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Albany Fish Traps, Western Australia

Albany Fish Traps, Western Australia

An Antipodean travel company serving World Travellers since 1983

Albany Fish Traps

A large body of archaeological sites specifically associated with Aboriginal estuarine fishing lie scattered across the southwest of Western Australia. The most comprehensive of these are confined to the 130km long shoreline between Broke Inlet and King George Sound on the Southern Ocean coast. Here are some 40 stone structures, interpreted as weirs or fish traps, built over six thousand years ago. Nearly all are located on the foreshores at three estuaries: Oyster Harbour, Wilson Inlet, and Broke Inlet.

The Albany fish traps, also known as the Oyster Harbour Fish Traps, are the best known of these fishing sites, and the only ones well-documented by early European explorers in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. These are a series of traps located on the northern shore of Oyster Harbour, a 16km² estuarine basin opening into King George Sound, near the mouth of the Kalgan River. They were built by the Menang Noongar people to catch fish at low tide, playing a significant role in subsistence strategies, and today continue to hold an important place in local Aboriginal culture.

This article explores the Albany Fish Traps as practical knowledge for a number of Odyssey Traveller small group tours in Australia. It is part of a continuing series of pieces on Aboriginal culture and settlement and ancient landscapes of Australia. An appreciation of Indigenous activity is recognised as an important facet of learning in out tours, a part of our commitment to understanding and sharing our knowledge of the history, culture, and landscapes of Australia. Our tours are for both the mature and senior traveller, as part of a couple or as a solo traveller.

Princess Royal Harbour and King George Sound, seen from Albany, Australia

Archaeological Sites on Traditional Lands

For thousands of years, the indigenous Noongar people of the Wagly Kaip region have shared and cared for country. This region includes the landscapes of the Stirling ranges, Mt Madden, and deep bays, forests and extensive plains filled with a wide range of natural resources. Rivers and waterways include the Kalgan, King, Stokes, Fitzgerald, Wellstead, Gordon, Pallinup, and Cullum Inlet.

The earliest record of Aboriginals in this region, and the wider south coast of Western Australia, comes form the lower reaches of the Kalgan River. Artefacts unearthed at the Upper Kalgan in the late 1970s by the archaeologist Dr William Ferguson reveal the history of Aboriginal inhabitancy dates back at least 19,000 years. The excavations, which covered only a few square metres, discovered nearly 7,000 rock chips and flake artefacts, showing clearly the site was used for gatherings across generations.

Even older prominent archaeological sites have been found in Western Australia. Devil’s Lair at Margaret River, for example, is recorded as being 33,000 years old. A site at Exmouth has been dated at 34,000 years. And the Upper Swan boasts a site that is double the age of the Kalgan site.

Within the Wagly Kaip region, the people used the coastline, as well as the rivers, swamps, and vegetation beyond it. Tangible reminders of their inhabitancy remain today in the extensive complexes of stone structures or alignments at various locations thought to have been used by hunter-gatherer groups as fish traps. Key sites are located on the foreshores of Wilson Inlet and Broke Inlet, two 50km² basin like estuaries on the southern coast of Western Australia, and most prominently further east at Oyster Harbour between the Kalgan and King Rivers in Albany.

Twilight time at the marina at Oyster Harbour in Albany, Western Australia.

The Albany Fist Traps date back an estimated 6,500-7,500 years and is just one of several places where the local Menang group of the Noongar people utilised the marine and estuarine resources of the Albany area. Built of rock and wood on the northern shoreline of Oyster Harbour, the traps tell of clever, opportunistic hunters. Constructed on tidal flats, the semi-circular structures would confine fish caught as the tide moved out. The Aboriginals would then heard the fish into brushwood pens, where they trapped to be speared at leisure.

This area would have been used extensively as a hunting ground. The fish traps were used for around six months of the year during the warmer months, before migrating inland on the onset of winter to areas around the Stirling Ranges where the was more shelter and warmth. The area was also a corroboree ground, where marriages were arranged and everything came together.

Early European Observations of the Fish Traps

The earliest European descriptions of the stone structures in Albany refer to them as tidal weirs, though apparently the observers did not see them in use. The first recording was in 1791 by George Vancouver, writing of finding “fish weirs” in a river near the harbour. He describes them as being “constructed with lose stones, others with sticks and stumps of wood”. He observed them at low tide but supposed “when the rain or other causes should extend the rivulet beyond its present bounds… these humble contrivances might arrest some small fish”. However, he was evidently unimpressed, considering them “the sorry contrivance of the wretched inhabitants of the country”.

