In addition to land animals and plants, Aboriginal people hunt and fish a range of marine and freshwater species. Coastal people hunt sharks, dolphins, rays, turtles and marine fish. In the north they hunt saltwater crocodiles, and dugong (sea cows) which feed on sea grasses in shallow waters. In the past, whales were also eaten, perhaps after becoming stranded on beaches. Inland, freshwater streams provide not only fish, but turtles, eels, freshwater crocodiles, and a range of freshwater prawns and crayfish (yabbies etc).

Marine Fishing and Hunting by Coastal People
Coastal people use the following fishing methods in marine (sea) waters:

  • Wading into shallow water and spearing fish and rays.
  • Wading into shallow water and using scoop nets.
  • Paddling a canoe or other watercraft out to deep waters and fishing with a line and hook to catch fish.
  • Paddling a canoe or other watercraft out to deep waters and spearing or harpooning large marine creatures (turtles, dugong, sharks, dolphins etc). (Harpooning is when there is a rope attached to the end of a heavy spear.)
  • Large cane fish traps are woven, and meat is placed in them as bait.
  • Fishing from the shore with a string line and a hook made from a piece of trimmed shell in the past. Modern fishing gear is now used.
  • Stone fish traps were used in the past on the northern coast line. Positioned within the inter-tidal zone, they formed a V-shape and caught fish as the tide receded. 

Two men on their outrigger canoe, fishing.
Cairns, 1890s.
Photograph from 17 Years Wandering Among the Aboriginals.

Two men on their outrigger canoe, fishing. Cairns, 1890s.

Fishing in Freshwater Streams
Methods of catching fish and other creatures in freshwater streams in the present and past include:

  • Standing at the water’s edge and directly spearing fish and crocodiles as they pass.
  • Using a small scoop net to collect fish.
  • Wading in the water feeling along the edges for freshwater turtles and grabbing them directly.
  • Woven fish traps and eel traps were baited with meat and placed in streams to catch fish, freshwater crayfish and eels.
  • In shallow streams, a group of people gathered up branches and other vegetation, formed a line across the stream, and then pushed the line of vegetation along the stream, sieving the water for small fish and freshwater yabbies.
  • Stone fish traps were occasionally used in large inland rivers. The most famous of these is at Brewarrina in New South Wales.

Spearing fish, Babinda Creek. A man with his two sons are in the water and two women sit on rocks on the far bank.
Photograph from 17 Years Wandering Among the Aboriginals

An eel trap made from split lengths of vine (cane). Meat is placed into the closed end as bait and the eels get caught inside, unable to swim backwards and held also by the flow of the stream. Cedar Creek, North Queensland, circa 1900.

Fishing net made from fibre string fixed between two pieces of vine, which opens out like a scoop. Tully River.
Photograph from 17 Years Wandering Among the Aboriginals

People pushing a line of vegetation through the water to catch small fish, on a plain near Milingimbi in central Arnhem Land, Northern Territory.
Photograph by Harold and Ella Shepherdson,
Northern Territory Archives Services.