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The North Stradbroke Island mullet run: Fishing in the blood

January 23, 2016

Mullet Run North Straddie

Last year I went to North Straddie. At Amity Point I asked a guy sitting in a mini bus a few questions about the place. Turns out this thoughtful slowly spoken man was one of the last in a long line of fishermen who made their living out of the winter mullet runs. Part Aboriginal, part European, fishing had been in Rick Perry’s blood for many generations. He told me a documentary was being made about his family and other mullet-run fishing families. This is the story that came about from that meeting.

https://open.abc.net.au/explore/115384

The black and white families spread out around the Sands Hotel beer garden in Cleveland, drinking rums, beers, eating seafood and salad for lunch.

They are fisher people so they can be fussy concerning freshness.

“I’m not eating those prawns, they’re frozen.”

The North Stradbroke Islanders share and laugh as the food and drink goes down the hatch.

Thirty or 40 people spanning five generations have gathered here after a show in the Redland Performing Arts Centre. A show which was all about them.

At 3pm they will all catch the water taxi home to Stradbroke Island.

The show they’ve just left was a typical Queensland mates-dropping-in-for-a-cup-of-tea-in-the-kitchen scenario played by some local actors. The show Chasing the Shoals Yindilgal Balkanya! was facilitated by  writer and film maker John Parkes who lives at Manly on the mainland side of Moreton Bay.

Three or four hundred Moreton Bay community members filled the big auditorium and soaked up the memories.

The characters in the play shared a cuppa and recounted stories about fishing from Moreton Bay in the old days and went through old photo albums. As they dredged up old memories about fishermen, videos with real voice overs of the fisher’s personal stories came up on the big screen on the stage behind them. The show weaved past and present generations together in a mix of history and theatre.

The characters told true stories, funny stories, sad stories. Tales of fishermen wading nets out in the mangroves in the pitch dark and getting attacked by a shark but then finding out it was a cow not a shark. A kids’ yarn about hanging onto ropes dragging behind the father’s boats, to see who could hang on the longest as the boats motored out to the fishing banks. Kids taking big mud crabs to school for lunch instead of “boring” sandwiches. Stories of booze, depression and fisher brothers.

A central theme wove through the performance. An Australian issue that has become an archetypal story of this generation: The good old ways are falling away and only a few of today’s generation are following in their parents’ footsteps/shoes/thongs/bare feet.

These young family members love helping out with the mullet run but they don't do it full time like their uncles

These young family members love helping out with the mullet run but they don’t do it full time like their uncles

The Perry family is the last of a group of Aboriginal families on North Stradbroke Island who fish the mullet run in winter. Other white commercial fishermen have still got licenses, but one of the brothers Rick Perry says those white guys haven’t fished much the last few seasons.

Rick’s brother Alan says he and his three brothers grew up as ordinary Europeans. They watched and learned from a young age. As young fellows they began fixing nets, filling needles, and replacing corks on the school holidays. They worked on their family’s tunnel nets, mash nets and haul nets.

“Even if you left a small hole the fish would find it. They are smarter than you think.”

Alan Perry

Alan Perry

When they got old enough they left school and fished full time

Their main season for fishing was winter for the mullet run.

Massive schools of mullet come out of the estuaries in winter to breed, but before they head out to sea they run along the beaches in huge patches. It’s called the mullet run and it has always been an important winter food source for Aboriginal people and still is.

When the mullet run along the North Stradbroke Island beaches from May to August, the Perry boys Rick, Simon and Kevin & Kevin’s sons Marley & Dylan and other crew members get among the patches that Rick spots on his daily dawn patrols. The team’ve got boats to run the nets around the patches, tractors to haul the hundreds of metres of nets in and come with a willing crowd of friends and family onlookers to help with the nets, sorting and loading. The same happens again when another similar species of fish, tailor, run in August and September. After September Kevin and his sons Marley & Dylan and other crews come back into Moreton Bay, netting the mangroves and sandbanks for Spring and Summer & Autumn.

IMG_0004

Kevin (L) and Rick Perry (R). Kevin says the connection and symbiosis between the fishermen and dolphins still exists though sadly he’s seen some fishermen who don’t tolerate dolphins interfering with their mullet run nets

The Perry’s have got four generations on the European side. Maybe 180 generations on the Aboriginal side

Kevin Perry says there’s still the odd stone fish trap left in North Stradbroke, evidence of the old way of fishing. Old ways like how the Aboriginal fishermen and the local dolphins used to cooperate to catch the big patches of mullet as they ran close to the beaches.

Retired historian Marion Diamond quotes J.K.E. Fairholme’s observation from 1856 in her blog “Historians are past caring”:

“Near the deserted Pilot Station at Amity Point [on Stradbroke Island], some of the natives may constantly be found during the warmer months of the year fishing for “mullet”….  In this pursuit they are assisted in a most wonderful manner by the Porpoises.  It seems that from time immemorial a sort of understanding has existed between the blacks and the Porpoises for their mutual advantage, and the former pretend to know all the Porpoises about the spot, and even have names for them.

“The beach here consists of shelving sand, and near the shore are small hillocks of sand, on which the blacks sit, watching for the appearance of a shoal of Mullet.  Their nets, which are used by hand, and are stretched on a frame about 4 feet wide, lie ready on the beach.  On seeing a shoal, several of the men run down, and with their spears make a peculiar splashing in the water.  Whether the Porpoises really understand this as a signal, or think it is the fish, it is difficult to determine, but the result is always the same; they at once come in towards the shore, driving the Mullet before them.  As they near the edge, a number of the blacks with spears and handnets quickly divide to the right and left, and dash into the water.  The Porpoises being outside the shoal, numbers of fish are secured before they can break away.  In the scene of apparent confusion that takes place, the blacks and Porpoises are seen splashing about close to each other.  So fearless are the latter, that strangers, who have expressed doubts as to their tameness, have often been shown that they will take a fish from the end of a spear, when held to them.

