Traditional owners from Warruwi on the Goulburn Islands, 300km northeast of Darwin, have embarked on an aquaculture initiative that could breathe new life into Australia’s first export industry, trepang.
Makassan fleets from southern Sulawesi began visiting the Top End coastline from about 1650 to harvest trepang, or sea cucumber, which they processed on shore and then sold as an exotic delicacy and, in some cases, an aphrodisiac in the markets of Asia.
Now the Yagbani Aboriginal Corporation has partnered with the Federal Government’s Jobfind to assess the viability of an aquaculture project to take advantage of trepang, oysters and giant clams that thrive in the waters around the Goulburn Islands.
Yagbani’s Wayne Tupper said the participation of local workers in the initiative would be vital.
“Studies are being conducted around aquaculture development in Warruwi to illustrate ways of developing policy and engagement strategies between government and community,” Mr Tupper said.
Mike Owen, of history group Past Masters International, said the Makassan fleets, which arrived during the wet, driven by the northwest monsoon, continued to visit until the early 20th century.
Mr Owen said the visits affected Aboriginal language, culture, art and even health.
Machado Joseph Disease, the debilitating neurodegenerative condition, is a legacy of the Makassan visits, according to Mr Owen.
There are still reminders of the visits in the form of stone lines that were used as part of the trepang cooking process.
“Documents indicate there were hundreds of vessels and thousands of men,” Mr Owen said.
The lanteen-sailed Makassan praus primarily worked between Mornington Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria and Port Essington in the Territory along a coastline that the visitors called Marege, or Wild Country.
Below: Makassan praus (left) and Mike Owen (right).