- What we collect
- Preserving our collections
- Building our collections
- Selected Library collections
- Collection statistics
- History of the collection
- Processing and describing our collections
Fishing in Australia
with Anna Clark and Leigh Boucher
with Anna Clark and Leigh Boucher
27 May 2020
Join author of The Catch: The Story of Fishing in Australia and avid fisher, Anna Clark, and senior lecturer at Macquarie University, Dr Leigh Boucher as they discuss the role of fishing throughout Australian history, from Indigenous innovations and practices through to fishing for sport and recreation today.
Anna Clark - The Catch
*Speakers: Lee Boucher (L), Anna Clark (A)
*Location: National Library of Australia
M: Hello, thanks for joining us from wherever you’re watching. My name’s Lee Boucher, I'm an historian at Macquarie University and I’m here hosting this National Library of Australia digital event. I’d like to begin by acknowledging that I'm making this recording on the traditional lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation in the place that we now of course call Sydney.
I’m here today to have a conversation with Associate Professor Anna Clark who is an ARC Future Fellow at the University of Technology, Sydney. I should also confess that Anna and I did our PhDs together many years ago at The University of Melbourne. We’ll try not to slip back into that kind of mode today when we talk to you.
Anna’s been researching and publishing in Australian history for 15 years or so and much of her work I think you’d say has focused on representations and articulations of Australian history in all kinds of different types, whether that’s in schools, museums, newspapers or by politicians. She’s currently working on an incredibly exciting project which is a history of history-making or history-writing on this continent, what those of us in the history business would probably call historiography.
But I’m here with Anna today to talk about something quite different, I’m here with Anna to explore the history of fishing in Australia. Originally we would have been having this discussion at the National Library because Anna has curated an exhibition for the NLA Galleries but because the NLA is currently closed because of COVID we have transformed our original plans into this NLA digital event.
Fortunately we have some fabulous images from the exhibition to arouse your interest in coming to see once the NLA reopens and of course Anna has written an incredible book which I just conveniently have here, also titled The Catch which is published by NLA which you can all order online after you’ve finished watching and listening to us today. So welcome, Anna.
A: Hi Lee, thank you for having me and I’d also like to acknowledge that I'm coming here from the [Uwan] 2:23 country and I’d like to acknowledge elders past, present and future of the country on which my half of this remote conversation’s taking place.
L: Of course COVID’s made us all much more conscious of these indigenous geographies, I think, because we’re recording and meeting from different places and that’s becoming more apparent to us ironically as we’re online. But my opening thought or opening question - as your friend and colleague I’ve had this thought a few times over the past couple of years which is how on earth did you come to write a book and then curate an exhibition about fishing?
A: Yeah, I guess my day job is as a very serious historian as you outlined in that generous introduction. I’m interested in how history’s taught in schools, how it’s debated in Parliament and the media pages but I moonlight as a very avid aficionado if you like of fishing. I’m obsessed with fishing, I dream about fishing, I spend all of my leave allocations going fishing and when the opportunity arose, the head of NLA Publishing, Susan Hall, contacted a compatriot of mine and asked did she know any historians who liked fishing? My name sprang to mind and I reckon I ran as fast as I could to answer my email and say yes, please pick me, pick me so a happy convergence of history-making and fishing came together with these two projects so I’m very lucky.
L: That’s really interesting. Hopefully maybe we can come back to this later but I’ll be interested to see if your own research made you rethink your own experience and practices as a fisherperson which brings me to that word, actually, which is when we think about people who fish we usually think about fishermen. I think our common understanding of fishing would be that it’s something usually or predominantly or dominated by men rather than women so in that sense I don’t imagine that the NLA when they thought up the project, they might not have assumed it was going to be a man but I think in common cultural terms that probably was a pretty safe assumption.
When you were researching this history of fishing in Australia did you come across many other women who were fisherpeople? Do you come across them in your daily fishing practice now?
