Over this semester I've been studying Ecology and Australian Indigenous culture and another indigenous subject. Part of my study has been focused on Indigenous hunting of dugongs and sea turtles. A somewhat contentious topic especially with environmentalists. So after learning a lot about the history of European hunting of dugongs and turtles and the sustainable hunting of these species by Indigenous communities I've decided to approach this much debated and provocative topic in my blog.
Lets just start with a bit of historical stuff.
It is frequently argued that traditional hunting of dugong and sea turtles is the cause of their diminishing numbers, however research shows that the arrival of Europeans to Australian shores and commercial hunting has had far greater influence. The Indigenous communities around northern Qld, the Torres Strait and top end have been hunting turtle and dugong for thousands of years for food cultural ceremonies like funerals,trading with neighboring islands and communities and they are also totems for many people. When Europeans arrived they noticed an abundance of sea turtles and dugongs and decided to start their own trade .
Dugong fishing occurred from Moreton Bay up the eastern coastline to the Torres Strait, beginning in the 1840’s, dugong oil was used for medicinal purposes and cosmetics, soap, etc. at one stage dugong oil was exported from Queensland to as far away as Canada, after Dr William Hobbs – the Queensland Government Medical officer encouraged the manufacture of medicinal dugong oil as a substitute for cod liver oil. From 1870, dugong oil, hides, tusks and bones were exported from Queensland to N.S.W., Vic, WA, Britain and Canada. (Daley, Griggs and Marsh 2008. p,235). Over this period commercial hunting was allowed, without any restrictions or guidelines until 1890’s when a stop was put to hunting for a 2 year period due to a scarcity of dugongs. In 1892 open seasons were introduced from July to August, fishing however increased in the 1930’s due to the economic depression. It was not until 1969 that a prohibition on dugong hunting was pronounced.
|Bhadi jawi rangers tagging dugongs|
The Torres Strait is home to the largest population of dugongs worldwide, and one of the largest populations of sea turtles, the diet of the people in the region consists largely of seafood, including dugong and sea turtles; traditional hunting also occurs from Cardwell on the Qld coast to Broome on the northern coast of WA. Hunting for dugong and sea turtles also plays an important role in the initiation ceremonies, cultural activities, family celebrations .
Dugong linocut by Billy Missi
According to the NAILSMA dugong and marine turtle handbook, dugongs “feature in the creation stories of Indigenous cultures across northern Australia” (NAILSMA, 2006, p.12), both sea turtles and dugongs are totems to communities in the region along with other plants, animals and water .
In addition to totemic associations, individual Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can associate their personal identity with their role as dugong or turtle hunters. Consequently it can be established that these creatures play an important role not only in the day to day health of the Indigenous communities in the region, but also in Indigenous culture, so sustainable management of dugong and sea turtle populations is paramount.
Of the 7 varieties of sea turtles in the world Australia and the Torres Strait are home to 6 of them . Sea turtles too were prized by Europeans who hunted them en mass for over from the 1850's util 1969. The meat was canned or dehydrated and sent to Europe and China and their shells expecially the hawkesbill turtle were used for various personal items for the wealthy , hair combs, jewellery boxes, spectacles, belt buckles, hair decorations, hand bags amogst other things. Turtle shell fetched a high price for many years, and in fact is even more valuable today . Europeans thought their numbers were so prolific in the seas around Australia that they would never run out.
The dwindling numbers is of great concern to environmentalists and Indigenous communities alike. With their broad knowledge of the sea and the creatures living in it, the saltwater communities of the region are now joining with scientists and government agencies in an effort to restore their numbers and ensure that they don't become extinct again. To see what they are doing have a look at the NAILSMA website. While dugongs and sea turtles no longer have to deal with commercial hunters, western society creates other issues for their survival, including ghost nets(nets left in the sea by fishing trawlers) which they become trapped in and drown, boat strike, entrapment in fishing and shark nets, and sea grass die-back from pollution runoff from mines etc - not to mention 4 wheel drives on beaches where they are trying to nest. So you see Indigenous hunting is the least of their problems.