Module 14

Module 14 Home

The Nature, Purpose and Scope
of Coastal and Marine Studies





Reading 1 Understanding sea country Reading 2 Torres Strait Islanders sea interests Reading 3 Respecting culture
Reading 4 Utilising resources of the Great Barrier Reef Reading 5 Aboriginal uses of plants on Groote Eylandt Reading 6 Managing country - traditional-way
Reading 7 Best practice for including Indigenous perspectives into Coastal and Marine Studies


Reading 4

Utilising resources of the Great Barrier Reef

Source: Adapted from Humans and the Reef , Part 1. Tropical Topics. No 51, Department of Environment and Heritage, 1998.


Rich in resources, the coast and reef have been exploited for as long as people have been here, and although techniques may have changes, many traditional uses continue today.



Aboriginal shell middens, the archaeological remains of many a meal in the coastal zone, reveal that over 100 species of shellfish, from giant clams to pippis, have been harvested in north Queensland. Abundant and easily collected, shellfish are an important and easily collected source of protein.


Shellfish such as clams, trochus, pipis, oysters, cockles, mussels and spider shells were collected from the shallow waters. Barbs of fishing spears, made of bone, stingray and wallaby incisor teeth, split to form a toothed scraper, have been found in middens.


These middens are evidence of early Aboriginal occupation of the coasts and islands. The oldest known occupation site in the Great Barrier Reef region is Hook Island in the Whitsundays - 8 000 years old. Vast mounds in the Weipa area (north Queensland) date back at least 1 200 years, while middens in Princess Charlotte Bay are at least twice that old.2


Mangrove worms, known as shipworms (which are actually bivalve shellfish), are found in holes in old mangrove wood. They were either eaten raw or cooked depending upon the species. They are also prized medicine for colds and stomach ache. In places, these worms were farmed - logs pulled into the water and revisited for the harvest a year later.


Shells such as pearl shells were used as decoration. Necklaces, nose decorations, pendants, belts, armbands, earings and other items of symbolic importance were made from a variety of shells.

Giant clams were used as implements for collecting rainwater and making axe heads, hoes and chisels. Baler shells were useful containers and cooking pots, and baling out canoes!

Carefully fashioned oval pieces of shell were attached to the ends of spear-throwers. Shells also functioned as spoons, scrapers, knives, cups, and cooking vessels.


Coastal trees

Trees from the coastal zone were used to manufacture the large dugout canoes with double outrigger (logs or spars attached to the side parallel to the boat to stabilise it) that were in use at the time of European settlement. Up to 20m long and capable of holding up to 50 people, these canoes were obtained through trade with New Guinea and used around the Torres Strait and northern Cape York.

Smaller double outriggers, probably locally made, were used as far south as Princess Charlotte Bay while dugouts with single outriggers were used south to Magnetic Island.

South of here watercraft was restricted to bark canoes made of several sheets of bark sewn together with vines.



Fish are often speared by people as they wade in the shallows. Even today, plant extracts which interfere with the fish's ability to breathe are put into the water As the affected fish rise to the surface, they are more easily speared.

Some of these shallows are artificial, systems of rock walls having been built as traps and arranged so that fish become stranded in the pool as the tide falls. Many are quite ancient and elaborate; fish traps on Hinchinbrook Island cover about 2.16 Trapping mud crabs as well as fish, they would have been an excellent source of food for the people who once lived on Hinchinbrook and surrounding islands.


Brush fences, many metres in length, stretched across estuaries made good fish traps. Stone dams were built in places, with a small openings for the water - and fish - to pass through. The latter were then caught, with fibre baskets or platforms of twigs placed at the opening.

Bag-like fishing nets, in various designs, were made form plant fibres, fastened to frames made from cane or saplings and used to scoop up fish. Often several were used, a semi-circle of people splashing the water and chasing the fish towards the nets. Finer nets caught prawns and shrimps.


Unbarbed, crescent-shaped hooks, made from shell or turtle shell and attached to fibre lines were being use in many places when Europeans arrived. Otherwise plant tendrils or pieces of wood with a pointed bone or catfish spine attached at an angle were used. Bait, such as a small soldier crab, was tied on rather than impaled on these hooks. Metal J-shaped hooks were quickly adapted - not because they were necessarily better but because shell hooks took so long to make. Strangely hooks and lines were used along the central NSW coast and in north Queensland but not in the area between.




Rays and sharks

Stingray and shark are valued by some Indigenous people as a food and the livers which contain good quantities of iron and vitamins are considered a source of strength and given to babies and old people. The boiled liver of a ray is said to be a cure for constipation. Otherwise the livers were mixed with the flesh which has been washed to improve its taste.