A: Yes, it’s strange, isn’t it? The language of fishing is absolutely masculine and my own fishing trajectory was taught to me by my grandad and my dad and my uncle so it’s definitely gendered. But at the same time all throughout history fishing has absolutely been done by women and even today 30% of recreational fishers are women and yet when you open a fishing magazine it’s all by men like I actually have not seen an article by a woman in a fishing magazine. So I think it’s a strange disconnect and when we go back even further in time as we’ll see in some of the images that we’re going to look at Aboriginal women for example were absolutely importantly embedded in fishing practices and research today shows that up to 90% of indigenous women fish as well so it’s totally across men and women and generations but maybe it’s the voice, the loudest voice gets heard or something, I don’t know, it’s interesting.
L: Yeah because when we think about people who speak on behalf of fishers, whether that’s professional or recreational which I think is an important difference that your book explores, when we think about fishing celebrities or people who are known for fishing or people who speak on behalf of the industry, that is almost routinely men. As you wrote this book I assume you came into contact with those communities or those figures or those people, had other people been surprised to find a woman taking control if you like of the history of fishing in Australia?
A: I guess so, yeah, it is, people are surprised that a woman is fronting this but strangely I actually couldn’t find any history written about Australian fishing as far as I can tell. There have been little bits and pieces, there’s been a terrific history of angling by a guy – so that’s just recreational fishing by a guy called Bob Dunn about 20 or 30 years ago and there are obviously local books and so on but nothing that I could see. So maybe fishers aren’t out there writing about history, they’re fishing. I don’t know, it’s strange that for such a popular activity there hasn’t been a lot written about its history.
L: So you are of course doing your thing at university and we’re both employed by universities and have to fill out reviews at the end of every year. Saying that you’ve written the first ever history of fishing in Australia is quite a nice thing to put on your CV, I think.
A: I don’t think it’s getting me any university points.
L: Well it’s getting you points from me. I think I might like to move on to talk about one of the images from the exhibition itself that’s also in the book. It’s a really important image in the opening chapters of your book, I think. Like many general Australian histories now you begin not with the moment of British settlement on this continent but of course by discussing and exploring indigenous fishing practices which I think I certainly learnt a lot reading through the book about both the centrality and diversity of those practices across the continent. Maybe you could tell us a little bit. Obviously the images that we have have come from British colonists when they encounter indigenous in this case fisherwomen and maybe you could tell me a little bit about this image. Where did you first come across it and what really struck you about it?
A: Yeah, thank you. This is a beautiful image that’s in a book by John Heaviside Clark about sports in Australia that he comes across in the early 19th century and is published in 1813 as you can see. It actually depicts I think a man and a woman so the woman is holding the canoe, the nowi canoe steady and as I say I think it’s a man who’s holding a spear because spearfishing was a man’s occupation chiefly. Women tended to do line fishing and I think in the canoe behind in the background that’s an image of a woman handlining for fish so that’s what women tended to do.
I find this like you intimated there, Lee, it’s such an interesting image because of course it’s done through the lens of colonisation and you have to be wary of these colonial artefacts because they’re getting us to a point of understanding but what are they seeing? They’re watching this scene unfold with their own cultural baggage I suppose in mind but at the same time it’s hard not to be grateful for this incredible image that it captures. So it’s both colonial but it’s also really intimate and informative and helps people like us who are interested in looking at the genealogies of fishing go back over time and see what’s taking place.
I love the composition here but also I guess in terms of image analysis, which I don’t do very well at all so bear with me, I love the stillness but also it’s obviously mid-action. So it feels very quiet and peaceful but there’s an Aboriginal man with his head under the water poised to strike a fish and that gives us another indication which I think is very important, is how much fish there was in those days, that that was a feasible way of catching it because that’s simply not imaginable today, I think.
L: That’s my association with fishing in the limited ways that I’ve done it. Like you I was taught to fish by my father although I didn’t really take to it but like that image and the way that you describe it, that’s my kind of I guess memory of fishing which is as a simultaneous poise for action but also in quiet solitude at the same time which I wonder if partly the resonance of an image like this is that it does capture what is the experience of fishing I think for many recreational fishers which is simultaneously quietude, perhaps companionship with one or two other people but also a spectre of excitement always looming around the corner. There’s a kind of interesting -
L: Yeah, there’s a kind of interesting narrative or story to the fishing experience that’s captured I think beautifully in that image.
