Human Ecology

, Volume 40, Issue 6, pp 893–908 | Cite as

Aquatic Resource Use by Indigenous Australians in Two Tropical River Catchments: the Fitzroy River and Daly River



Indigenous people of northern Australia make extensive use of wild resources as a source of food, in their art and craft, and for medicinal purposes. These resources are part of a socially and culturally significant landscape. Using data collected from household surveys across two catchments in northern Australia, the Daly River, Northern Territory (NT) and the Fitzroy River, Western Australia (WA), we describe indigenous aquatic resource use patterns. The former is a perennial system with extensive vegetated wetlands that can remain inundated for 4–5 months, while the latter can cease to flow during the winter dry season (May–October) and its floods usually last for weeks. Subsistence strategies depend on seasonal availability of a wide array of aquatic species and are attuned to the life histories and movement patterns of key species, such as Long-necked Turtle (Chelodina rugosa) and Magpie Goose (Anseranas semipalmata). Indigenous households harvested resources from different habitats. Our results show a clear progression from use of the main river channel shortly after the wet season to use of billabongs late in the dry season in the Daly River, and a constant reliance on the main river channel and tributaries in the Fitzroy River. Difference in the main species utilised appears strongly related to habitat use, with four of the five most commonly harvested in the Daly catchment being non-fish species associated with billabong habitats. Commonly harvested species from the Fitzroy catchment included small bodied species used as bait and two popular food species, Black Bream (Hephaestus jenkinsi) and Catfish (Neoarius spp.). Results suggest that indigenous subsistence strategies are vulnerable to changes in the natural systems that provide the “ecosystem goods,” particularly annual inundation of floodplains that drives productivity and provides habitat for some key species. Water resource developments, such as river regulation and increased abstraction for irrigated agriculture, could adversely affect a highly valued customary component of the indigenous economies of tropical Australia.


Customary resource use Subsistence hunting and fishing Bush tucker Australian indigenous peoples Aquatic resource management 


  1. Altman, J. C. (1984). The Dietary Utilisation of Flora and Fauna by Contemporary Hunter-Gatherers at Momega Outstation, North-Central Arnhem Land. Australian Aboriginal Studies 1: 35–46.Google Scholar
  2. Altman, J. C. (1987). Hunter Gatherer’s Today: An Aboriginal Economy in North Australia. Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra.Google Scholar
  3. Altman, J. C. (2001). Sustainable Development Options on Aboriginal Land: The Hybrid Economy in the Twenty-First Century. Australian National University, Canberra, ACT, Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research.Google Scholar
  4. Altman, J. C. (2004). Economic Development and Indigenous Australia: Contestation Over Property, Institutions and Ideology. Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics 48: 513–534.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Altman, J. C. (2006). The Indigenous Hybrid Economy: A Realistic Sustainable Option for Remote Communities? In Australian Fabian Society, Melbourne.Google Scholar
  6. Altman, J. C., Biddle, N., and Buchanan, G. (2012). The Indigenous hybrid economy: Can the NATSISS adequately recognise productive difference? In Hunter, B., and Biddle, N. (eds.), Social Science Perspectives on the 2008 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey. ANU E Press, Canberra.Google Scholar
  7. Altman, J. C., and Cochrane, M. (2005). Sustainable Development in the Indigenous-Owned Savannah: Innovative Institutional Design for Cooperative Wildlife Management. Wildlife Research 32: 473–480.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Altman, J. C., and Jackson, S. (2008). Indigenous land and sea management: Recognise, respect and resource. In Lindenmayer, D., Dovers, S., Harriss Olson, M., and Morton, I. (eds.), Ten Commitments: Reshaping the Lucky Country’s Environment. CSIRO Publishing, Melbourne, pp. 207–214.Google Scholar