Bone from sharks and rays were used for all manner of tools. Spines of stingrays and stonefish and cartilage were used singly or in clusters to tip spears or arranged as a series of barbs this made them valuable trade items with inland peoples. Sharks teeth made good drills and could be embedded in a wooden club or sword. Sharks skin made an excellent sandpaper.



Turtles are an important traditional food for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Every part of the turtle is used including the shell. Spanish explorers in 1606 in the Torres Strait found turtle shell crafted into fish hooks, needles, awls, spoons, combs, masks and ornaments.

Turtles are usually hunted with a spear from a canoe in the past or a tinny today.


Sometimes, tethered remora (sucker fish which usually attach to turtles with suckers on their heads) were used in hunting. With twine attached around the tail, the remora was lowered into the water near a turtle. If it attached, both remora and turtle could be reeled in. Turtle eggs were prized source of nutrition and eaten raw or cooked (the white does not become hard with cooking) - they also quench thirst.



Dugongs are considered to be the most valued source of food in the northern coastal areas of Australia, culturally and socially. Almost all dugongs are harpooned at sea, from a canoe in the past, and a dinghy today, which requires great skill and patience.


As well as being an important source of protein, dugongs are a source of oil which is highly prized for its medicinal qualities. Dugong hunting confers certain social status on the hunters, hence its social importance. Dugongs are usually hunted for ceremonial and other special occasions within the community.



Seabirds and their eggs were traditionally taken as were pied imperial pigeons. Flying from the mainlands to island roosts by the same route each evening, the adult pigeons were ambushed with sticks. Some Aboriginal groups built fires under the birds' island roosting trees during the day and lit them once the birds had settled, the smoke suffocating an killing them. Eggs and chicks were easy pickings.



Pieces of coral were used as files, for example when fashioning fish hooks from shell. Though the practice may not be general, the protective slime found on corals at low tide has been collected by people in Arnhem land, NT and rubbed on the body as a cure for headaches, colds and the flu.


2. Sites at Laura in North Queensland have been dated at 50 000 years old


Reading 5

Aboriginal uses of plants on Groote Eylandt

Source: Adapted from “Plants and People. Aboriginal uses of plants on Groote Eylandt”, D. Levitt, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1981.


Groote Eylandt is located on the western side of the Gulf of Carpentaria in northern Australia and is part of Arnhemland. Groote Eylandters who belong to the Warnindilyakwa tribe, make good use of the plants found on the island.


Men cut the large sheets of bark while women stripped smaller pieces while out hunting. Bark was only collected during and just after the wet season when the bark was pliable and there was plenty of sap in the trees. Stripping paperbark did not harm the tree as a thin layer of bark was left and the tree could be stripped again in a year or two.

Bark from the red kurrajong tree was soaked, in water and thin strips were rolled using the flat of the hand against the thigh, adding more bark as needed to produce a string. String was sometimes woven into string bags for holding food; it was also used as fishing line.
Bark could be used to make a ‘carry-bark’, a flattened sheet of stringy bark or a thick sheet of paperbark, for carrying babies. Waterproof coolamons (flat containers) were made in a similar way from damp bark, tied at each end with strips of lawyer vine, filled with sand and left to dry.

Long wide strips of stringy bark were used to make canoes before wooden canoes became popular. The strip was bent lengthways and ends stitched together using needles made of lawyer cane stems. Putty made from the bark of the wild peach was used to waterproof the stitches. The sides of the canoe were held outwards by tying branches across the sides and across the bottom.

Tent-shaped bark shelters were erected in wet weather. Large sheets of paperbark were bent over a pole supported by two upright fork-ended poles at either end. The ends were buried in sand and flaps were bent around to cover the opening in bad weather. Paperbark shelters were water-proof and almost mosquito-proof.

The bark of young casuarina trees was scraped off and the inner bark and sapwood scraped into a baler shell or false trumpet shell to be soaked in water, and used as a mouthwash as a cure for toothache, form canoes. Harpoons were often much larger (over 3m long) with a thicker shaft than that of a spear. The shaft was made of stringybark with a hollow in one end to take the head of the harpoon which was made of wattle or bloodwood. The head could be straight and unbarbed point for hunting turtles or it could be toothed on one side for hunting dugong. Harpoons were not thrown but thrust using both hands by a man standing in front of the canoe as it was paddled alongside the animal. The hunter was left with the harpoon shaft in his hand as the animal darted away with the harpoon head. A rope made of red kurrajong attached to the harpoon head was also attached to a float made from the milky mangrove so that the animal could be recovered easily.

