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Home Reef Fisheries Development: A Report from Torres Strait

From the window of the four-seater Cessna the horizon seems curved and distorted, like the view through a fish-eye lens. Mabuiag Island is still only a speck in the blue to the northwest, as we fly over One, Two, and three Dollar Reefs, leaving Thursday Island behind. In my mind I can still hear strains of the Mills Sister' Top Ten song, ""T.I. My Beautiful Home,"" from the previous night at the Federal Hotel bar.

Thursday Island (or ""T.I.,"" as its inhabitants call it), the administrative, shopping, and service hub for Torres Strait, Australia's northernmost outback, straddles the frontier between the Pacific islands and Southeast Asia (see Map 3). It has become a melting pot of black and white Australians. At the Federal Hotel young nurses, doctors, teachers, government clerks, and traders from down south in Sydney and Brisbane rub elbows with rugged prawn fishermen and Islanders, ""shouting"" each other to rounds of 4X, Queensland's popular brew.

The presence of the 51st Battalion and its mission ""to beef up reconnaissance and surveillance operations"" is seen by the new commander of Charlie Company (a reserve unit that calls itself ""Sharpeye"") One wonders what needs to be defended on T.I.; nothing much seems to be going on aside from a bit of harmless tropical tourism.

Yet the Torres Strait archipelago is becoming increasingly internationalized. Panamanian and Liberian-registered oil tankers and container ships precariously traverse the narrow shipping lanes among the Dollar Reefs; dilapidated fishing boats from Taiwan, Indonesia, and Malaysia illegally trawl within the confines of the Torres Strait Protected Zone (TSPZ). Small outboard-powered aluminum dinghies bring Papuans - some seeking asylum from West Papua (Irian Jaya) - as well as visitors from neighboring Papua New Guinea communities who come to shop, obtain medical care (illegally) at the hospital on T.I., or trade in contraband.

Culture and the Sea

There are approximately 6,000 Islanders today living in Torres Strait. Australia provides them with a system of guaranteed health, education, and employment benefits (""transfer payments""). Though Islanders greatly outnumber non-Islanders, the latter dominate the government-run and privately owned marine industries as well as most other commercial enterprises and services. The sea permeates the world of Mabuiag people on three planes: in the social dynamics of food sharing, in subsistence and resource management, and in the realm of myth and ceremony (Cordell and Fitzpatrick 1987). As with other island and coastal peoples, the land-sea transition zone on Mabuiag is very fluid. However, social, political, and clan identity and allegiance are clearly demarcated by home island place names.

Home island identification is not confined to Islanders residing in Torres Strait. Since the early Blackbirding days there has been a steady influx of migrants - South Pacific islanders, white Australians, Filipinos, Malays, Japanese, Aborigines, and Papuans. Those who have intermarried, including Islanders living in mainland Australia, all claim descent through home island affiliation. Islander society relegates everyone to a kinship category; everyone is assigned a place in the scheme of things. Eventually, many non-Islanders were able to tap into the rules for extending these social networks and the rights and privileges they carry (for example, in obtaining access to home reefs for subsistence and commercial fishing).

Protected Zones

As we get set to land on Mabuiag, my adopted home island, the one other passenger inquires about our destination. I say that I am coming back to a place where I once did fieldwork, to visit old friends and to do some fishing. He says he replied to an advertisements in the Cairns Post for contract labor as a boatworker in the Torres Strait rock lobster fisheries. ""Where's the boat?"" I ask. ""Down there."" He points to some boats anchored inside Mabuiag's home reef, some tethering lines of small dinghies. This I find odd, Mabuiag fishermen always haul their dinghies up on the beach; only visitors anchor offshore. My fellow passenger has his eye on making a fast buck: a good season in Mabuiag waters could bring him and his boss US $16,400 a month for the next four months.

Under Australian law Mabuiag people have no legally backed rights to their home reef waters and resources, which extend over 640 km, including 190 km of reefs. Their fishing grounds - shallow beds of coral and seagrass, some scattered small outer islands, and reef flats - are incorporated within the TSPZ set up in 1985 when the Torres Strait Treaty between Papua New Guinea and Australia was finally ratified. The Torres Strait Treaty is essentially a fisheries treaty, providing for a protected area to be jointly managed by Australia and Papua New Guinea. It does not recognize, but does allow, traditional fishing rights and defines the limits, catch sharing agreements, and jurisdictions for commercial fisheries.

