Driven by Curious Data

Sustaining Fisheries and Communities by Hunting Fat - Fishing Patterns and Human Health with the Bardi People, North Western Australia.

1995. One Arm Point, North Western Australia. Bardi Aboriginal Community.

My first interviews with Bardi people regarding fishing practices asked, among other things, a simple question: "Are any fish sacred?"  “No, no fish are sacred.” was the general reply. On my first day out spearfishing, however, I was asked by the Bardi women line fishing nearby if I could “spear one fish for bait”.  “What kind?” I asked.  “Any one,” they said.  “Really?” I asked unsure.  “Yes, any kind,” they replied, and so I reluctatntly speared the next fish that came by, a fish that in my home country, the island of Bermuda, I would never consider spearing, not to mention eating. As I lifted the small surgeon fish at the end of my wire spear out of the water the women in unison lifted their hands in the air and exclaimed,  “No, no, no, that fish is sacred!”  

Surgeon Fish, Acanthuridae, it turned out, was a unique fish in the Bardi fishery because they are considered to be fat all year. Surgeonfish or Gambal have an oily flesh that, to the Bardi, gives them good taste and texture no matter in which season they are caught. I was to learn over the next few years that, because of this year round fatness, Gambal are a highly celebrated fish subject to specific conditions in both their capture and consumption. I would eventually learn that, unlike Gambal, most fish in the Bardi fishery have a season wherein their fatness is maximised and that this season determines the few months  within which most fish will be exclusively caught. 

"Among the Bardi, fatness is the determining criterion in food choices over a wide range of maritime resources. For many species of fish, turtles and shellfish, Bardi exploitation patterns follow specific guidelines relative to perceived levels of fat."   Rouja, PM., et al (2003), Fat, Fishing Patterns, and Health Among the Bardi People of North Western Australia, Lipids, Vol. 38, no. 4 

Douglas Wiggan

Douglas Wiggan

When I left One Arm Point after my first fieldwork stint, I studied the biology of many of the fish hunted by the Bardi specifically to try and understand this "seasonality of fatness”. It turned out that the primary academic source for such information was through the world of Aquaculture. Aquaculture scientists are interested in the biological cycles, specifically, the spawning cycles of fish and, as such, they were keenly aware of the inverse relationship in many fish between spawning and fatness. In most fish fat reserves are converted into sperm and eggs. I came to understand that for many tropical fish a fat fish is not a spawning fish.

Upon my return to One arm Point a year later I asked Bardi elder, Douglas Wiggan, “Are you aware that when fish are fat in your fishery they are not spawning? That, in fact, all the fish you harvest exclusively for their fatness are not breeding?” Douglas laughed, “Of course we know that! We know it for every fish, every species and so we leave them to do their business!”  Douglas then went one step further: “Remember that Iawing, small stingray, the one you only harvest when they have yellow lips? That one, well we only take it once.” “What do you mean?” I asked.  “They only have yellow lips in that first year. We only harvest it during its first generation (life phase); then we leave them alone.”

I would come to learn that the Bardi literally had an individualized plan for every fish, every animal and every species that took into account the needs of that species even as it was satisfying their needs, the community’s needs.

"Our research with the Bardi suggests that their focus on tropical marine fats and specifically on seasonal fat deposits in the gut of many fish, high in DHA and EPA, may be intrinsically beneficial to health and mirror those benefits attributed to fish and enjoyed by consumers of fish in colder latitudes   Rouja, PM., et al (2003), Fat, Fishing Patterns, and Health Among the Bardi People of North Western Australia, Lipids, Vol. 38, no. 4

 Sigganus linneatus displaying seasonal fat accumulations on intestine. 

 Sigganus linneatus displaying seasonal fat accumulations on intestine. 

At this time fish fat – and the specific Omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA - had just begun to be fully appreciated by specialists in the western scientific community for their health benefitting characteristics in Northern/Arctic communities. Medical Doctor, epidemiologist and ecotoxicologist Dr Eric Dewailly was one of the early pioneers in this field of research, learning about Omega 3s and their positive role in pregnancy with the Inuit in Northern Quebec. When I met Eric in 1999 he was introduced to me as the "King of Fat". Up to this point these beneficial Omega 3 fats had only been observed and analysed for their human nutritional impact in northern communities eating the flesh of cold water species. Eric instantly sent me back to One Arm Point to work with my Bardi colleagues, Douglas Wiggan his brothers, sons and his mother, to capture, sample, test and characterise the lipid profiles of the so called "seasonally fat fish" in their tropical fishery. 

The results were unequivocal; Bardi fishing strategies maximised their intake of beneficial Omega 3 fatty acids and furthermore underscored the deeply held cultural preferences related to this practice that saw most fish harvested exclusively during a short season when they were at their fattest and outside of their spawning season. 

The notion of people patterning their fishing on a seasonal basis predicated entirely on the relative fatness and impact to breeding cycles was new to western science. The fact that it was happening in a tropical fishery where the Bardi were exploiting fat reserves in the gut was also new to the world of public health and fatty acid research.

It wasn't new to the Bardi.

The Bardi fishery was, it turns out, perfectly managed for millenia with a set of overt rules that took into account the nutritional impact of their fishing behaviour and the impact on species' ability to sustain themselves.  An ongoing example for the world to follow.   

Philippe Max Rouja PhD


Dr Eric Dewailly interviewed by Sophie-Anne Blondin on CBC Radio, 'En Reserve'  (2014),  highlighting the beneficial health consequences of Bardi fisheries management practices that focus almost exclusively on seasonal deposits of omega 3 fatty acids in fish . (In French):