Know your fish

Posted: Wednesday, March 28, 2012 - 8:48pm

In 2007, Western CMA and NSW Department of Primary Industries undertook a collaborative project to assess the condition of instream and riparian habitat in the Darling River from Murtee to Ten Mile Rocks. This project produced a Habitat Management Plan that identified and prioritised actions to address the degradation of instream and riparian habitat and enhance aquatic ecosystems and the species within them.

During the community consultation phase of this project, some Aboriginal Elders of the Wilcannia community expressed concern that young people of Wilcannia were losing their cultural fishing knowledge, and that too many fish were being taken from the river. There was a desire within the local Aboriginal community to encourage sustainable fishing practices and to see the old ways and the old rules of the Paakantji promoted.

The community wanted to capture the 'old ways' in bilingual signage so that people passing through Wilcannia could also learn about the history of the area and its people.

In 2008, the WCMA again collaborated with NSW DPI on the Wilcannia make more fish? project, which aimed to implement some of the on-ground priorities identified in the Habitat Management Plan. One of the objectives of the Wilcannia make more fish? project was to develop the sign in conjunction with the local Aboriginal Community about the local riverine habitat and fish issues.

The NSW DPI visited Wilcannia Central School and met some of the Paakantji community leaders. From these meetings,  NSW DPI were able to teach students about the importance of aquatic habitat to native fish; identify the traditional names of fish and other aquatic life important to the Paakantji people; learn about community imposed closures that protected breeding fish and stopped aquatic animals from being taken; hear how the bigger breeding fish were let go to maintain healthy fish stocks; and learn about some of the spiritual beliefs that the Pakkantji people have in relation to the river.

Following talks with elders and others, NSW DPI compared contemporary fishing rules and cultural fishing practices, and discovered that the 'old ways and old rules' have striking similarities with modern fishing regulations both with regard to the fishing closures that protect breeding fish and the size and bag limits. The traditional Paakantji people knew how to manage fish reserves sustainably in a similar way that modern fishing regulations now provide us with specific rules to manage native fish stocks.

Furthermore, NSW DPI was keen to include some relevant local artworks in the signage, and so asked the students of Wilcannia Central School to prepare some drawings of local aquatic life. A range of students provided some great sketches, two of which were included on the sign.
The sign, now installed in Baker Park, was developed with the support and involvement of the Wilcannia community. In particular, Murray Butcher and William Bates provided important cultural knowledge and Michelle Nicholson, Principal of Wilcannia Central School, helped facilitate meetings and school sessions. Central School  students  provided some amazing drawings. Also, Staff from Central Darling Shire assisted in finding a location for, and installation of the sign. The funds to complete the project were provided by the Western Catchment Management Authority.