A closer look at fisheries regulations within and beyond the TSPZ, however, reveals that a contradictory principle of resource use is operating:

Under Australian law fish are common property as noted in recent Federal Government publication - ""fisheries resources are publicly owned, being at once everybody's and nobody's"" and in the Strait apart from seasonal closures, etc., the reef and waters are open to all alike. (Arthur 1990:7; emphasis added)

At least for Western Islanders, fishery resources are also ""publicly owned,"" but within a community of specified individuals. The defining criteria in ""publicly owned"" is the local community's definition of who makes up the ""public.""

Rock Lobster Fishing

My trip to Mabuiag coincides with the onset of Kukiau tonar, the monsoon period and the best time to capture the migratory rock lobster. Torres Strait Islanders have long been the mainstay of commercial fisheries - but as workers, not as production owners. For the past 20 years they have seen the rock lobster fishery turn into a lucrative industry, a potentially promising development for island communities. Islanders and non-Islanders employ different techniques. Hooka-rigged boats (those delivering surface air to divers ) are popular with non-Islanders. Mobuiag fishers prefer to free dive, in pairs, from their privately owned, small aluminum dinghies - an activity they feel is safer and more productive in shallow, reefstrewn areas. The investment in equipment for free diving is low: some divers use only a mask and sling, not even bothering with fins. This way, the locations of bomos - the coral outcroppings where rock lobsters hide - may be better kept secret from outsiders.

Mabuiag Islanders seasonally engage in this fishery, selling their catch to those who have vessels equipped with freezers - the middlemen mostly consist of a group of Badu Island entrepreneurs, and Thursday Island - and Cairns-based Australian companies. With ""mother"" ships close by, there is temptation to sell cheap. These large vessels with freezer capacity are setting the distribution pattern for lobster landings in the 1990s. They anchor off of Mabuiag's home reef and sell beer, often purchased on credit against anticipated profits from the local catch. Moreover, the ""sly grog"" is sold at prices that undercut what the Island Council charges while also avoiding enforcement of community guidelines for liquor consumption.

A paramount issue here concerns the impact of uncontrolled intrusion of a free market economy on small island societies previously under strict regulation by the state. But the situation on Mabuiag also raises the question of whether small-scale fisheries can effectively manage outsider access to still-underutilized home island fishing grounds. In actuality, the socalled protected zone status does nothing to assist Islanders in controlling the condition of open access in surrounding waters.

In the current climate of high prices for fresh rock lobster tails (averaging US $16 per kilo during the 1991 seasons), attraction of outsiders to the Mabuiag reef complex, which includes the extensive Orman Reef, will intensify, creating the potential for overfishing (see Map 4). Because there is as yet no adequate system for monitoring lobster population dynamics and catch levels in the region, it is unlikely that government authorities or Islanders can coordinate to sustainably develop the fishery. Ironically, Islanders themselves, acting out their customary ethics of hospitality and sharing, and without the means to develop their own commercial fisheries, are providing access and knowledge to outsiders which, in the end, may result in the demise of their own valuable lobster stocks. As their encyclopedic knowledge of the local fishing universe is lost to outsiders, they also relinquish a certain amount of social status along with economic power (cf. Johannes 1988:38).

Sharing and Abundance

Mabuiag people engage in fishing and hunting for subsistence on a daily basis. Men hunt dugong (see Fitzpatrick 1980; Nietschmann 1989).

A popular folktale on Mabuiag Island centers around Aukum, a woman who fishes on the reef and shares the plentiful catch with her brother every day.Aukum's lazy brother, who will not fish himself, repeatedly takes more fish from her than he can possibly eat. Another brother, feeling cheated by what his sister gives him, kills his nephew - Aukum's baby, Tiai. The fisherwomen than moves into the supernatural world to embark upon a long journey in search of her dead son. She starts at her home island and travels along the sea bottom, encountering a myriad of reefs around the Mabuiag sea territory. At each reef Aukum distributes baskets of various species of fish. In both worlds she personifies fertility and reflects abundance as she provides food for her family and stock the reef with a plentiful supply of fish (Fitzpatrick, in press).

