Writing the history of fishing

Writing the history of fishing
Historian Anna Clark explains her approach to writing The Catch, her history of Australian fishing
10 November 2017

When I heard what the National Library was looking for I couldn't believe my luck! Here was a request to write history (my day job) about fishing (my moonlighting activity). I guess the question was, how? How to capture that sense of wonder across time, of changing practices and attitudes to Australia and its environment.

I figured the best approach to writing what would become The Catch: The Story of Fishing in Australia was precisely through those things—place and practice. Sure, I hadn't fished in 1830, but I had been to places all around Australia and fished at most of them. So while the book is about fishing, it's also about all these places, and how people have lived in them, travelled through them, observed and fished them. I hope that sense comes through in the text itself.

Nightime fishing scene

A crop of Joseph Lycett's Fishing by Torchlight in The Catch

This meant that imagining myself into William Wills' diary in the Gulf of Carpentaria, or an Eora woman's fishing canoe on Sydney Harbour, or a commercial fishing boat off the Pilbara coast was not an act of impossible translation. Historians cannot be Wills, or a pre-contact Aboriginal fisher, or an early twentieth-century captain, but being able to describe the places they fished, and how, made them much closer than other historical characters I've written about. The fact that we share these places and fishing practices over time has been one of the unexpected treats I've taken from writing this book.

The other is a sense of Australia's environmental fragility. Early fishers described what we can only read today as some sort of fishing Eden: the sea floor off the west coast of Tasmania carpeted red with crayfish; fish so thick that nets could be set at any time of the day; an ‘astonishing magnitude' of Australian salmon; and mountains of mullet that migrated annually up the east coast. (Although some fish, like the humble Wirrah, were notable for being decidedly uninspiring, with‘the flavour and the consistency of leather', lamented George Tenison-Woods in 1883, ‘which no sauce or cooking can change'.)

Spread from The Catch

A spread from The Catch showing various fish dishes

Apart from the odd culinary disappointment, tales of Australian fishing meccas echoed early encounters in other parts of the New World, where Atlantic sturgeon up to 18 feet (5.5m) long and weighing 800kg were recorded in Chesapeake Bay, on the Virginia coast. Staggering Chinook salmon runs swelled the Columbia and Vancouver rivers on the west coast of North America, and gigantic schools of cod filled the icy waters off the north east of the continent.

Like these extraordinary fishing resources, those in Australia were quickly tested by a growing population and industrial methods that were inversely proportionate to scientific knowledge about fish stocks, life cycles and sustainability. Even now, after decades of fisheries management, there are few places in Australia where we can really see what a river full of Murray Cod or a reef brimming with snapper actually looks like.

Spread from The Catch

Hauling in a net full of salmon in 1967 in The Catch

The Catch isn't just a history of catching fish. It explores the tensions between our love of fishing and its effects on our environment, the ways Indigenous communities used fishing to adapt to life following colonisation, the ways families and communities formed (and divided) around fishing nets and small harbours, as well as the many questions yet to be answered about how we can manage our fisheries into the future.

Writing this book has been so much fun. I never thought I could combine the skills from my day job as a historian with my hobby as a fisher. The process has been more rewarding than I could have imagined: at the State Library of New South Wales, I listened to old tapes of commercial fishers from the early twentieth century, who caught prawns by dragging old chaff bags along the side of their dinghies; I visited museums and archives like the Killer Whale Museum in Eden; I sat next to monumental Indigenous engravings of fish on sandstone bluffs in Sydney; and at the National Library of Australia I pored over the journals of explorers dumbfounded by the colossal fish they brought up by the bucketload on their journeys through the continent's interior. The overwhelming impression I've been left with is the sheer bounty of fish that existed in Australia before industrialisation and urbanisation, and just how fragile that bounty turned out to be once the pressures of mass fishing were realised ... oh and now I have absolutely no desire to go back to my day job!

Spread from The Catch

Spread from The Catch showing two men landing a barra in the Northern Territory in 2016

The Catch by Anna Clark was released by NLA Publishing, the National Library of Australia's imprint, on 1 October 2017.

Hello Anna I heard you interviewed on ABC radio recently and was impressed by how respectfully you were about traditional Aboriginal fishing. At one point you made a philosophical comment about what it must have been like to be part of a fishing activity in traditional times, and my response was that I think I almost know. We spent a few days over Christmas camped with a largish group of Yuin people and others near Moruya NSW (there was a family connection and I was one of a minority of non-Aboriginal people there). It was delightful. Relaxed rough camping, right near the water, campfire at night, kids running around, men (no women as it turned out) fishing and teaching the kids, shared pot of stew on the fire...just enjoying life and fishing. No stress and a sense that these people were deliberately re-creating a practice that had always been part of their family lives but had perhaps let slip a little more recently. I was excited by this idea that they could deliberately re-construct cultural things which had been taken from them. Some people here are beginning to do the same with the Bunya Festival - Bunya Mountains west of Brisbane. Thanks for your contribution. David Parsons brendadavid@skymesh.com.au
Hi David, thanks so much for getting in touch and sharing your thoughts. Sounds like that experience in Moruya was indeed a familial and historical practice that had played out for generations. That historical aspect of what we do today—like learning fishing practices from parents and grandparents, passing knowledge about special places on to young people, walking past middens on our way down to the beach etc.—were all motivations for writing this book. It’s something I realised I hadn’t ever properly thought about before (despite being a historian!). So I’m really grateful for your comments… All best wishes, Anna