Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Culture & Dugongs and Turtles

Aboriginal groups have lived along the Great Barrier Reef region in excess of 40,000 years. The Great Barrier Reef is part of their culture and spirituality, and has provided food for their subsistence tribal lifestyle. Today, Aboriginal people live a more modern lifestyle however still maintain their cultural practices, including traditional hunting.

Dugongs appear in the art and stories of many northern coastal Aboriginal and Islander communities.

Torres Strait Islanders have lived in the Torres Strait for an estimated 10,000 years or more. Torres Strait Islanders have traditionally sailed south along the Great Barrier Reef and Cape York Peninsula coastline and made contact with Aboriginal groups for exchanges of technology, culture and goods. More recently, Torres Strait Islanders have moved south to settle in towns adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.

Dugongs and marine turtles are an essential element of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples living maritime culture along the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. This is a culture that has evolved over time through the introduction, adoption and use of new technologies in a method similar to all Indigenous and Non – Indigenous societies around the world. For example, wooden outrigger canoes were one form of transport used to access reefs and islands, but today small-motorised boats have largely replaced them for traditional activities.

The activities associated with the hunting of dugong and turtle and preparing the meat has great significance and is an expression of the continuance of long cultural traditions. Great importance is placed on the social sharing of the meat with members of the family. Turtle shell is important to many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, as historically it was often fashioned into combs and fishhooks.

In remote coastal areas, dugongs and green turtles have a higher social value 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 and sea country.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Zoning Plan 2003 recognises that under section 211 of the Native Title Act 1993, a native title holder may hunt, fish or gather in the exercise or enjoyment of his/her native title rights and interests for the purpose of personal, domestic or non-commercial communal use without either having a permit or being included within a TUMRA.

Also in the Zoning Plan, the GBRMPA introduced a new management regime for the traditional use of marine resources, which means the undertaking of activities in accordance with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander custom or tradition for the purposes of satisfying personal, domestic or communal needs. The regime was developed in close consultation with, and has virtually unanimous support of, Traditional Owner groups and Native Title Representative Bodies adjacent to the Marine Park.

An important objective for Traditional Owner groups reef-wide, and for the GBRMPA, is to ensure that hunting of green turtles and dugongs occurs at sustainable levels within the context of all the human-related mortality factors impacting on these species. To this end, Traditional Owners are being encouraged by the GBRMPA to develop Traditional Use of Marine Resource Agreements (TUMRAs) to facilitate sustainable traditional use of marine resources within their Sea Country.

Traditional Owners have cultural authority over who is allowed to hunt in their sea country. Customary law and cultural practices determine such matters as: who can catch and cut up the animals; restrictions on the take of turtle eggs; seasonal closures of beaches and hunting areas. Hunting is also being increasingly displaced by other activities such as tourism and fishing.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are keen to be involved in the management of dugong and turtle stocks and the protection of dugong and turtle habitats in the Marine Park. Co-operative arrangements between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups and managing agencies are being explored. The GBRMPA, through its Indigenous Partnerships Liaison Unit, provides support to community based management initiatives at a local scale.

The aim of these initiatives is to facilitate an active role for the communities in monitoring a sustainable level of take for dugong and turtle whilst maintaining their living maritime culture.

Further Information

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