Nature in Culture: Aboriginal Aquacultural Science and Sustainability

Exploring oyster farming, dugong hunting and Indigenous sustainability, June Rubis reflects on Mitchell Gibbs’ conversation with Dr Christine Winter in Episode 2 of The Re-(E)mergence of Nature in Culture Multimedia Series.

Photo via Shutterstock, ID: 1179244132.

Imagine yourself on a jetty. It is a bit chilly but the view of the vast thrashing waves spurs you to stay on a little bit longer. Clutching your arms closer for warmth, you glance down and notice whitish jagged edges clustered around the jetty’s posts and disappearing into the waters – oysters.

For many of us, we think of the tasty and slimy bivalve that is often too expensive to eat. For marine scientists, they seek to answer questions about the interactions of several oyster species and their sustainability as the oceans turn acidic because of climate change. For many Aboriginal peoples, they see thousands of years of aquacultural science and practices that are currently inhibited or destroyed by colonialism and current nation-state laws. Mitchell Gibbs, PhD student at the University of Sydney and a Dunghutti man from Kempsey who grew up around water, sees multiple dimensions of the above and strives to bring these perspectives and knowledges together.

I had the pleasure recently of listening to the second Nature in Culture podcast hosted by Dr Christine Winter, where we learnt more about Gibbs’ work, his knowledge of Aboriginal aquaculture practices and his hopes in seeing these knowledges and practices respected in mainstream society and formalised knowledge systems.

Gibbs’ PhD work investigates two oyster species, the Sydney rock oyster (Saccostrea glomerata) and the Pacific oyster (Crassostrea gigas). He is interested in how native (Sydney rock oyster) species and invasive (Pacific oyster) species behave under climate change and interact with each other. Gibbs is also interested in tracking responses across several generations of these species to changes in acidity of the water, temperature and food, by examining their energetic reserves and biochemistry.Sydney rock oysters are less resilient compared to Pacific oysters in the event of climate change and competition for food. Pacific oysters, as Gibbs explained, are “environmental engineers”; they come into an environment and create favourable conditions to make it more hospitable for the species.Pacific oysters were first introduced for agricultural purposes into Australia’s ecosystems in the 1950s to South Australia, where they thrived in cooler waters. Currently, oyster farming in NSW is a $35 million industry.


Image by Toan Chu via Unsplash.


The introduced species are considered more economically feasible than the native oyster for various reasons, including the relatively fast growth of Pacific oysters. Over the years, these oysters “broke free” from farms and moved up north (by spawning) to new environments like Port Stephens. Pacific oysters are territorial and inter-tidal, unfortunately for native species like the Sydney rock oysters trying to maintain their own foothold in similar environments.

The Indigenous peoples of Australia were the first people in the world to have aquaculture science for thousands of years, as Gibbs reminds us. Aboriginal communities harvested and consumed oysters long before European colonisation. Port Macquarie, where Gibbs is from, is considered the oldest site of aquaculture in the world.

Gibbs reminds us that Indigenous peoples were practising, and continue to practice, sustainability with the environment for thousands of years before we understood what sustainability means in a modern world wrecked by colonisation and capitalist exploitation. For example, through sustainable ways of harvesting that do not drive a species into extinction, and that also promotes population growth for the next generation. As well, every part of an animal such as an oyster is used – nothing is ever wasted. Shells are put back into the soils for minerals to be dispersed as lime fertiliser. Careful consumption nourishes the next generations. These ideas are practised around the world by other Indigenous peoples. You respect what is given, and you use everything, Gibb asserts. You also teach the next generation of these practices and laws of Aboriginal science.

“Every part of an animal such as an oyster is used – nothing is ever wasted. Shells are put back into the soils for minerals to be dispersed as lime fertiliser. Careful consumption nourishes the next generations.”

