Traditional use of marine resources


Traditional use of marine resources is defined here as activities (fishing, collecting, hunting and gathering) by the 2 Indigenous or traditional owner groups of Australia: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. These activities are part of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ cultures, customs and traditions; satisfy personal, subsistence or communal needs; and are essential for the health and wellbeing of Indigenous coastal people in Australia (Torres Strait NRM Reference Group 2005, Dobbs 2007, Butler et al. 2012). More than 150 Indigenous clan groups along the Australian coastline continue a longstanding connection with sea Country, leading to traditional use of marine resources across a large area of Australia.

Traditional use is generally carried out on foot from the shore, often at low tide, or from small vessels that are usually powered by outboard motors. Although methods used in these activities may have changed through time, the purpose remains the same. The number of traditionally harvested species in marine areas can be up to several hundred (e.g. in Torres Strait; McNiven & Hitchcock 2004); these species include fish, reptiles, mammals, seabirds and molluscs. The intensity of traditional use varies between communities depending on customs, access to Country and social circumstances (Busilacchi et al. 2013a). Contemporary subsistence means that customary harvest is usually part of a hybrid economy that includes commercial fishing, and employment in industry or government (Busilacchi et al. 2013b). There is also a desire for many Indigenous communities to develop commercial enterprises that are focused on marine resources (NLC 2016).

Dugong and marine turtles are key cultural species that are customarily hunted and harvested by many coastal Indigenous communities in northern Australia (NAILSMA 2006, Butler et al. 2012). The hunting of dugong and turtle is an expression of the continuance of long cultural traditions (TSRA 2005, Dobbs 2007). Recent scrutiny of the impact of traditional harvesting on dugong and marine turtle populations, including animal welfare implications, has created some conjecture and even conflict between the desire to conserve dugong and marine turtle populations, and Indigenous interest in managing the diversity of threats (e.g. marine debris and vessel strikes) and in maintaining rights to traditional use (Dobbs 2007, Nursey-Bray 2009, Marsh et al. 2015).

The quantity, composition and local status of traditional catch across Indigenous communities are mostly unknown because of a paucity of consistent catch recording systems. Anecdotal reports suggest that harvesting levels may be declining because of changes in community practices and economies that rely more on imported foods, and strengthened awareness of, and community involvement in, sustainable management strategies. This is counterbalanced by the potential for increased geographical range and rates of capture because of technological advances (e.g. outboard motors), young hunters not practising tradition and custom, and expansion in use of the catch from special feasts to common table food (Havemman & Smith 2007).

In the absence of recorded catch numbers, some traditional owners have modified their use of resources to ensure that traditional take remains at sustainable levels through changes to their own practices and partnerships with managing agencies, including through Traditional Use of Marine Resources Agreements (Dobbs 2007). Some isolated instances of catch recording and elicitation of local knowledge have identified higher levels of harvesting within particular regions than previously thought. This highlights the importance of reliable estimates of catches for sustainable management of harvesting (Bussilacchi et al. 2013a). At a national scale, traditional use of resources is considered to have a low impact on the marine environment, with recent trends unclear.

Support to address knowledge gaps and build on existing momentum for long-term community management of cultural resources remains a challenge for some Indigenous communities (see NLC 2016). Appropriate and effective monitoring approaches are needed to determine trends in traditional use and any impacts. A lack of understanding by the public and policy-makers about established cultural rights to traditional use undermines the collection and sharing of harvest information with broader stakeholders. Sensitivities and complexities surround the management of traditional use of marine resources, and need to be identified and handled appropriately

Torres Strait Regional Authority rangers, in collaboration with traditional owners, play a vital role in monitoring marine turtle populations

Torres Strait Regional Authority rangers, in collaboration with traditional owners, play a vital role in monitoring marine turtle populations

Torres Strait Regional Authority rangers, in collaboration with traditional owners, play a vital role in monitoring marine turtle population

Photo: Tristan Simpson

Evans K, Bax NJ, Smith DC (2016). Marine environment: Traditional use of marine resources. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra,, DOI 10.4226/94/58b657ea7c296