Shark Bay's History

Aboriginal Involvement in Shark Bay’s Industries

Since the 1850s, Aboriginal people have been involved in Shark Bay’s pearling, fishing and pastoral industries. Their contribution was vital to the social and economic development of this part of Australia. Aboriginal people today continue to have a strong involvement in fishing, as well as in Shark Bay’s growing tourism industry.

The Pearling Industry

Many Aboriginal men and women worked in Shark Bay’s pearling industry, which began in the 1850s and reached its peak in the 1870s. They gathered oysters in the shallows, skin-dived for them, or collected them in wire dredges towed behind sailing boats. Learn more about Shark Bay pearling techniques here.

Western Australia’s early pearling industry – from Shark Bay north to Roebuck Bay and Broome – was notorious for its ill-treatment of Aboriginal people. Most Aboriginal workers were not paid wages, but instead given basic foodstuffs, tobacco and a set of clothes. Some were physically abused. When the pearling season was over in far north Western Australia, some workers were put ashore in the traditional country of rival tribes and forced to make their own way home.

Pearl shell being transported in Shark Bay

Pearling in Shark Bay (image courtesy Dick Hoult)

When some unscrupulous entrepreneurs found it hard to recruit Aboriginal workers they took them by force, abducting them from their country. This occurred mainly in the far north but it is possible that some Aboriginal people may have been held on Fauré Island, near Monkey Mia. The sharks in the surrounding waters made escape difficult.

The Pearling Act of 1870 apparently did much to stop the worst abuses of Aboriginal workers in Shark Bay. A government official sent to Shark Bay in 1873 reported: “I am satisfied that the Aboriginal natives are as a rule well-treated by their employers…”. Nevertheless, living conditions in the pearlers’ camps were awful, and many workers died of dysentery and other diseases.

The pearling industry also recruited Chinese and ‘Malay’ workers, many of whom were actually from Indonesia, the Philippines and the Pacific Islands. By the 1900s these groups had become integrated with the Aboriginal inhabitants, creating an interesting ethnic mix still evident today.

The pastoral industry

The Aboriginal peoples’ intimate knowledge of their country proved beneficial to the pastoral industry. Sheep were first introduced to Shark Bay in the late 1860s, later followed by goats and cattle. Aboriginal people were employed to not only manage the land and patrol the station boundaries (mostly on horseback) but also to crutch and shear sheep, trap dingoes and foxes, repair windmills, pumps and other mechanical equipment, build fences and yards, sink wells, ‘break in’ horses, and myriad other tasks. Their great skill and hard work was instrumental in establishing the industry in remote Western Australia. Discover more about pastoralism here.

The fishing industry

Beach seining in Shark Bay

Beach seining in Shark Bay (Image courtesy Dick Hoult)

For thousands of years the Malgana Aboriginal people have collected shellfish and caught fish, dugongs and turtles in Shark Bay. Using a wealth of knowledge gathered over generations, contemporary Malgana continue these traditions today. Catches of fish and shellfish not only feed the local population but are exported all over Australia.

One traditional form of fishing is beach seining. Instead of setting nets and waiting, the fishers actively look for schooling fish. They can not only identify different species, but the average size and weight of individual fish in the school! Bream, sea mullet, tailor and snapper were all caught, with sand whiting the main target species.
Beach seine fishing requires good teamwork as well as excellent local knowledge.

  • A boat towing one or two dinghies motors to the fishing area, then anchors.
  • While some crew move off in the dinghies, another crew member will go ashore, often to a high vantage point, to look for any fins, surface ripples or other tell-tale signs of schooling fish. A school of snapper appears blue-black in the water; whiting looks brown; sea mullet looks silver; and bream have golden flashes.
  • Once fish are sighted, a crew member will jump from a dinghy with one end of the net. The dinghies then run the rest of the net around the school.
  • Both ends of the net are then taken to the beach, and the trapped fish worked into the shallows and captured.

The mesh size of the net must be above a minimum size, ensuring that undersize fish escape to fight another day. Learn more about the ways Aboriginal people help conserve fish stocks here.

Beach seine fishing

Beach seine fishing in recent times

The Tourism Industry

Shark Bay’s growing tourism industry provides numerous opportunities for Aboriginal people. For example, half of the Monkey Mia Resort is owned by Aboriginal interests: 26% by Indigenous Business Australia, and 24% by the Yadgalah Aboriginal Corporation.

Ecotourism also provides opportunities for Aboriginal people to show their traditional country to visitors, and to raise awareness of and respect for the environment. In recent years guided walking tours incorporating bush tucker, medicinal plants, animal tracking and cultural history have begun operating near Monkey Mia. Read more about Aboriginal business initiatives here.

You can discover more about Shark Bay’s cultural heritage at the Shark Bay World Heritage Discovery Centre in Denham.