  9. Asafu-Adjaye, J. (1996). Traditional Production Activities and Resource Sustainability: The Case of Indigenous Societies in Cape York Peninsula, Australia. International Journal of Social Economics 23: 125–135.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Baird, I. G., and Flaherty, M. S. (2005). Mekong River Fish Conservation Zones in Southern Laos: Assessing Effectiveness Using Local Ecological Knowledge. Environmental Management 36: 439–454.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Barber, K. (2006). Indigenous values and the Ord River. In Jackson, S. (ed.), Recognising and Protecting Indigenous Values in Water Resource Management: A Report from a Workshop Held at CSIRO in Darwin, NT, 5–6 April 2006. CSIRO, Darwin.Google Scholar
  12. Barletta, M., and Costa, M.F. (2009). Living and non-living resources exploitation in a tropical semi-arid estuary. Journal of Coastal Research, SI 56, Proceedings of the 10th International Coastal Symposium. Portugal Lisbon, pp. 371–375.Google Scholar
  13. Berkes, F. (1983). Quantifying the harvest of native subsistence fisheries. In Wein, R. W., Riewe, R. R., and Methven, L. R. (eds.), Resources and dynamics of the boreal zone. Ottawa: Association of Canadian Universities for Northem Studies. 346–363.Google Scholar
  14. Berkes, F. (1990). Native Subsistence Fisheries: A Synthesis of Harvest Studies in Canada. Arctic 43: 35–42.Google Scholar
  15. Bird, D. W., Bliege, B. R., and Parker, C. H. (2005). Aboriginal Burning Regimes and Hunting Strategies in Australia’s Western Desert. Human Ecology 33: 443–464.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Brimblecombe, J. (2007). Enough for rations and a little bit extra: Challenges of nutrition improvement in an Aboriginal community in North-East Arnhem Land. PhD thesis. Menzies School of Health Research and Institute of Advanced Studies, Charles Darwin University, Darwin.Google Scholar
  17. Brook, B. W., and Whitehead, P. J. (2005). Sustainable Harvest Regimes for Magpie Geese (Anseranas semipalmata) Under Spatial and Temporal Heterogeneity. Wildlife Research 32: 459–464.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Brooks, S. E., Reynolds, J. D., and Allison, E. A. (2008). Sustained by Snakes? Seasonal Livelihood Strategies and Resource Conservation by Tonle Sap Fishers in Cambodia. Human Ecology 36: 835–851.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Buchanan, G., Altman, J. C., Arthur, B., Oades, D., and Rangers, B. J. (2009). “Always Part of Us”: The Socioeconomics of Indigenous Customary Use and Management of Dugong and Marine Turtles—A View from Bardi and Jawi sea Country. Western Australia. Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Canberra.Google Scholar
  20. Burgess, C. P., Johnston, F. H., Berry, H. L., McDonnell, J., Yibarbuk, D., Gunabarra, C., Mileran, A., and Bailie, R. S. (2009). Healthy Country, Healthy People: The Relationship Between Indigenous Health Status and “Caring for Country”. Medical Journal of Australia 190: 567–572.Google Scholar
  21. Chambers, R., and Conway, G. (1992). Sustainable Rural Livelihoods: Practical Concepts for the 21st Century. Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, Sussex.Google Scholar
  22. Chan, T. U., Hart, B. T., Kennard, M. J., Pusey, B. J., Shenton, W., Douglas, M. M., Valentine, E., and Patel, S. (2012). Bayesian Network Models for Environmental Flow Decision-Making in the Daly River, Northern Territory. Australia. River Research and Applications 28: 283–301.Google Scholar
  23. Chase, A., and Sutton, P. (1981). Hunters and gatherers in a rich environment: Aboriginal coastal exploitation in Cape York Peninsula. In Keast, A. (ed.), Ecological Biogeography of Australia. Dr Junk, London, pp. 1818–1852.Google Scholar
  24. CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) (2009). Water in the Timor Sea Drainage Division. A report to the Australian Government from the CSIRO Northern Australia Sustainable Yields Project. CSIRO Water for a Healthy Country Flagship, Australia. Xl + 508pp.Google Scholar