A: One of the lovely things about doing this research and finding these sorts of images is thinking about those feelings of quiet solitude and contemplation and the mindfulness of fishing as well as the action and the excitement and the allure of fishing and seeing how if not those exact feelings but something very similar is happening over a very long period of time and the past might not just be a foreign country but there are these kind of tendrils that link fishing people or fishers over time through those feelings which are perhaps partly instinctive as well, I’m not sure.
L: Yeah, I was struck reading the book and I read little parts of it when it was being formed but it was a great pleasure -
A: Thankfully, I’m very grateful for that.
L: But it was also a great pleasure to read the whole text as a single work and in particular that NLA’s just done a beautiful job of reproducing an incredible amount of images including some of you fishing which is just fabulous. But reading that book I was struck by – and I think gurgling around the edges of your analysis and your history mostly in the way that you write and the way you talk about fishing rather than necessarily what you’re talking about, it seems to be a history of feeling and spaces, a history of the way people have engaged with their surroundings and how they’ve felt about it. Which is quite a different way to write a history if you think about the normal ways that people come to historical knowledge, that you’re putting physical space and our feelings about it at the centre of the story.
A: That’s so interesting. When I took on this job I just blindly said yes, me, please pick me but when I sat down to try and write it I actually didn’t know how to start and I didn’t know what my in was and I didn’t know how I could tell that story and I really mulled over it for a long time and eventually I realised as I was reading and reading and reading, particularly the early accounts, the colonial accounts and the explorers’ journals, for example, I realised that I had been to most of these places. So I have travelled around Australia, literally driving around Australia fishing so I could reimagine the places that they were writing about but also I realised that being a keen fisher I could imagine those feelings exactly as you said. So I’m glad you think that it’s compelling but I thought that one way of getting into that history was actually through place and through feeling because that was the way that I could do it authentically. You’re right, it’s very hard in a history of a practice to do it just through the archives ‘cause it’s done and it would have been quite a different book if it had just been imagined on paper if you like rather than imagined by doing or imagined by locating.
L: Yeah and I think also while it might be difficult for us to speculate about the feelings of those indigenous fishermen and fisherwomen in that image I wonder if you got a sense of the kind of feelings that early colonists, because this is where your book then takes us from, indigenous fishing to the encounter of colonisation and settlement, did you get a sense of, in your research and through these images I guess how colonists were apprehending the kind of watered worlds that they were encountering? How did they see the land they were encountering? What kind of fishing practices did they bring? How useful were they?
A: Well in the holds of the first fleet they brought fishing lines and fishing nets so they knew what they would be doing and they knew that there were fish here. I think the early prevailing sense you get from these very early texts is both an extraordinary natural bounty, great hauls of fish from Botany Bay and from Sydney Harbour and from some of those explorers who went inland in New South Wales in the early 19th century like Oxley and so on. Rivers that were just filled with fish and when they sat down in the evening to drop a line in they were hauling up 15kg Murray cod, 30 of them in an hour kind of thing but at the same there’s a sort of a paradox that they’re not really sure about how rich it is. It seems to be bountiful but it’s also slightly fragile and slightly unpredictable so they might be walking in a drought-filled landscape but the rivers are full of fish or they fish all summer and fill their nets in Sydney Harbour but then in winter the fish disappear.
So I was struck doing the research by the unknownness of the Australian landscape in comparison to those intricate webs of knowledge of indigenous people who couldn’t relate the flying patterns of rainbow lorikeets with the numbers of luderick that would be in the shores or when the prawns are running the mullet would be this point or where the wattle was flowering, what would be happening in this particular estuary.
So I guess there’s a surprise that comes with the amount and the natural diversity in Australia about also a tentativeness which is realised quite early on that there’s a tipping point and that there is fragility to this bounty.
L: Also I think a lot of historians talk about terms like being unsettled, a kind of people excited but unsettled at the same time and I think that’s what you’re describing here.
A: Yeah and that also explains I think that powerful colonial urge, not by all but by some, for a very strong acclimatisation movement because it didn’t feel right, the fish were different, they didn’t bite the same. The rivers are full of fish but they’re the wrong fish, they’re not trout. So there’s this quite powerful urge to relocate and recreate a fishing of the old world in the new as a way of perhaps overcoming that feeling of being unsettled.