From his report, it is clear that barriers of brushwood or timber once surmounted the emplaced stones to create higher walls. None of the structures could have retained fish with only the walls than they have at present. This is further evident from the details of the weirs included in the account of the naval surgeon and botanist Archibald Menzies, who accompanied Vancouver:

“They consist of a row of small boughs of trees struck close together in the sand about two or three foot and kept close at the top by cross sticks along both sides fastened together with small withies and along their bottom some stones to prevent the fish escaping.”

Nicolas Baudin next described the fish traps during his expedition of 1803. Unlike Vancouver, Baudin appeared impressed by both the construction and the Noongar’s ingenuity: “ proof”, he wrote, that the “natives were not without intelligence”.

Fifteen years later, J.S. Roe, a lieutenant aboard P.P. King’s Mermaid at anchor in King George Sound, reported eleven weirs on the flats and shoals between the two rivers while exploring the foreshore of Oyster Harbour. One trap was more than 100 yards in length and projected 40 yards in a crescent shape out to sea.

In his notes, King is explicit about the use of these weirs through tidal action. He writes of “stones placed so close to each other as to prevent the escape, as the tide ebbed, of such fish as had passed over at high water”. He goes on to describe Tulicatwalè, a Noongar man, who “was to watch the weir all night to prevent the fish from escaping when the tide ran out and at a certain period to stop up the entrance with bushes”.

From here, Interest in the fish traps seemed to have waned, both from the Europeans and the Noongar. There are no reports of the traps used after the British annexation of the territory in 1827.

The Fish Traps Today

Although no longer in use, some of the fish traps at Oyster Harbour reported by the Early European explorations are still intact and can be seen at low tide. They consist of eight separate semi-circles of low, loose stone walls lying along the shore. Thousands of closely placed, mainly cobble-sized stones (generally about 15 cm in the smallest dimension) make up these walls.

The two well defined medium-sized stone semi-circles are approximate 47 m long and 27 m wide, and 62 m by 29 m respectively. In some places the walls have collapsed and the stones are spread out on the sand. The walls of the most complete trap reach about 40cm in some parts.  All the stones in the traps are of a dark, almost black, lateritic material found naturally in fair abundance on the surrounding shore.

Albany Fish Traps at low tide / Hughesdarren /  CC BY-SA 4.0

Preservation of the Fish Traps

The site was included in the National Trust of Australia in 1966 and was one of the first sites to be declared a protected area under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 when it was gazetted in 1973.

At the request of local traditional owners, archaeologists carried out a series of minor excavations at the site between 2000 and 2006 to determine how the structures had been constructed and their age. Collections on the rocks such as barnacles allowed them to approximately date them to after the mid-Holocene sea level rise, as is the case with other stone weir or trap complexes on the Southern Ocean coast.

Following concerns that the traps were becoming irreversibly damaged from recreational boating and fishing in the area, the site was returned to the Menang people in 2009 to preserve and protect its heritage. A $170,00 project was then initiated in 2011 to pass on knowledge about the sacred spot following the discovery that hundreds of stones had been removed. This project, completed in 2015, saw the construction of a cultural shelter, boardwalk and interpretation sign, all highlighting the historical Aboriginal connection to the area.

In the future the traps will be one of several Aboriginal sites that will be linked to form the Kinjarling Cultural Pathway. In the meantime, some local Aboriginal groups are keen to restore one of the eight weirs to working order to use it to demonstrate traditional practice.

Tour of Aboriginal Australia

Travellers with an interest in learning more about the Aboriginal heritage of Australia may want to check out our various outback Australia tours.

These include visits to:

Brewarrina fish traps Aborigional site, New South Wales, Australia

Every Odyssey guided tour is designed especially for mature and senior travellers, who want an authentic and informed experience of their destinations. Our tours aren’t the typical tourism Australia holiday – Blue Mountains, the Great Barrier Reef, and the penguin parade on Port Phillip Island. Instead, we pride ourselves on getting of the beaten path and making you think about Australia and New Zealand in new ways. We move in genuinely small groups – usually 6-12 per tour – and all tours are cost-inclusive, encompassing accommodation, attraction entries, and transport. For more information, click here, and head to this page to make a booking.

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We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Australians and Traditional Custodians of the lands where we live, learn and work. We pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging.

 

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