“For my own part I cannot doubt that the understanding is real, and that the natives know these Porpoises, and that strange Porpoises would not show so little fear of the natives.  The oldest men of the tribe say that the same kind of fishing has always been carried on as long as they can remember.”

Though dolphins and Aboriginal fishermen don’t cooperate any more Kevin Perry says the fishermen and dolphins still have a close relationship.

“On the oyster banks I was still able to call them over. I just blew into the water. The male dolphin was getting a bit crook [angry] because the female were getting too close. I could tell he was getting crook by his body language. You call them different ways depending on the different families.

“You’ve got to be able read these animals. Another important animal to read in the fishing game is the white breasted eagle.”

The white breasted eagle can tell you a lot about where the fish are, he says.

When Kevin dies he believes he’ll come back as a sea eagle (meriginpah) or a dolphin (buangan).

He says the fishermen these days don’t work with dolphins anymore unless it’s just random luck.

“If a patch of mullet head went out off the beach you’d pretty much say they’re gone, unless the dolphins bring them in.”

“You can see them [dolphins] coming. You know what they’re gonna do.”

Rick Perry says the mullet are terrified of dolphins but don’t seem scared of sharks, if there is a shark in the patch the mullet just swim along he isn’t there.

“But if the mullet know the dolphins are coming they run for their lives. Dolphins are really smart and hunt in groups.”

Susan Campbell comes from another big fishing family on North Stradbroke. The Perrys and the Campbells are related by their aboriginal grandmothers who were sisters. On the Campbell’s side, the black and white blood mixed when Robert Perkins Campbell married Granny Rosie Gonzales.

Susan Campbell. The Campbells have fished Moreton Bay for generations

Susan Campbell. The Campbells have fished Moreton Bay for generations

“My granddad let his wife practice her traditions. Granny Rosie lived both lives,” Susan says.

“You could see Aboriginal women back then on the weekend in a grass skirt and on Monday wearing a black dress covered up to their neck,” she says.

The men did the net fishing. The women did the oystering, culling and opening under the mango trees.

The Perry brothers’ mother is Ailsa Perry. Her great grandfather was one of the Crouches who were a pioneering European fishing family in Moreton Bay.

“They [Ailsa’s great great grandfather] came out to Botany Bay and fished in Botany Bay. Moved to Bulimba [near Moreton Bay] and fished in Bulimba,” Ailsa says.

Ailsa Perry

Ailsa Perry

After the performance at the auditorium, the man responsible for facilitating all the storytelling, John Parke spoke of fears that if the Perrys stopped fishing the knowledge would be lost. He invited community members to the stage to say a few words.

Up on stage, Ailsa said about the project that had led to the performance, “We said things we haven’t really said to anyone before.”

She thanked her boys for keeping their grandfather’s memory alive.

The families on stage at the Redland Bay Performing Arts Centre

The families on stage at the Redland Bay Performing Arts Centre

Other islanders spoke:

“Thanks to the families for sharing treasured memories.”

“It’s wonderful it’s been recorded.”

“It’s a comfort and support to all our people.”

Outside the Arts Centre Simon Perry said, “We don’t know each other’s story until we hear them like that.”

“I reckon there’s stories that need to be shared. The stories getting handed down through the families need to be shared to the wider community.”

Simon Perry

Simon Perry

“I find it hard to read and write so if fishing stops…”

The Perry brothers agree the mullet fishing is a sustainable fishery and there’s still as many mullet as there’s always been.

But there are problems: the high cost of licenses and equipment, governments protecting rights of recreational fishing over commercial fishing and imported seafood like basa from Vietnam.

Kevin’s sons still work with him on the mullet run along with other young members of the families.

But the families understand the stresses on the younger generation and encourage their boys in whatever they decide to do.

As one of the family said after the show, “It’s a struggle for our people living off the sea.”

“If they close it down we have to eat that horrible fish [basa] from overseas,” Ailsa said.

 

9 Comments
  1. Hi Mick – after I wrote the blog post you quote, I heard another story about the mullet run from Joshua Walker, which I wrote about in another here https://learnearnandreturn.wordpress.com/2014/09/07/are-you-a-local/

    ‘Joshua first explained the story behind each dance. He has mastered the techniques of the oral storyteller magnificently, using his whole body to tell each tale. I particularly liked the story of the sea eagle and the mullet. The eagle circles high over the entrance to Moreton Bay, watching for the arrival of the winter mullet school swimming up from the south. The leader fish turn into the Bay between Stradbroke and Moreton Islands and the eagle watches as the fish all follow their leaders in. He won’t begin to hunt until the leader fish are well into the Bay, because if the leaders are killed or frightened, the school may turn away and the winter fishing season will be lost.’

    All the best, Marion

  2. Amanda permalink

    What a heart warming read, to me family and tradition. Thanks Michael

    • You are very welcome Amanda. I met the Perry family mainly and Rick and everyone were great. The stories about working with animals and how the animals and fish interact in the natural ocean really interest me 🙂

  3. Gwen Specht permalink

    What a wonderfull well put together story about somgreat old families of Stradbroke Island

  4. David Hall permalink

    Know what you mean I am 5th generation aboriginal fisherman having fished from Kirra to Snapper rocks and to th end of South Straddie its getting harder each year

    • Hi David, Thanks for your comment and would like to talk sometime. I have spoken to a few guys doing the Gold Coast run and there’s actually a story on this blog. This year I think the rains buggered it for a while

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