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Shellfish smorgasbord!

Shellfish smorgasbord!

Friday, April 29, 2016

Imagine having a supermarket in your backyard? Imagine having to spend only a few hours a day and come back to a hearty meal of oysters, fish, crab and bread – well, a sort of damper. 

For Aboriginal people living along the coast, especially in the Pumicestone Passage, oysters were a way of life and probably part of every meal since a few years after Moreton Bay flooded around 6000 years ago. 

Don’t forget, Moreton Bay was simply a large river valley for most of its long history and it is only comparatively recently that it has been drowned under the sea.
The stabilisation of sea levels resulted in the evolution of marine habitats and mangrove forests in the shallow muddy waters of Pumicestone Passage. 

Archaeologists have noted that shellfish dating back to 6,700 years ago, and corals dating back at least 6,000 years ago, indicate the establishment of marine resources in a newly formed Moreton Bay. 
Shellmiddens at Bli Bli

These littoral resources rapidly included a wide range of shellfish, predominantly Mud ark or cockle (Anadara trapezia), Mud whelk (Pyrazus ebeninus) and Rock oyster (Crassostrea commercialis) in the muddy sheltered waters of the Passage, and Eugarie (Pleibidonax deltoides) utilising the high-energy ocean beaches.

Within Moreton Bay, fragments of oyster and mud ark (cockle) were recovered during the excavation of the New Brisbane Airport Site that date back 5,600 years; these may represent some of the earliest use of shellfishing in estuarine environments by the people of Moreton Bay. 

The work that Dr. Ben Diggles is doing may be able to not only identify when the first cultural muse of oysters in the Passage occurred but what environmental cocoon facilitated the rapid spread of oysters in Moreton Bay.

For the Aboriginal clans of the Pumicestone Passage, fish and shellfish together with the flour made from bungwall fern root provided the bulk of the diet. 

Although there are numerous accounts of fishing as a source of food in early colonial observations, it is interesting that despite the numerous shell middens dotted across Bribie Island and the mainland, some of considerable size, the early colonial observers — Flinders, Oxley, Uniacke, Fraser and the three castaways, Pamphlet, Parsons and Finnegan — do not mention shellfish as a prime source of food. 

Neither is there a Joondoburri (Joondoobara) word for any of the four species regularly taken from the extensive mudflats of Pumicestone Passage. 

Eipper however, reports women collecting a great quantity of oysters from the mangroves on the small islands in the Passage; they were brought back in a canoe and cooked in a fire. Oyster reefs would have also contributed significantly to fishing activities, as many species of fish prey upon oyster reef associates and the oysters themselves.

The German missionary Christopher Eipper, writing in 1842, said: 

“Mr Wagner went to see the mode of the women in gathering oysters; they were at the same place where we had seen them the day before. There was a canoe in which they rowed to one of the small islands above mentioned, where they gathered the oysters out of the mud into the boat. When they had thus gathered a great quantity, they went back to the shore, and made a fire into which all the oysters were put, to cleanse them from the mud, and being thus stewed at the same time, they are eaten, and taste very well”. 

Eipper noted the “...natives boasted that three oysters would suffice for one man to feel satisfied: we never saw anyone content with three oysters, nor did we ourselves feel any reluctance to eat only three!”

Indeed ‘Ningy’ is reputed to mean oyster and there is little doubt that oysters were a crucial part of the diet of the Ningy Ningy and Joondoburri (Joondoobara) people of the Pumicestone Passage.

By Michael Strong, Director & Principal Archaeologist, Turnstone Archaeology

The Traditional Owners of the Pumicestone Passage are trailing the restoration of shellfish habitat to improve water quality and fish habitat in partnership with SEQ Catchments (supported through funding from the Australian Government’s National Landcare Program), the Pumicestone Passage Fish Restocking Association, Sunfish Queensland, Moreton Bay Regional Council, Unitywater, local industry and Fisheries Queensland. This project is also supported by the Queensland Government funded Healthy Country program, to improve water quality in Moreton Bay. 

In partnership with Ozfish, SEQ Catchments (co-funded through the Australian Government’s National Landcare Program) is also working closely with recreational fisherman, to address misconceptions about fish habitat, including Oyster Reefs, and share information about simple ways to look after these highly valued areas. 

Please note that because Aboriginal language was a spoken language, not written, there are alternative ways/various ways of spelling Joondoburri or Joondaburri. The Traditional Owners of the region are referred to here as Joondaburri, but have also been referred to as Joondabara in the past in accordance with historical records as researched by the author.