L: So across the 19th century, and I am of course now revealing that I’m struggling to remember this section of the book, but across the 19th century I would have assumed that the colonists when confronted with bounty and abundance would of course be excited. That would sustain many colonists, that’s a food source. How did they encounter native species? Obviously is the move to acclimatisation simply to acclimatise European species to Australian waters, is that simply a move to make themselves at home or is that because they don’t like the taste of Australian native fish?
A: Both, really, they want to feel more at home but also because some of them think that Australian fish are rubbish. But importantly within the acclimatisation movement there’s also a movement of acclimatisers who want to bring certain fish from one part of Australia to another so there’s also an economic desire in that as well where fishing is a resource, a natural resource that should be exploited. For some that’s a nostalgic enterprise, bringing the fish of the old world but for others it’s purely how do we maximise the natural resources of Australia? How do we extract everything for as long as we can? But very soon that starts to look a little more iffy.
By the 1870s the oyster reefs around Sydney have been completely decimated and there’s an understanding that maybe you can’t just go ‘round the next corner and flog the next piece of waterway and governments start getting involved by introducing legislation to try and protect and have fisheries that are sustainable. There’s a give and take and balance which creates lots of political tension, starts very early on and partly in response to Australia’s natural world. They just thought let’s just go for gold, there’s heaps here but sure enough they realised that heaps is a pretty relative term.
L: Yeah, I was struck by the repeating story that occurred through the book of species being fished out and this dynamic of species being fished out and then emerging I guess industries or professions or professional fishers having to move and adapt because in fact they’d exhausted this natural resource. It did seem -
A: It’s like mining.
L: Yeah. On the one hand you could say this is a tension that’s there from the start but it doesn’t seem to me like settlers and then post-federation white Australians really learnt much about that. It took a while for fishing practices to change in response to this repeated pattern of abundance and exhaustion, abundance and exhaustion, abundance and exhaustion.
A: I guess because until there was no more abundance there was always the next abundance that you could exhaust so that question of sustainability took a long time to catch up. Also I think the science took a long time to catch up. There’s something really powerful about the idea of a resource that you can’t see like you can’t actually count fish, really. It’s not like looking at a crop, you can see a good year or a bad year but you don’t really know that with the underwater world and I think that takes a long time for the science officiaries to catch up with the anecdotal evidence that was happening in fishing communities around Australia of extraction and then a tipping point.
But it’s a very long and slow burn and it’s also got lots of different stakeholders although I’m loath to use that word, the government is trying to push expansion and actually funding the buying of fishing trawlers in the 20th century. The CSIRO is encouraging canning and different industries, it’s not simply that fishers are going off to make a buck, it’s also this sense of nation-building and extracting as much as you can from everywhere. I think that a lot of primary industry, industrial production in Australia has that same mentality for a long time which is very different from the traditional owners that we usurped.
L: Actually that’s a perfect segue into another -
L: - image from the exhibition and from the book itself. This is an image if we’ll pull it up onto our screen now and I'm going to say a sentence that makes me sound like I have knowledge and expertise that I don’t and it’s simply because I’m reading how the image is described. But it’s a 90 pound Murray cod but in this case being caught by a professional fisherman so that story of abundance and exhaustion seems to be entangled with professional or industrial or I’m not quite sure what the right term here is but fishing to sell as opposed to fishing simply to eat. So how soon into the history of settlement on this continent does that kind of amped up scale start to occur?
A: Very early on, surprisingly. By the late 19th century fisheries were deemed empty around Sydney Harbour for example and even in shores and people were saying we can’t go and catch a feed in Sydney Harbour anymore because the netters have been netting and all the fish are gone and that’s happening by the 1880s. Royal Commissions are being instigated by state governments around the country about how do we preserve fisheries and how do we legislate for them? This is an incredible example of an image in the late 19th century and up in the 20th century inland waterways as I said really filled with these incredible natural fisheries.
I just read this morning that it’s estimated that in New South Wales alone they’ve lost up to 90% of the species in inland waterways since colonisation and this says it all really, doesn’t it? This would have been an enormous breeder if you think of the size of fish being allowed to be kept. It would have been one of those motherships cruising the rivers. It was really very unregulated for a long time until it was almost too late and now it’s a very precarious fishery. There is no commercial fishing allowed anymore of Murray cod in New South Wales, the fishery closed and the government forced it to be closed precisely for this reason, because it got too far and there was no coming back.