Twigs from the digging stick tree (Pemphis) were sharpened , put into hot sand for 2-3 minutes and then inserted into the hollow of a severely aching tooth until the pain was gone.

Gum from the ghost gum was packed onto cicatrices, traditional marks cut into the skin during ceremonies using the sharp edge of a cuttlebone, to cover them up and keep flies off. The cicatrices then healed as a raised weal.

Resin from eucalypts were used to glue tools such as spear heads onto the shafts. Bloodwood sap was used to seal stringybark canoes.

Fruits, nuts, roots and seeds

Figs, berries, bush currants, cocky apples, wild quince, jungle plums lillipilli and screw palms are just some of the fruit-bearing trees on the island that were gathered and used as food or flavouring.

Fruit of the tamarind was rubbed between the hands and then rubbed over aching leg, chest or arm muscles to strengthen them
Nectar was collected from some flowers such as the swamp banksia and nuts from coconuts, pandanus and zamia palms were also processed and eaten.

Roots were filing foods that supplemented the meat in the diet. The thick taproot of the purple convolvulus that grows on the beach was cooked in hot sand and ashes, the outer fibres peeled off and the centre part eaten. It was only eaten if no other foods was available. Young seedlings of the coral tree also found on the coast were roasted in ashes and eaten.

Seeds of hibiscus, kurrajong and hakea were eaten raw or were roasted and pounded first, sometimes mixed with nectar.
The sweet central core of the pandanus on which the fruit grows was eaten raw as was the growing shoot of several palms.

Leaves and shoots

Melaleuca leaves were crushed and steeped in warm water in a baler shell and poured over the body to cure generalised aches and pains. Other melaleuca leaves were crushed in the hands and rubbed in the chest like a liniment.

Young shoots of spinifex were hammered between two stones and soaked in water in a bailer shell then poured into infected ears as an antiseptic. This was also used to cure infected sores and as a treatment for burns.

Purple convolvulus leaves were heated in a fire and placed over a snake bite after it had been cut open. Heated leaves were also used to take away the pain of jellyfish, stonefish and stingray stings.

Hibiscus shoots were cut and the bark removed; then they were soaked in water until liquid went soapy then it was poured over boils as a cure.

Leaves of spikewater rush, found growing in swamps flooded by high tides during the wet season, were soaked in sea water and the liquid poured onto an open wound. The soft hollow stems were also plastered over the injury without bandaging and dropped off as the injury healed. Hibiscus bark was also used to treat injuries. The inner bark and sapwood of a young shoot were shredded and heated in water in a baler shell. Then the liquid was poured into the wound which was strapped firmly with bark.
Sandpaper fig leaves were used to smooth tools such as boomerangs and spears.


Reading 6

Managing country - traditional-way

Source: Adapted from "Traditional Aboriginal land use in the Borroloola Region", R. Baker, in Traditional ecological knowledge. Wisdom for sustainable development, ed. N. Williams and G. Baines, Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies, ANU, 1988.


The Yanyuwa people live in the Borroloola region, 700km south east of Darwin in the Northern Territory. Although they live about 80km from the coast, they are coastal people and their country includes the Sir Edward Pellew Island group in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Their detailed ecological knowledge of their country enables them to utilise and manage resources sustainably and links to their system of land ownership and their religious life.



The Yanyuwa recognise a five season calendar. The hot season (ngardaru) between August and September is when grasses die back, waterholes dry out, and winds are hot and dry. Hot humid weather follows between November and December (Na-ynarramba) with rainless intense electrical storms and areas that have not been managed by burning can often burn up in bush fires started by lightning strikes. The rolling clouds known as morning glories and featured in mythology and ritual song, also indicate that flying foxes and some birds are about to migrate.


Relief is brought by the wet season, divided into the early wet (wunthurru) and the wet season proper (lhabayi) when rain is heavier and knock em down winds flatten the high grass that has grown rapidly during the season.


Rra-mardu is the dry season, usually a pleasant period with sunny days and cool evenings. Large energy-draining ceremonies are held at this time - Europeans also show season-specific behaviour as tourists flock to the region in droves.


Land units

The Yanyuwa understand their landscape in terms of `land units' not dissimilar to the land classification technique developed by CSIRO in the 1950s, where the combination of topography, soils and vegetation produce distinctive and recognisable land units. The aim of both systems is to compile an inventory of natural resources to facilitate economic development. The Yanyuwa system also linked land ownership and religious life.


Land use

The Yanyuwa had extensive knowledge of the land/sea units. This knowledge was fundamental to utilising these environments for economic activities. The Yanyuwa economy was very much marine based. People only moved away from the coast during the windy season and even then lived off lily roots provided in lagoons (nankawa).

