Having been the guest of Walter and Diann Lui on Erub (Darnley Island) in one of Queensland’s most northern and remotest of regions for several days last year, Brunyfire was privileged to eat with the pair each evening after our artistic duties during the day had been completed. (Brunyfire had been invited to meet with the ceramic artists who live and work on the island – check out the previous story – From the Bottom to the Top End).
As the sea plays such a vital role to many of the people in the Torres Strait, Top End tucker often comprises of the catch of the day, and whatever might have been growing in the garden. On this occasion, Walter had been fishing, and his catch proved not only colourful, but tasty.
Torres Strait Islanders have long managed their land and sea country, adapting to the biophysical changes in their ecological and social systems to accommodate changes to maintain their cultural survival. Fish gathering, therefore, is comparable in importance to horticulture, at least in the overall diet of the eastern Torres Strait Islanders, and involves concepts of land allocation, demarcation and ownership.
Flying in over Erub in a midget Cesna, battling fierce cross winds and landing on a frighteningly short runway, I noted distinctive linear rock structures below me that snaked out into the ocean with a couple of ‘nipples’ in each corner, and these then curved gracefully back into shore.It transpires that these are tidal fish traps – a uniquely designed concept to trap fish as the tide recedes. Each island appears to have its own unique design – for example, those I saw at Erub differed to those of Mer (Murray Island – above). These rock traps have been constructed by Islanders centuries ago, and are maintained by the families and clans on the islands up into the present day.
The rock walls that make up the traps are sometimes hundreds of metres long…….…….with deeper well like ‘pockets’ at the corner sections of the stone walls. It is to these spots that the fish naturally gravitate as the waters become shallower with the departing tide. Once trapped, the fish are then speared, knifed, netted or caught by hand. Every clan or family member owns a fish trap, and when maintenance is due, the whole community usually pitches in to help with the repairs in exchange for the right to claim fish.