  25. Cresswell, R., Petheram, C., Harrington, I, Buetlikofer H., Hodgen, M., Davies, P., and Li, L. (2009). Water resources of northern Australia. In: Northern Australia Land and Water Science Review 2009, Publication Number INFRA-09155, Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government, CanberraGoogle Scholar
  26. Delaney, R., Fukuda, Y., and Saalfield, K. (2009). Management Program for the Magpie Goose (Anseranas semipalmata) in the Northern Territory of Australia, 2009–14. Northern Territory Department of Natural Resources, the Environment, the Arts and Sport, Darwin.Google Scholar
  27. Douglas, M., Jackson, S., Setterfield, S., Pusey, B., Davies, P., Kennard, M., Burrows, D., and Bunn, S. (2011). Northern futures: Threats and opportunities for freshwater systems. In Pusey, B. (ed.), Aquatic Biodiversity in Northern Australia: Patterns, Threats and Future. Charles Darwin University Press, Darwin, pp. 203–220.Google Scholar
  28. Finn, M. A., and Jackson, S. (2011). Protecting Indigenous Values in Water Management: A Challenge to Conventional Environmental Flow Assessments. Ecosystems 14(8): 1232–1248 doi:10.1007/s10021-011-9476-0.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. FAO (2004). The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture, 2000. Food and Agricultural Association, Rome.Google Scholar
  30. Garaway, C. J. (2005). Fish, Fishing and the Rural Poor: A Case Study of the Household Importance of Small Scale Fisheries in the Lao PDR. Aquatic Resources, Culture, Development 1: 131–144.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Goodman, L. A. (1961). Snowball Sampling. The Annals of Mathematical Statistics 32: 148–170.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Gould, R. A. (1969). Subsistence behaviour among the Western Desert Aborigines of Australia Oceania 39: 253–274.Google Scholar
  33. Gray, M., and Altman, J. C. (2006). The Economic Value of Harvesting Wild Resources to the Indigenous Community of the Wallis Lake Catchment, NSW. Family Matters 75: 24–33.Google Scholar
  34. Griffiths, A. D. (2003). Aboriginal Hunting and its Role in Wildlife Conservation for Northern Australia. Third International Wildlife Management Congress. University of Christchurch, Christchurch, New Zealand.Google Scholar
  35. Griffiths, A. D., Phillips, A., and Godjuwa, C. (2003). Harvest of Bombax Ceiba for the Aboriginal Arts Industry, Central Arnhem Land, Australia. Biological Conservation 113: 295–305.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Holcombe, S., Yates, P., and Walsh, F. (2011). Reinforcing Alternative Economies:Self-Motivated Work by Central Anmatyerr People to Sell Katyerr (Desert Raisin, Bush Tomato) in Central Australia. Rangeland Journal 33: 255–265.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Jackson, S. (2006). Compartmentalising Culture: The Articulation and Consideration of Indigenous Values in Water Resource Management. Australian Geographer 37: 19–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Jackson, S., and Altman, J. C. (2009). Indigenous Rights and Water Policy: Perspectives from Tropical Northern Australia. Australian Indigenous Law Review 13: 27–48.Google Scholar
  39. Jackson, S. (2011). Aboriginal Access to Water in Australia: Opportunities and Constraints, In Grafton, Q., and Hussey, K. (eds.), Water Resources, Planning and Management, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 601–628.Google Scholar
  40. Jackson, S., Finn, M., Woodward, E., and Featherston, P. (2011). Indigenous Socio-Economic Values and River Flows. CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences, Darwin.Google Scholar
  41. Jackson, S., and Langton M., (2012). Trends in the recognition of indigenous water needs in Australian water reform: the limitations of ‘cultural’ entitlements in achieving water equity, Journal of Water Law 22(2/3): 109–123.Google Scholar
  42. Jackson, S., Tan, P, Mooney, C., Hoverman, S. and White, I. (2012). Principles and guidelines for good practice in Indigenous engagement in water planning. Journal of Hydrology. doi:10.1016/j.jhydrol.2011.12.015.