The intertidal zone (narnu-wuthan) provided shellfish collected from sandy flats and crabs in exposed seagrass beds. At high tide it was also an area where dugong could be caught as they grazed on the seagrass. Male identity is still tied to prowess as marine hunters.

Figure 2 illustrates the Yanyuwa knowledge of their marine and coastal plant and animal resources and the interconnections between the two. For example, flowering times of various plants are known to correspond to specific animal resources. The acacia flowers when turtle and dugong move close to shore and are `fat'. Dugong are easy to hunt at the time of the year when cuttlefish shells are washed up on the beaches. The arrival of the pied imperial-pigeon heralds the end of the hot season. In other cases the connections between animal and plant worlds are more directly linked. When blue jellyfish arrive, turtle go out to sea to feed on them and to mate, and are `good eating' when they return.


Resource management

Food storage techniques allowed efficient resource management. Long necked turtles gathered from the lagoon were placed in grass-lined holes with a rock on the top until needed. Grass seeds were ground up to make dampers and kept for several days. Turtle and bird eggs were scrambled then cooked up and sealed in paperbark bundles which kept for up to a week. Fruit of the tree Buchania obovata was pounded up into a sweet paste or dried by coating with red ochre which stopped it rotting and enabled it to be stored. These techniques gave a year round supply of fruit. Marine turtles, once caught, can Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec

barramundi and catfish in the washout barra in fish traps in creek

salmon run

dugong and turtle dugong and turtle fat

stingray moves upstream stingray (also crabs and shark)

oyster-catcher lays eggs

egret chicks egret chicks

sea turtle eggs

flying fox

seabird eggs

cycad harvest cycad harvest

fishing fishing

pandanus harvest


water lily stems flower and maturing corms

green plum white plum

yams yams

be kept alive in camps or the river where they are tethered to a tree until needed. Cycad and pandanus nuts can be ground, dried and stored to be made later into dampers.

Traditional management `laws' are many:

Yams are collected in such as way that a part remains to allow regrowth.

Flying foxes are not killed until April when they have weaned their young.

There are rules about wasting food that has been caught; for example if a goanna is not all eaten, it is believed that goannas in general will become skinny as will the person who wasted it.

Prohibitions against hunting on certain country at certain times (for example after someone has died) allows animals to breed up in hunt-free zones. Specific resources from certain areas are restricted; for example flying foxes can only be eaten by initiated men.

There are rules for how a dugong can be hunted and how the meat is to be cut up and distributed.

There are total prohibitions on hunting some species, usually those that are attributed with the power to preserve a resource; for example the `quiet' water python cannot be hunted as it is thought to maintain waterholes.

Permission from traditional owners is required to hunt in others' areas and access rights are jealously guarded in areas of rich resources such as islands rich with bird or turtle eggs.

Figure 2. Seasonal calendar of resources used by the Yanyuwa

Adapted from : Figures 11 and 12 in R. Baker, Traditional Aboriginal land use in the Borroloola Region,. 1988.


Reading 7

Best practice for including Indigenous perspectives
into Coastal and Marine Studies


Source: Linda Craig, Julie Swartz, Linc Walker (1997) Guidelines for Including Aboriginality in Environmental Education, Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage, Cairns.


[Note: In our original paper, we used the term, `Aboriginal peoples'; this has now been altered to include Torres Strait Islander peoples by using the term "Indigenous peoples"]


A number of concerns need to be considered when working with Indigenous peoples, including issues such as ownership of cultural information, cultural sensitivity (in cross-cultural communication) and cultural equity (respecting western and indigenous knowledge equally). These key elements will dramatically affect the success of the programs you choose to conduct. Following are five basic premises that we think non-indigenous educators should keep in mind when incorporating cultural aspects into environmental education programs.


1. Speaking for country - contacting the right people

Many non-Indigenous people do not recognise the diversity of cultures that exist within Indigenous Australia. They wrongly assume that one Indigenous person can speak for all Indigenous people. This is not the case - different Indigenous people have connections to particular places or country. Therefore in your area (rural or urban), there are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people who have traditional links to that area.

It is your responsibility to make sure that you speak to the right people for the right `country' when planning your environmental education program. If you want to include Indigenous learnings/perspective to your education program that are directly related to the area (such as a visit to a coastal park or reserve) you will need to contact the traditional people. If you are in a major developed urban area, the traditional people may not be present or there may be Indigenous people relocated from other areas. You need to obtain advice from your local Land Council or Indigenous Corporation or community group as to who is the best person to contact about your needs. They can tell you if there are traditional people present for the area or can suggest other Indigenous people who, although they cannot speak for the country, can still assist you in providing a general Indigenous perspective for your program.


