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March 1, 2001 Mulrennan listens to the Torres Strait Islanders






Islander man, returning from turtle harvesting.

Islander men spear fishing.

Island dancers

Photos courtesy Monica Mulrennan

by Anna Bratulic

The inhabitants of Erub, a small island teetering on the northernmost edge of Australia's Great Barrier Reef, have an intimate and profoundly rich knowledge of the sea and its abundant natural resources.

That has Geography Professor Monica Mulrennan thinking that experts in Western scientific disciplines ought to spend more time listening to what these people have to say.

Mulrennan returned in late December of last year from a four-month stay on Erub, a small community comprised of Melanesian Islanders in the eastern Torres Strait (a narrow channel separating Papua New Guinea from the Australian mainland). Her research, which spans almost a decade in the region, focuses on the dynamics of local ecological knowledge among these indigenous hunters and fishers and how this knowledge shapes their sea territories and their management of marine resources.

In addition to documenting Islander knowledge of this complex marine eco-system, Dr. Mulrennan is interested in local approaches to marine resource harvesting and management including customs and practices that relate to resource conservation and environmental stewardship.

Hunting of sea turtle and dugong (a type of sea cow closely related to the manatee) provides the major source of Islander protein, in addition to having important cultural significance. The sea turtle is particularly important on Erub. “No celebration or feast is complete without a sea turtle,” Mulrennan said. In recent years, however, environmentalists and some scientists have grabbed front-page headlines with claims that Islander harvesting poses a threat to the survival of these species.

Closer examination of the situation revealed that these claims were derived from poorly designed population surveys based on limited understanding of the behaviour and biology of the species. In addition, the reports failed to take into account important conservation measures such as closed seasons or a ban on taking small individual animalss, employed by Islanders.
Dr. Mulrennan said, “This is a nice example of a situation where local people, with the benefit of generations of acquired knowledge as well as their own direct experience of hunting, have a much better feel for what’s happening on the land or at sea.” 

To be a successful hunter or fisher in an area like the Torres Strait depends on a high level of competence and knowledge. This is reflected in the fact that Islanders use more than 80 terms to distinguish different tidal and associated sea conditions. According to Professor Mulrennan, “Such information, together with a detailed understanding of the local fauna and flora, makes this marine environment predictable, useable and understandable to Islanders —and is therefore essential to their survival.”

The sudden and widespread deterioration of coral reef environments has become a major concern in recent years. Through Dr. Mulrennan’s work, local sources of empirical and interpretative information on aspects of coral reef ecology, previously weakly documented, are being made available to the scientific community.

By linking scientific models and methodology to local knowledge, a fuller picture of the nature, extent and direction of environmental change is likely to emerge.

According to Dr. Mulrennan, “This type of information has significant management implications, too, particularly in relation to establishment of marine protected areas, the regulation of fisheries, the tracking of indicator species, and the protection of indigenous management practices.”

Dr. Mulrennan’s work in Torres Strait is part of a collaborative effort with her husband, Colin Scott, an anthropologist at McGill. Their interests in indigenous marine management systems also takes them to northern Quebec, where they work with the Cree community of Wemindji, on the central east coast of James Bay.

Despite radical differences between these two study areas, Dr. Mulrennan said that both communities share important cultural, social and political circumstances. In particular, the failure of central governments in Canada and Australia to recognize the rights of these peoples with respect to their seas and to give them a voice in the management of these environments is a major impediment to the continuity of these cultures and environments.

According to Dr. Mulrennan, this situation may soon change. This summer she and her husband, together with their four-year old son, intend to return to Erub, where they will help the Islanders put forward a legal claim to the seas, reefs and waters adjacent to their tiny island.