L: I must confess I was surprised, and this is probably a result of the story that you’re telling in the book, which is that it never occurred to me that commercial fishing could be occurring in fresh water because it just seems to me to be something that happens at sea and I of course have an image of incredibly large boats and incredibly large nets somewhere far off the coast but of course that’s not how commercial fishing happens. But there obviously was commercial fishing of fresh water which I don’t believe is happening anymore anywhere like that’s not really happening now because of these fisheries being fished out?
A: Yeah, there are small scale in certain parts but it’s very, very highly managed now and a lot of the commercial fishing fresh water is actually aquaculture so it’s about farms and barramundi farms and that sort of thing which is very different and is in response to the fact that this was unsustainable and overfished for so long. Like a lot of those resources all around Australia it was plentiful, there were plenty of fish in the sea around the river until there weren’t and there just wasn’t a real understanding or a sense that this would end or was going to end. Maybe it’s not up to me to end it, I’m going to wait for the government to end it.
L: You mentioned earlier on the knowledge of the individual fisherperson to be able to read landscape, to be able to read ripples in a water to understand what might be happening underneath it and I think that idea gestures towards again I think one of the characteristics of fishing or the intriguing characteristics of fishing which is the mystery of what’s going on underneath the water and the various kinds of knowledges that fishers use to try and decode it.
A: Fisher rather than fishers.
L: Yes, fishers. Obviously commercial fishing relies on certain forms of technology and knowledge, I think, and I guess technologisation of commercial fishing over the course of the 20th century which means that these individual fishing knowledges of an individual person who can read water taken over by various instruments that will tell you where the fish are.
A: I was going to say I think one of the interesting things about the 20th century is that mechanisation and industrialisation and technologisation of fishing, not just for commercial fishers but also for recreational fishers and the impact of recreational fishing can’t be ignored. Fish-finders, sharpened hooks, internet chat forums, they all contribute to the extraction of fishes from our waterways. But one of the interesting things going back to the commercial fishing and the technologisation and industrialisation of that, with government support largely, is that it still has that connection to place and there’s a sense of custodianship that comes with a lot of primary industries, I think.
It’s very interesting about management and knowing a place and industries that are passed on from generation to generation of this is my dad’s secret reef out past Eden so there’s this change in technology and change in practice but when licences are bought up for example and that life, the fishing life of a commercial fisherman or fishing family, I should say, changes and many of these licences were bought by governments so fishing families stopped being fishing families. The very profound sense of loss, of connection to place and connection to practice which I think is an interesting flipside to that. There’s commercialisation and there’s industrialisation but there's still this very important physical located, embodied connection to fishing.
L: So that might bring us to our third image which is of tuna being brought up, it is an incredible photograph, to be honest. Probably one of the most arresting ones of the book. So this is tuna fishing just outside Eden. One of the questions that I had was are there towns that become fishing villages or fishing towns over the course of the 20th century connected to this extraction of natural resources but also really embedded therefore in their place and connected to it because there’s so many I guess usually men who spend their lives in that place trying to understand how it works? For extraction nonetheless but nonetheless connected to it. Are there these kind of fishing connections?
A: Absolutely and there have been even before they were industrialised and commercialised. In the 19th century before there’s refrigeration there are little fishing communities all around Australia. Some of them were Chinese and they were preserving fish through smoking or pickling and they were feeding Chinese miners from Victorian coast right up to the Northern Territory. There are huge Chinese communities who are buying the fish from tiny little fishing families who might have moved up the coast, up and down following the fishers, following the mullet run or following the salmon. In the late 19th century and in the early 20th century there are fishing communities who are waiting eagerly for the train to come by so that they can get their fish to Sydney before it spoils because there’s no ice.
Or in the great depression there are fishing communities who are escaping poverty in the slums in the cities to live in little shacks by the Royal National Park, for example, just south of Sydney or even around Perth in different little sort of shanty towns and villages to fish and they are also really profound connections to place. They might not have chosen to be there otherwise but the realities of history mean that that’s why they’re there and they have this - really interesting connections.