2. Invisibility - making local links with Indigenous people

Indigenous are not invisible but sometimes non-Indigenous people behave as if they were! Utilising the community for environmental education is considered best practice but it is sadly too rarely applied to Indigenous sector of the community, especially in large urban centres.

As educators, you need to make personal connection to local Indigenous people in your area. They are there - they are not invisible - and they can offer the chance for ongoing involvement in your education program. It is important that your students benefit from personal interaction with Indigenous people instead of second-hand information from a book. Don't reach for Kakadu Man from the bookshelf, contact your local Indigenous group/corporation for appropriate people to get personally involved in your program. The richness of their experiences as Indigenous people in contemporary society, the unique indigenous perspective to challenge non-Indigenous world views and assumptions; and their special connections to the environment can be an invaluable addition to your program.


3. What is real? - defining `Indigenous'

Non-Indigenous people mostly do not recognise that Indigenous people are as varied as non-Indigenous people. When thinking of an image of an Indigenous Australian, they think of someone like `Kakadu Man' - Big Bill Neidjie (a Gagadju Elder from the Northern Territory) as a `typical' or `real' Aboriginal person or maybe Koiki (Eddie) Mabo (successful native title claimant on Murray Island) a `real' Torres Strait Islander person.

Without being disrespectful to Mr Neidjie; he is not the face of Aboriginal Australia, he is the face of a Gagadju Elder. Likewise Mr Mabo cannot represent all Torres Strait Islander cultures. Traditional stereotypes do not acknowledge the diversity of people who define themselves as Indigenous people. An Indigenous is defined by his or her appearance; rather by his or her spirituality. Such a definition would then force us to not only look at many different Indigenous faces such as Cathy Freeman, Noel Pearson, Mal Maninga and Lois O'Donaghue ... but also beyond those faces and to understand what it means to identify as an Indigenous person in today's society.

So how can educators address this issue? Traditional stereotypes should be challenged rather than reinforced. Attempt to link up with Indigenous people living contemporary lifestyles in your own area and seek to involve them in your education program. In this way students will learn firstly that real Indigenous people exist (in a range of guises) and come to appreciate the diverse cultures that exist within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies as part of a living contemporary culture.


4. Owning information - showing respect

Indigenous information is owned by Indigenous people similar to the way that an idea has copyright attached. Cultural copyright has become an increasingly heated issue as Indigenous people assert their sole rights to cultural information. It is no longer acceptable for non-indigenous people to inappropriately use or refer to Indigenous information without the prior consent of Indigenous people.


Non-Indigenous people are mostly not aware of the responsibilities that are associated with owning cultural information. In Indigenous societies, information and knowledge are not commodities that are freely accessible to everyone. Particular people can speak for certain areas; and different information can be given to different people. For example, some information will only be shared with Indigenous people when they are ready to receive it; some information is gender-specific; and non- Indigenous people are likely to only ever hear very general information of no special significance. Therefore the cultural information shared with you depends on who you are.


This idea that information carries certain responsibilities can be a difficult concept for non- Indigenous people to grasp. It is therefore important for educators to remain respectful and acknowledge that they cannot obtain and use cultural information without prior consent from the relevant people.


When contacting Indigenous people to become involved in your education program, don't expect to be given information to use in your teaching. That is not why you have contacted them. Rather, your request should be `What would you like to teach non-indigenous people about this place/ about your culture and how can we best do it?' The solution should ensure that Indigenous people remain involved and in control of the educational process. This may mean that you invite them to speak to your students or to become involved in a more on-going manner in your program or simply that they are present when you visit their country.


5. Your role as educators will be different

Including Indigenous learnings into your education program changes your role as an educator. Assuming all goes according to plan, and you have made contact with appropriate Indigenous people, and they have indicated willingness to help your students to understand more about the world from an Indigenous perspective, how will you determine your role? By accepting that you are not the expert, you immediately show respect and pave the way for a productive working relationship with Indigenous people. You will need first to develop trust and understanding based on mutual respect and a shared interest in promoting the value of Indigenous knowledge and views to your students.


Depending on your situation, Indigenous people or community may be happy to present talks and discussion sessions, conduct dance, language, art and craft workshops, lead cultural walks or demonstrate cultural skills. Others may prefer to share certain information with you that you can incorporate into your environmental education programs. What ever the outcome, at all times you will need to be aware of your responsibility to facilitate the process in a way that is culturally-appropriate and achieves the best outcomes for promoting and valuing Indigenous perspectives for your students.