Aboriginal Australian Use of Mangroves
Edible mollusks harvested from amongst the mangrove roots, Tiwi Islands, Northern Territory.
A long abandoned stone fish trap on Hinchinbrook Island, Queensland
Two Aboriginal men taking bark from an Avicennia marina tree to make a shield (Ngamba tribe) in Port Macquarie area, New South Wales, around 1905. photo: NSW State Library
Prior to the arrival of Europeans, just over 200 years ago, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities of coastal areas managed all of Australia’s mangroves. Many natural resource products were gathered from mangroves and used by Indigenous peoples in a sustainable way for more than 40,000 years. Over this time, Indigenous people left little, or no, significant impact on these ecosystems. These ecosystems continue to have high cultural significance. Furthermore, many Indigenous foods are still obtained from mangrove environments, including boring bivalves, clams, mud crabs, mangrove worms, and of course the fish, Barramundi and Mangrove Jack. Certain mangrove plants are also used as food, like Avicennia marina fruit. Mangrove plants are also a source of medicines. For instance, the ashes from burnt Ceriops australis and Camptostemon schultzii wood is used to heal sores and infections, while the bark of Avicennia marina is used to treat stingray stings. Mangrove timber has been used to construct canoes, paddles, spears and boomerangs. The list of such uses is long and diverse.
Indigenous Management Today
Today, nearly half of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population live near the coast and maintain a close association with the sea boundary based on ownership, common law rights and interests, cultural and historic associations, and traditional use of resources. In the past, some communities had depended almost entirely on fish and shellfish for their subsistence. Food from the sea remains an important part of the diets of coastal communities of Indigenous people. The most prominent fish species used are mullet, catfish, sea perch/snapper, bream and barramundi; and, the most prominent non-fish species are mussels, other bivalves, prawns, oysters and mud crabs. In the Northern Territory, Aboriginal communities currently own and manage approximately 85% of coastal land in the state, containing vast tracts of mangroves. Aboriginal lands are administered by four Aboriginal Land Councils, individual communities, or through joint management agreements reached with the Northern Territory Parks and Wildlife Commission. Approximately 17 Indigenous Protected Areas covering almost 14 million hectares have been established through the National Reserve System Program in accordance with IUCN protected area management categories. These categories offer Indigenous landowners protected area status that can accommodate customary values and uses. This includes the sustainable use of mangrove ecosystems.