  43. Jardine, T. D., Pettit, N. E., Warfe, D. M., Pusey, B. J., Ward, D. P., Douglas, M. M., Davies, P., and Bunn, S. E. (2011). Consumer-Resource Coupling in wet-dry Tropical Rivers. Journal of Animal Ecology doi:10.1111/j.1365-2656.2011.01925.
  44. Keen, I. (2004). Aboriginal Economy and Society: Australia at the Threshold of Colonisation. Oxford University Press, South Melbourne.Google Scholar
  45. Kennard, M. J., Pusey, B. J., Olden, J. D., Mackay, S. J., Steni, J. L., and Marsh, N. (2010). Classification of Natural Flow Regimes in Australia to Support Environmental Flow Management. Freshwater Biology 55: 171–193.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Kent, G. (1998). Fisheries, Food Security and the Poor. Food Policy 22: 393–404.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. King, J., and Brown, C. (2010). Integrated Basin Flow Assessments: Concepts and Method Development in Africa and South-East Asia. Freshwater Biology 55: 127–146.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Langton, M. (2006). Earth, wind, fire, water: The social and spiritual construction of water in Aboriginal societies. In David, B., Barker, B., and McNiven, I. (eds.), The Social Archaeology of Australian Indigenous Societies. Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra.Google Scholar
  49. Langton, M., Mazel, O., and Palmer, L. (2006). The ‘Spirit’ of the Thing: The Boundaries of Aboriginal Economic Relations at Australian Common Law. The Australian Journal of Anthropology 17: 307–321.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Lee, A., O’Dea, K., and Mathews, J. (1994). Apparent Dietary Intake in Remote Aboriginal Communities. Australian Journal of Public Health 18: 190–197.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Matete, M., and Hassan, R. (2005). An Ecological Economics Framework for Assessing Environmental Flows: The Case of Inter-Basin Water Transfers in Lesotho. Global and Planetary Change 47: 193–200.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. McGregor, S., Lawson, V., Christophersen, P., Kennett, R., Boyden, J., Bayliss, P., Liedloff, A., McKaige, B., and Andersen, A. N. (2010). Indigenous Wetland Burning: Conserving Natural and Cultural Resources in Australia’s World Heritage-Listed Kakadu National Park. Human Ecology 38: 721–729.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Meehan, B. (1982). Shell Bed to Shell Midden. Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra.Google Scholar
  54. Naughton, J., O’Dea, K., and Sinclair, G. (1986). Animal Foods in Traditional Australian or Aboriginal Diets: Polyunsaturated and Low in Fat. Lipids 21: 684–690.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Pearson, N. (2000). Our Right to Take Responsibility. Noel Pearson and Associates, Cairns.Google Scholar
  56. Petheram, C., McMahon, T., and Peel, M. (2008). Flow Characteristics of Rivers in Northern Australia: Implications for Development. Journal of Hydrology 357: 93–111.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Prober, S. M., O’Connor, M. H., and Walsh, F. J. (2011). Australian Aboriginal Peoples’ Seasonal Knowledge: A Potential Basis for Shared Understanding in Environmental Management. Ecology and Society 16: 12.Google Scholar
  58. Pusey, B. (ed.) (2011). Aquatic Biodiversity in Northern Australia: Patterns, Threats and Future. Charles Darwin University Press, Darwin.Google Scholar
  59. Rae, C. J., Lamprell, V. J., Lion, R. J., and Rae, A. M. (1982). The Role of Bush Foods in Contemporary Aboriginal Diets. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society of Australia 7: 45–48.Google Scholar