To add to the Eden story I think one of the powerful connections is not only that knowledge of these families that pass on fishing folklore and technique over time but also the danger of it, they give their lives. It’s not a white collar job, it’s a really hard job and it’s really dangerous and I think that also adds an element of connection to a place, when someone dies there. I think a lot of these families have these very powerful connections of weather events and ships going down and people losing their lives that tethers them to the fishing practices in a way that I think many of us might not understand otherwise.
L: And surely orientates them to the natural world or their place in very particular ways which is simultaneous deep affection and connection but also risk that that’s a very interesting set of twin and we might say opposing orientations to place, to have it simultaneously as something that you risk your life by entering into every day but also that you feel deeply connected and knowledgeable about. That strikes me as something - again I’ve been thinking how do we understand fishing? What is particular and peculiar about it? That seems to me one of the particularities and peculiarities of particularly ocean fishing which it strikes me I think is much riskier and there’s lots of stories in the book of people getting swept off rocks or out to sea in danger.
A: And it still happens.
L: Look, I’m aware that this discussion was supposed to go for 20 minutes and we’re already gone far beyond that much like -
A: Aren’t they on silent? They’re all mute so we can just keep going.
L: For as long as we want. Look, to try and perhaps wind up or at least come to some kind of conclusion you have written this history of fishing and produced this fabulous exhibition at the National Library which creates a story. It crafts a narrative, it creates particular players and tensions, it encourages us to think about ourselves in this place and people who fish in particular kinds of ways. That’s what we do as historians, we create stories for people to orientate themselves in the present and maybe even transform the way they think about their presence sometimes, I think, the job of a historian is to unsettle us and make us tell our stories a little differently or open out different kinds of questions.
So I was wondering do you feel like you changed your orientation to fishing or did it do anything to you? Did writing this history change the way you understand your own fishing or tell stories about it?
A: Absolutely, I'm now full of really, really irritating titbits of information like the one I’m about to tell you which is I’m currently staying at my grandparents’ property on the south coast of New South Wales and there are kurrajong trees here which weren’t cleared and we’ve never known why they weren’t cleared, it’s a curious oversight. So standing in the middle of the paddock is a currajong tree and I’ve just been reading Grace Karskens’ beautiful history of early Sydney called The Colony and she talks about the importance of currajong trees in Aboriginal women creating fishing lines. Then I was reading a list of vocabulary from the Sydney region and carrahjun means fishing line.
So now when I walk through the paddocks of my grandparents’ farm I look at fishing line trees and that’s their name and that’s cool. I like to think of those ties and that place or walking past a midden on my way to fish I can think of wow, maybe they had that same thought, that that looked like a likely spot. So it’s definitely increased my interest in fishing if that was ever possible but it’s also really made me beautifully aware of my historical place in time, that I'm doing something that people have done before me and people will keep doing.
L: So it’s more than simply titbits and little facts and annoying stories around a dinner table, although I have heard a few of those.
A: Yeah, thanks.
L: But it’s reorientated you in that practice to understand it as an historical one that might connect you to other people, other stories, other ways of being, other orientations to the landscape. Is that what you’re trying to do more broadly with this book, do you think? Are you hoping that the person who reads the recreational angling magazine might pick up your book or wander into the gallery and rethink or reimagine themselves or understand themselves as connected to indigenous fisherwomen from the late 18th century which is unimaginable connection I think for many settler Australians today. Is that the project in part of this book, to make people think about their connections and orientations to country?
A: Absolutely, if that’s possible to draw a fishing line from your own brand new carbon fibre $150 rod bought in Merimbula to an Eora woman sitting in her nowi breastfeeding a little baby and dangling a carrahjun twine down to the fishes below. It’s hopelessly ahistorical and simplistic and crosses lots of cultural boundaries but also maybe that act of thinking and that leap of imagination might bring a more complicated understanding of Australian place as well as what we do today and the practices of that, I hope.
L: That’s a beautiful place to end this conversation. So thanks very much, Anna, it’s been a pleasure as always to talk to you. Thank you for those watching and listening, I hope, for joining us in this National Library of Australia digital event. Don’t forget you can engage in much more detail with Anna’s work in let me just become a barrel girl, this lovely book which is available online from numerous booksellers but also once the Library reopens you’ll be able to go in and see some of these incredible images on the wall at the National Library of Australia. Thanks very much, Anna, and thanks to our viewers.
A: Thanks for hosting, Lee.
End of recording