But what happens when these practices of sustainability that come along with native laws and obligations conflict with Anglo laws? In Northern Queensland, says Gibbs as an example, the fisheries department realised that everything that they thought they knew about the dugong was wrong, and so they asked the local Aboriginal community about their vast scientific knowledge of the dugong. Gibbs carefully explained that the reason why the Aboriginal community knew so much about dugong biology was because they had sustainably hunted the dugong throughout their long histories of interaction with their natural surroundings. Aboriginal science informs decision-making of resource use practices. For example, they only hunted the elder dugongs past their reproductive prime. Gibbs, with care, showed that a beloved animal (to many western communities) such as a dugong, was hunted by Aboriginals, yet this does not mean that the dugong does not have any cultural relevance to the community nor that the community had no concept of conservation for this species. This reminds me of the danger of projecting our own standards and ideals, often informed by mainstream western culture, onto Indigenous peoples, and thinking, in a paternalistic way, that we need to ‘educate’ Indigenous peoples on sustainability and conservation.

Dr Winter brought up the intriguing notion of the totem (of which, she is prompt to caution, originates from a North American Native term and thus should be used with care). She describes this term as a “practice of being assigned responsibility to something in the environment, and how that is integral to sustainability”. In this particular example, it is understood as a practice of conservation where you are restricted by native law applied to yourself or family members, across generations, to not hunt, kill or eat a certain animal. In one community, people could have different totems. As a native person from Borneo, I understand this Indigenous concept very well, and in many native cultures in Borneo, we call it pantang or restriction.

Gibbs reminds us that we cannot obtain Aboriginal science by reading a book or talking to one person, or a community. Dr Winter describes these vast scientific knowledges held by Aboriginal communities, as “intense specificity and huge range” of knowledge. I’d like to add that these Indigenous science and knowledges are not fixed in time, as often imagined, but rather constantly adjusting to the environmental variability, unpredictability and change over the thousands of years of long histories with the natural surroundings. Indigenous peoples’ knowledges are therefore a dynamic system that is continually revisited and reshaped over time.

“Indigenous science and knowledges are not fixed in time, as often imagined, but rather constantly adjusting to the environmental variability, unpredictability and change over the thousands of years of long histories with the natural surroundings.”

Finally, Dr Winter asks Gibbs that while his current PhD project can be understood as “very western”, with his obvious passion in his Aboriginal culture and science, where would he like to go next? Gibbs explains that this is part of his journey, a “stepping stone”, and that he would like to play a role in demonstrating that the depth and breadth of Aboriginal science should be accorded proper respect. This resonates with me, as I feel the same way about the Indigenous or Orang Asal science, knowledges and practices in Borneo. There is an urgent need to support inter-generational transmission of Indigenous science and knowledges, together with and within formal education. As we understand from Gibb’s story about the dugong, formal education and institutionalised research are not enough to understand the vast complexity and interactions of our natural world, and the conservation of species or protected areas requires development of partnerships with Indigenous peoples. I look forward to seeing where the waters will take Gibbs next.

The Re-(E)mergence of Nature in Culture Multimedia Series, convened by Dr Christine Winter and Michelle St Anne, originated from a two-day symposium, the second of its kind. It’s an opportunity for Indigenous scholars and people working with Indigenous scholars and Indigenous peoples to come together, discuss the ways in which culture and nature are entwined in the philosophies, lives and strengths of indigenous peoples. Importantly, we reflect on the leadership these perspectives offer as the world faces multiple challenges such as climate change, pollution and associated biocultural destruction.

Episode 2: Nurturing Oysters Naturally
Mitchell Gibbs, a Dunghutti man from Kempsey near Port Macquarie, NSW, is focusing his PhD research on oysters – especially oyster and oyster habitats on the Mid-North Coast of New South Wales. As this podcast reveals, his research is based firmly in scientific method, and it is threaded through with an intense interest in traditional Aboriginal oyster farming practices – practices that protected and enhanced oyster habitats and promoted sustainable harvesting.

June Rubis is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Sydney Environment Institute. June began her career as a conservation biologist and has twelve years in hands-on wildlife conservation fieldwork in both Indonesian and Malaysian Borneo. In the last few years of practical work prior to her entry in graduate school, she started working on Indigenous land rights issues in collaboration with Indigenous activists in Malaysian Borneo (Sarawak and Sabah), and more broadly, participatory democracy with urban youth.