'Mathematics and planning' created these ancient wonders, now they need saving

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When Ethel Thomas was growing up on Bentinck Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria, food did not come from the supermarket.

Key points:

  • Rough seas and cyclones have left the complex fish traps of Bentinck Island in a state of disrepair
  • There are calls for more help to maintain the network of traps on the island
  • Researchers are mapping the fish traps in a bid to help with their restoration

Instead, her time was spent with family catching fish out of stone-walled traps built by her Kaiadilt ancestors.

WARNING: An image in this story may include people who have died.

“I used to eat blue sand crabs, also some other little fishes,” Ms Thomas said.

The horseshoe-shaped stone walls were built in the tidal zones to trap fish as water recedes and allow easy access to the next meal.

“Our old people wait until the tide goes out to catch all the fish, dugong, turtle, stingray, shellfish, mud crabs,” she said.

The Kaiadilt people were taken from Bentinck to Mornington Island in the 1940s.

While there have been attempts to build houses and move the locals back, Bentinck Island remains uninhabited by traditional owners.

Years of damage from rough seas and cyclones coupled with no regular maintenance have left the traps in a state of disrepair.

Bereline Loogatha, a Kaiadilt woman who grew up on Mornington Island, said she would like to see more resources put towards maintaining the traps.

“We have the resources here, the people here, to go and rebuild them on Bentinck Island,” Ms Loogatha said.

“There’s infrastructure on Bentinck Island, but there’s no funding to take the people across to preserve it, to rebuild it, to take care of it.

“We do have the rangers, but the rangers have got so much to do with the ghost nets and everything else that’s happening in the gulf.”

Mapping the Bentinck Island traps

In order to help the Kaiadilt people with restoration of the fish traps, Professor Sean Ulm, from the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, has been mapping the traps.

“These traps have never been documented fully because of the challenges of working in the intertidal zone in a crocodile-infested part of the world,” Professor Ulm said.

“That knowledge of how many fish there are and where they are also helps us understand the long-term history of how Kaiadilt people have managed their land and seascapes.”

Similar structures are found across Australia but Professor Ulm said Bentinck Island had the highest density of traps in the country.

“It’s not just the number of them, but it’s also the variety of designs and the complexities of fish traps,” Professor Ulm said.

“In other parts of the Queensland coast it’s not uncommon to have a single trap or two traps, but in the Wellesley Islands we’ve got hundreds of traps.”

Professor Ulm said the traps were an engineering feat.

“To build a single wall 980 metres long at the same height, even though the seabed topography and elevation is changing, takes extraordinary mathematics and planning,” he said.

“It’s only from the air that you can really appreciate the extraordinary extent and complexity of these traps.”

Turning the fish traps into art

The fish traps are a popular feature in the artwork of Ethel Thomas, whose paintings are worth thousands of dollars.

“We were living on Bentinck Island and my Aunty Sally came to us with her husband and brought a painting,” she said.

“She gave it to me and that’s how I learnt to come over and do the same thing.”

Ms Thomas said she would like to see more awareness of the fish traps by both the locals and those on the mainland.

“We’ve got to talk to the boys that go round the island and tell them to watch out for these fish traps,” she said.