  60. Rouja, P. M., Dewailly, E., Blanchet, C., and Bardi, C. (2003). Fat, Fishing Patterns, and Health Among the Bardi People of North Western Australia. Lipids 38: 399–405.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Russell-Smith, J., Lucas, D., Gapindi, M., Gunbunuka, B., Kapirigi, N., Namingum, G., Lucas, K., Giuliani, P., and Chaloupka, G. (1997). Aboriginal Resource Utilization and Fire Management Practice in Western Arnhem Land, Monsoonal Northern Australia: Notes for Prehistory, Lessons for the Future. Human Ecology 25: 159–195.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Scoones, I. (1998). Sustainable Rural Livelihoods. A Framework for Analysis. Institute of Development Studies, Brighton.Google Scholar
  63. Shackelton, C. M., Timmermans, H. G., Nongwe, N., Hamer, N., Palmer, N., and Palmer, R. (2007). Direct-Use Value of non-Timber Forest Products from Two Areas on the Transkei Wild Coast. Agrekon 46: 135–156.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. SCRGSP (Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision). 2011. Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators 2011. Productivity Commission, Canberra. Retrieved 14 March 2012, from
  65. Toussaint, S. (2010). Fitzroy Valley Indigenous Groups and the Multi-Criteria Value of Fishing and Fish: A Report for the Social and Economic Values Project (2.2) For Tropical Rivers and Coastal Knowledge (TRaCK). University of Western Australia, Perth.Google Scholar
  66. Turner, C. (1998). Indigenous Subsistence Fishing Survey Kit—Good Fishing for the Future, Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage, Balkanu, and Queensland Department of Primary Industry and Fisheries, Brisbane.Google Scholar
  67. Usher, P. J., and Wenzel, P. (1987). Native Harvest Surveys and Statistics: A Critique of Their Construction and Use. Arctic 40: 145–160.Google Scholar
  68. van Oostenbrugge, J. A. E., van Densen, W. L. T., and Machiels, M. A. M. (2004). How the Uncertain Outcomes Associated with Aquatic and Land Resource use Affect Livelihood Strategies in Coastal Communities in the Central Moluccas, Indonesia. Agricultural Systems 82: 57–91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Venn, T., and Quiggin, J. (2007). Accommodating Indigenous Cultural Heritage Values in Resource Assessment: Cape York Peninsula and the Murray-Darling Basin, Australia. Ecological Economics 61: 334–344.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Veth, P., and Walsh, F. (1988). The Concept of ‘Staple’ Plant Foods in the Western Desert of Western Australia. Australian Aboriginal Studies 2: 19–25.Google Scholar
  71. Walsh, F. (1990). An Ecological Study of Traditional Aboriginal Use of ‘Country’: Martu in the Great and Little Sandy Deserts, Western Australia. Proceedings of the Ecological Society of Australia 16: 23–37.Google Scholar
  72. Walsh, F., and Douglas, J. (2011). No Bush Foods Without People: The Essential Human Dimension to the Sustainability of Trade in Native Plant Products from Desert Australia. Rangeland Journal 33: 395–416.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Weir, J. (2009). Murray River Country: An Ecological Dialogue with Traditional Owners. Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra.Google Scholar
  74. Williams, N. M., and Hunn, E. S. (1982). Resource Managers: North American and Australian Hunter Gatherers. Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra.Google Scholar
  75. Wilson, G. R., Edwards, M. J., and Smits, J. K. (2010). Support for Indigenous Wildlife Management in Australia to Enable Sustainable Use. Wildlife Research 37: 255–263.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Woodward, E., Jackson, S., Finn, M., and Marrfurra McTaggart, P. (2012). Utilising Indigenous Seasonal Knowledge to Understand Aquatic Resource Use and Inform Water Resource Management in Northern Australia. Ecological Management and Restoration 13(1): 58–64 doi:10.1111/j.1442-8903.2011.00622.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.CSIRO Ecosystem SciencesWinnellieAustralia

Personalised recommendations