Sharing with relatives and faith in the abundance of the reef are common cultural motifs in Western Islander society. Providing food for others from the plentiful sea reflects both the ideal mythical world and the social realities on Mabuiag. In the folktale about Aukum's trip along the ocean floor, we glimpse the repercussions of greedy, self-serving acts and the dissonance between sharing and selfishness. Unlike those in many other tropical fishing societies, Torres Strait Islanders still enjoy the luxury of resource abundance. We can speculate that their small populations never placed the kind of pressure on resources that would have kindled marine conservation tactics and ethics. Under these conditions a generosity of spirit flourishes.

As always, when I arrive on Mabuiag, I check the tide. It is going to be a koi gat (extreme low tide), a time for gleaning and exploring the outer edges of the reef flat, exposed only for a few hours. Generations of Islanders have watched this cyclical process with the unfolding seasons. Now people also watch as outsiders increasingly exploit their richly stocked waters. Yet Islanders take it for granted that they remain in control of their home reefs.

The ethic of sharing embodied in the legend of Aukum cannot withstand the entrepreneurial wave. Just last year on Mabuiag, dugong and green turtle, the most prized foods, ceased to be distributed throughout the community. The meat is not sold - as it is in some markets in neighboring Papua New Guinea - but is shared smoung a smaller group of household than in the past. I reflect on whether the motif of plenty does not also really belong more in the realm of myth, and whether the rock lobster fishery won't soon go the way of other marine industries (bêche-de-mer, trochus shell, pearl shell), all of which experienced boom-and bust cycles over the past century. Marine biologists maintain that numerous species in Torres Strait are underexploited and that the fishing industry has to grow from its current level of 3,000 tons per year to an estimated sustainable capacity of 30,000 tons per year. Islanders have always known the sea could provide for their needs. The issue for the future is whether and to what extent their sea territories can also provide for others.


I extend my gratitude to all the Mabuiag Island people who continue to teach me about their world, especially Corlis, my tukiop, and Harry, my ngep. The Wenner Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research and the Tropical Health Program at the University of Queensland Medical School have provided support for ingoing field trips to Far North Queensland.


Blackbirding refers to an era (eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) in Pacific history when Pacific Islanders, particularly Melanesians, were wither kidnapped or bought by European traders and shipped to Queensland to work in the sugar fields or in other indentured labor operations in the Pacific basin.

The Torres Strait Treaty allows for ""traditional visits"" to take place between residents of Papua New Guinea and islands in the TSPZ. The Protected Zone Joint Authority (PZJA), also mandated by the treaty, manages certain fisheries within the TSPZ and attempts to establish equitable catch limits for fishers from both sides of the border. There is however, much dissatisfaction among Torres Strait Islanders, who complain that their neighbors from Papua New Guinea are illegally fishing in the protected zone, causing shortages is island stores, and exploiting local medical and educational services on the outer islands. This problem is not going to disappear: Western Province in Papua New Guinea in one of the country's poorest regions, and its residents have virtually no access to any services similar to those available in Torres Strait (personal communication with T. Waia, Chairman, Saibai Island, 1990; Arthur 1990).


Arthur, W.S.

1990 Torres Strait Development Study 1989. Report prepared for the Island Coordinating Council, Thursday Island. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

Cordell, J. and J. Fitzpatrick

1987 Torres Strait: Cultural Identity and the Sea. Cultural Survival Quarterly 11(2):15-17.

Fitzpatrick, J.

1980 Another Way of Dying: Social and Cultural Context of Death in a Melanesian Community, Torres Strait. Ph.D. diss. Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms.

in Maza: A Legend About Culture in the Sea. In D. Law

press rence, ed. Torres Strait Baseline Study Conference Report. Townsville, Queensland: Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

Johannes, R.E.

1988 Research on Traditional tropical Fisheries: Some Implications for Torres Strait and Australian Aboriginal Fisheries. In F. Gray and L. Zann, eds. Traditional Knowledge of the Marine Environment in Northern Australia. Workshop Series No. 8. Townsville, Queensland: Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

Nietschmann, B.

1989 Traditional Sea Territories, Resources and Rights in Torres Strait. In J. Cordell. ed. A Sea of Small Boats. Cambridge, MA: Cultural Survival, Inc.

Torres News

1991 ""Sharpeye"" Company Welcomes New Commander. Torres News: Voice of Island. 22 February.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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