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

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The Yanner v Eaton High Court judgment of 1999 tested the legal significance of s.211 of the Native Title Act and found that the vesting in the crown of property rights in wildlife did not extinguish native title (Altman and Cochrane 2005).

  2. 2.

    In Aboriginal English this term refers to wild food resources.

  3. 3.

    According to this approach, environmental or recreational water use is considered to be non-consumptive whereas industrial and other human water use are considered to be consumptive.

  4. 4.

    As noted by Altman (1984) and others (e.g., Russell-Smith et al. 1997), indigenous people do not merely distinguish between the ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ seasons, as do most non-indigenous residents of tropical north Australia, but divide the year into a far greater number of seasons. Indigenous seasonal knowledge in the study areas is described in Woodward et al. (2012).

  5. 5.

    In the Daly River catchment long-necked turtle (Fig. 5a) and magpie goose (Anseranas semipalmata) (Fig. 5b) were harvested in substantially higher numbers late in the dry season than in the wet or early dry seasons.

  6. 6.

    Here we define “high-value species” as those for which the replacement cost is high, calculated by estimating the market price of a proxy bought from a grocery store to replace the wild resource. For a full discussion of the methods and assumptions involved in the economic valuation see Jackson et al. (2011).

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Acknowledgments

The paper is based on research conducted under a large multi-disciplinary research program, the Tropical Rivers and Coastal Knowledge Research Hub (TRaCK). TRaCK receives major funding for its research through the Australian Government’s Commonwealth Environment Research Facilities initiative; the Australian Government’s Raising National Water Standards Program; Land and Water Australia; the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation and the Queensland Government’s Smart State Innovation Fund.

The authors would also like to acknowledge the contributions of indigenous traditional owners in the Daly, Katherine and Fitzroy River regions of north Australia. Representing traditional owners from these regions, the Northern Land Council and the Kimberley Land Council have both supported the research presented here. Constructive input has been provided on various aspects of the research by Jon Altman, Michael Douglas, Brad Pusey, Mark Kennard, Natalie Stoeckl, Emma Woodward, Alan Andersen, Marcus Barber, Tony Griffiths, Sandy Toussaint and Geoff Buchanan. We are very grateful for a careful review of our work by Adam Liedloff of CSIRO who significantly improved Fig. 2 after considering our data. The paper has benefited from comments by Glenn Harrington, Michael Douglas, Peter Bayliss and the three anonymous reviewers who suggested many improvements. Any errors and omissions are the responsibility of the authors.

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Jackson, S., Finn, M. & Featherston, P. Aquatic Resource Use by Indigenous Australians in Two Tropical River Catchments: the Fitzroy River and Daly River. Hum Ecol 40, 893–908 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10745-012-9518-z

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Keywords

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