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Seaweek 2010: Oceans of Life - ours to explore; ours to restore


• Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are the Traditional Owners of the Great Barrier Reef region. For over 60,000 years their traditional connections have been part of the unique living maritime culture, and today their traditional customs and spiritual lore continue to be practiced in their use of sea country and natural resources.

• There are more than 70 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Traditional Owner clan groups situated along the coast of the Great Barrier Reef. Each of these groups holds a range of past, present and future values for their land and sea country, and for surrounding sea countries. These values may be cultural, spiritual, economic, social or physical, or a mixture of these, and demonstrate continuing connections with the Great Barrier Reef region and its natural resources.

• Their association with the Great Barrier Reef goes back more than 10,000 years ago, when the Great Barrier Reef was actually above water. Sea level was about 150 metres lower than it is now, and what we currently look at as a series of coral reefs, and call it the Great Barrier Reef, was actually a series of limestone hills, with koalas, echidnas, wallabies, and Aboriginal people living in those areas, so their association with the reef goes back so far, that they certainly have associations with it as a marine environment, but even as a land environment as well.

• Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Traditional Owners hold a vast knowledge of the marine environment, marine animals, and their habitats. Resources from the sea, like those on the mainland, are utilised for different purposes. Such marine resources have distinct cultural uses and are not only a commodity for some communities, they are a necessity.

• Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have relied on the sea to provide food for thousands of years. The types of foods eaten were dependent upon the season and the geographic area where people lived. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people only took what they needed and were selective about the sex and maturity of animals taken in order to allow resources to replenish and prevent wastage.

Today, food from the sea is still important to continue to practice the many complex ways of collecting food and preparing meals as they enjoy eating their traditional foods. Fishing and the collection of marine resources is an important part of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and diet. In remote coastal areas, dugongs and marine turtles are highly valued because they provide food to communities where a nourishing diet is essential but often expensive to attain. In addition, these marine food resources strengthen Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and demonstrate connection with traditional sea country.

• Torres Strait Islanders traveled through the reef’s waters for trade with mainland Aboriginal groups along the east coast, as well as to collect resources for their subsistence lifestyles. They traveled vast distances in outrigger canoes, using the wind, with only the constellations as navigation guides. Their myths and legends of the sea are expressed through dance and song and there are many creation stories for the region’s islands and reefs. Some of the Aboriginal tribes along the Great Barrier Reef coast have dreaming stories from when their ancestors lived on the coastal plains near the edge of the continental shelf. This same area was covered by the last sea rise, more than 15,000 years ago thus forming the Great Barrier Reef.

• A variety of cultural sites occur, including sacred sites, ceremonial sites, burial grounds, rock art sites, middens, fish traps, cultural landscapes and story places. These sites and accounts of the past, as well as artefacts of archaeological significance, provide a strong connection to traditional clan areas and a rich heritage that all Australians should be proud of.

• Today Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a right to continue their cultural practices within their own sea countries in the Marine Park. This includes traditional use of marine resources through activities such as collecting, hunting and fishing. An important objective for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people reef-wide, and for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), is to ensure that hunting of marine animals like marine turtles and dugongs occurs at sustainable levels. This is because the populations of these animals are also under threat from many other natural and human activities.

• Through asserting their Native Title rights and interests in the Marine Park, Traditional Owners are working with marine management agencies to develop a range of cooperative management outcomes, which in turn will lead to a more holistic management approach towards the future in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.

Further Links:

• Reef Education:

• ABC:





Murray Island in the Torres Strait
from GBRMPA Image Collection


Adult South Sea islander holding a
captured juvenile green turtle
at Heron Island
from GBRMPA Image Collection


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