It was about 30 years ago. I had been staying with friends in Caloundra on the Sunshine Coast north of Brisbane. It was an overcast day in early winter, with only a few desultory surfers in the water, when 5 or 6 people arrived on the beach with a long net. Two of them waded out into the surf holding the net and dropped it into the water, enclosing about 10-15 metres between them.
Then the whole group joined in to drag the net back to shore. It was hard work, for the net was brimming with frantic fish, swarming and jumping in the surf. They had caught hundreds, perhaps thousands, of sea mullet.
Locals in the know turned up with buckets. They sold a lot on the beach and packed the rest in polystyrene boxes to sell later. They backed a 4WD on to the beach, packed away the catch, and were off before the Fish Marketing Board could know or intervene. From start to finish, the whole affair took less than an hour.
My mullet were still flapping in their borrowed bucket when I got them home, where my husband, less squeamish than I am, killed and cleaned them. All 6 were gravid, with roe or sperm sacks that we discarded in those pre-taramasalata days, with just a brief regret that the fish had died before they had a chance to spawn.
Sea mullet (Mugil cephalus) is in season at the moment in my part of the world. It’s an oily fish, and its relative cheapness means some shoppers despise it, but fresh mullet from clean deep water is good eating, although the esturine fish can be a bit muddy. Its oiliness means it can take strong flavours; I often make a curry, and occasionally souse it, like herring.
The seasonal mullet run has always been important. Before European settlement, the Aboriginal population in what is now southeast Queensland was probably denser than anywhere else in Australia. It was sustained by the many natural riches of the area – fish, eels, turtle, water birds, possum and wallaby – but in particular, 2 seasonal harvests brought together large gatherings of people, and determined the pattern of migration between hinterland and coast. In summer, people gathered for the bunya nut harvest in the Bunya Mountains, part of the Blackall Ranges; and in winter they travelled to the coast for the mullet run.
Archaeological evidence from midden heaps shows that Aborigines caught and ate mullet at all times of year. (Otoliths, or fish ear bones, grow a distinct ring each year, so they are used to tell the age of fish, and at what time of year they died.) Mullet must have been most important in the diet during winter, though, when other sources of food were scarce, and they were packed with high calorie roe and milt.
Sea mullet gather to breed at the beginning of winter, usually during May and early June. After their eggs hatch, the juvenile fish live in the estuaries, creeks and rivers of New South Wales and Queensland, as far north as Townsville. They can live in salt, brackish or fresh water, then head out to sea during autumn and winter. They reach maturity after 2 to 4 years, and gather along the ocean beaches to release their eggs and sperm. They live on small crustaceans, so they can’t be caught on a line, but during these ocean beach spawning runs, the nets come out – and always did.
Aborigines in Moreton Bay collaborated with dolphins to catch fish. In 1836, James Backhouse reported that ‘The blacks do not kill the porpoises, because they show where there are fish to be caught.’ Like other 19th century writers, he calls them ‘porpoises’, but they are actually bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus). In 1856, J.K.E.Fairholme wrote that:
Near the deserted Pilot Station at Amity Point [on Stradbroke Island], some of the natives may constantly be found during the warmer months of the year fishing for “mullet”…. In this pursuit they are assisted in a most wonderful manner by the Porpoises. It seems that from time immemorial a sort of understanding has existed between the blacks and the Porpoises for their mutual advantage, and the former pretend to know all the Porpoises about the spot, and even have names for them.
The beach here consists of shelving sand, and near the shore are small hillocks of sand, on which the blacks sit, watching for the appearance of a shoal of Mullet. Their nets, which are used by hand, and are stretched on a frame about 4 feet wide, lie ready on the beach. On seeing a shoal, several of the men run down, and with their spears make a peculiar splashing in the water. Whether the Porpoises really understand this as a signal, or think it is the fish, it is difficult to determine, but the result is always the same; they at once come in towards the shore, driving the Mullet before them. As they near the edge, a number of the blacks with spears and handnets quickly divide to the right and left, and dash into the water. The Porpoises being outside the shoal, numbers of fish are secured before they can break away. In the scene of apparent confusion that takes place, the blacks and Porpoises are seen splashing about close to each other. So fearless are the latter, that strangers, who have expressed doubts as to their tameness, have often been shown that they will take a fish from the end of a spear, when held to them.
For my own part I cannot doubt that the understanding is real, and that the natives know these Porpoises, and that strange Porpoises would not show so little fear of the natives. The oldest men of the tribe say that the same kind of fishing has always been carried on as long as they can remember.
Various 19th century writers recorded these close associations. The Aborigines recognized individual animals, knew their relationships, and protected them from random killing by Europeans.
Aborigines caught fish for immediate consumption, so their depredations on the spawning mullet were limited. That changed when fishing became commercial in the late 19th century. As early as 1931, the local historian Thomas Welsby wondered: ‘Are our fishing grounds being depleted as the years pass on?’
And so it has proved. Today, there is no longer any commercial fishing in Moreton Bay, but along the surf beaches, spawning mullet are still netted for profit. The female fish, full of roe, are particularly valuable, especially in the Asian market.
Meanwhile, the dolphins who once fished with the Aborigines on the bay islands have moved into the entertainment business. Since the 1980s a pod of wild bottlenose dolphins have been coming in to the Tangalooma Resort on Moreton Island to be hand fed fish by visitors. People at the resort recognize individual animals, know their relationships, and protect them. It’s likely that these dolphins are the direct descendants of the dolphins that worked cooperatively with Aborigines 150 years ago, although these days, they have found an easier gig.
J.K.E. Fairholme, ‘The Blacks of Moreton Bay and the Porpoises’, Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, 11 November 1856, p. 354, in http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org
Ian Walters, ‘Seasonality of Fishing in South-east Queensland’, in Queensland Archaeological Reports, 1992, vol.9, 29-34
Thomas Welsby, Sport and pastime in Moreton Bay (1931)
Meet the dolphins