely wide range of species were utilised as food sources, with regional variations across the country.  Examples of typical resources across the different regions across Australia include:

  • The Barwon River system in northern NSW contained many species of fish, including Murray Cod, Catfish, Boney Bream, Yellow Belly (Golden Perch) and other species of Perch.  Other species of freshwater invertebrates within the associated wetlands of the river system included freshwater mussels, freshwater shrimps, yabbies or crayfish.  Abundant birdlife, particularly ducks and swans were also caught for food using nets and their eggs highly prized, where pelicans and brolga are cultural birds.
  • In the Top End, many fish species including barramundi, sea and freshwater turtles, dugong.  Many other species are associated with the Top End water bodies including ducks, geese and various reptiles.
  • In the Lower Murray River, several major fish species including Murray Cod, Callop (Yellow Belly), Mullet, Boney Bream and Mulloway in estuarine or shallow sea water.  Freshwater mussels were a relatively abundant food source, and the consumption of these has led to the formation of many shell middens formed of discarded mussel shells along the Lower Murray region.  Other aquatic species used as food sources included freshwater crayfish and yabbies, eels and freshwater shrimps.

Techniques used for resource utilisation

An intricate knowledge of the environmental factors relating to various food sources was used to determine the best times or weather conditions for catching certain species of fish.  Together with this environmental knowledge, many practical techniques were developed to assist in harvesting these resources.

Techniques ranged from the use of existing rock pools as tidal traps for fish, digging in areas where shellfish (such as cockles) and crabs could be found, to diving for species such as abalone.  Technologies that have been developed to assist in food catching include the construction of larger and more extensive stone weirs for use as tidal fish traps, nets made from local plant materials for both placing in the water and hand-held use, and the use of shell and bone hooks.  Rafts, canoes and boats were also developed for specific purposes, whether that be for use in shallow lagoons during northern wet seasons, bark canoes for inland waterways and more sturdy canoes for open sea fishing.  More detail on these practises and environmental knowledge can be found on the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) 'Living off our waters' website.

Classroom activity - Humanities and Social Sciences (HASS) Year 4

Students will investigate a range of geographically and climatically different areas, using the case studies provided, to describe Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge of their waterscapes as components of their traditional land estates, their understanding of these environments and management of resources, their technologies and practices for food harvesting, navigation and cultural and ritual practices.

Curriculum connections

This resource addresses the following content descriptions from the Australian Curriculum:

  • The diversity of Australia's first peoples and the long and continuous connection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples to Country/Place (land, sea, waterways and skies) (ACHASSK083)
  • The importance of environments, including natural vegetation, to animals and people (ACHASSK088)
  • Locate and collect information and data from different sources, including observations (ACHASSI074)
  • Present ideas, findings and conclusions in texts and modes that incorporate digital and non-digital representations and discipline-specific terms (ACHASSI082)

This resource addresses the following excerpts from the achievement standard for Year 4 Humanities and Social Sciences (HASS):

  • students recognise the significance of events in bringing about change and the importance of the environment
  • explain how and why life changed in the past and identify aspects of the past that have remained the same
  • identify the interconnections between components of the environment and between people and the environment

Activity 1 – Inquiry based research

Suggested timing: 2 lessons

Required resources: computer with access to internet

The AIATSIS online collection Living off our waters tells the history and values of fishing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including three community case studies.  Students can individually or in small groups investigate these geographically and climatically very different areas, using these case studies as a base.  Other related web-based resources should be researched and used for information, for example the Far West Coast Aboriginal Corporation or similar websites6, Cultural Heritage Plans7 and relative natural resources management projects8.

  • Locate each of these areas on a map of Australia and the Torres Strait Islands. What are the main environmental differences between these areas (e.g. climate)?
  • Apart from the harvesting of food, what are some of the cultural connections, for each of these groups, to the water environment and to the specific animals found within these environments?
  • What are the main differences between the food sources of these areas? Are there any common features?
  • What techniques were developed for harvesting the food sources in the different areas?  This can include the use of watercraft for specific activities. What are the main differences and can you explain reasons for these differences? Are there any common features?
  • Can you find examples of how traditional methods of using and managing the food resources are being used today?
  • The results of these enquiries can be presented as written work or as presentations to the class. All students should be encouraged to share their own experiences of ‘Living off our waters’.


1 Woodfield, C. (2000).  Traditional Aboriginal Uses of the Barwon River Wetlands.  Inland Rivers Network.  Natural Heritage Trust.

2Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Environmental Policy 1994:5

3 University of South Australia,

4 Clarke, P.A. (2002).  Early Aboriginal Fishing Technology in the Lower Murray, South Australia.  Records of the South Australian Museum 35(2): 147-167.

5 Bevlyne Sithole and Hmalan Hunter-Xenie with Lorraine Williams, Jonnie Saegenschnitter, Dean Yibarbuk, Matthew Ryan, Otto Campion, Balupalu Yunupingu, Mona Liddy, Elaine Watts, Cherry Daniels, Grace Daniels, Peter Christophersen, Victor Cubillo, Eddie Phillips, Wanyubi Marika, Donna Jackson and Wayne Barbour (2007). Aboriginal Land and Sea Management in the Top End: a Community Driven Evaluation. CSIRO: Darwin. 164pp ISBN: 978 0 643 09588 5

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The development of these resources was funded through an Australian Government initiative delivered by the University of Melbourne's Indigenous Studies Unit. The resources include the views, opinions and representations of third parties, and do not represent the views of the Australian Government. They have been developed as a proof of concept to progress the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content in Australian classrooms. In drawing on the material, users should consider the relevance and suitability to their particular circumstances and purposes.