Fishing and Saving the Burnanga on the Dungala

One in five Australians fish for fun. What if recreational fishing could bring our country closer together, while also conserving our rivers and waterways? Freddy Morrison is putting this question to the test, one fish at a time.

Stricken with disappointment after the failure of the Voice referendum, Yorta Yorta/Waddi/Wemba and Burapa man Steve ‘Freddy’ Morrison decided that his love for fishing the iconic burnanga (Murray cod) might be his way of helping the country to reconcile.

‘I’ve been pushing for reconciliation for years,’ he told Reconciliation News. ‘We weren’t moving forward enough so after the referendum I decided that the way I could help was through fishing.’

He points out that a recent Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics survey found a total of 4.2 million or one in five adult Australians were estimated to participate in recreational fishing each year. Australians spend an estimated 28 million days fishing each year.

Freddy’s love of the dungala (Murray River) and his culture shines through as he speaks. ‘I was born on the river at Echuca and the burnanga is my totem. I just love the river, no matter what part of it.’

A young man and a young woman. Both are smiling and laughing. The woman is holding a fish she has just caught.
A shared love of catching burnanga (Murray cod) on the dungala (Murray River) has the potential to create strong relationships. Photo: Freddy Morrison

Angling for reconciliation

Now living in the regional Victorian town of Shepparton, Freddy established Victoria’s second Aboriginal Fishing Club, Dungula Maniga Banga, which is Yorta Yorta language for ‘Murray River fishing and hunting’. He uses the club to promote reconciliation with regular public fishing days open to all locals.

The club membership is mainly Aboriginal people, but interest is developing in Shepparton’s non-Indigenous community – one of the most multicultural hubs in regional Australia. The local council reports that 17.4 per cent of the population is born overseas, and 17.6 per cent of the population speaks a language other than English at home.

‘Our club has about five non-Indigenous members so far and I’m currently trying to attract multicultural members in particular,’ said Freddy. ‘We have plenty of Indian and Afghani friends on our Facebook pages and I’m encouraging these folks to come to our next fishing day.

‘It is very important that our Shepparton multicultural community is aware that the cod is in danger; we want to show the community the ways we have looked after cod and Country for generations. How we only take what we need, don’t overfish, and look after the river.’

‘The main aim is to educate the wider community about our culture and share our knowledge,’ explained Freddy.

‘We are slowly getting there after two years. I have had great feedback from the whitefellas; they really enjoyed the fishing days. For some it was the first time they had sat around having a yarn with Aboriginal people.’

Freddy says that Murray cod are significant to First Nations people because not only are they are an excellent eating fish, but the relationship with the fish goes back thousands of years, with many Yorta Yorta stories featuring the treasured cod.

Speaking up for cod conservation

The benefits of Dungula Maniga Banga extend beyond relationships between First Nations and non-Indigenous people. Freddy explains that the growth of Aboriginal fishing clubs – his nephew is starting a new one in Warrnambool – is having an impact on Murray cod conservation. Key stakeholders such as Victorian Fisheries Authority and the Victorian Recreational Fishing Peak Body are starting to listen to Aboriginal people about how best to look after the cod and the river.

‘The Victorian Government is listening to Yorta Yorta and other mobs about managing the cod,’ he said.

However, seeking First Nations peoples’ ecological knowledge of fish and riverine systems by Victorian fishing agencies is a welcome but only recent phenomenon.

Leading Yorta Yorta academic and educationalist, Dr Lois Peeler AM, gave Melbourne University’s 2020 Dungala Kaiela Oration, The River is Us: Carrying the Spirit and Strength of the Dungala.

‘Aboriginal knowledge and narrative have mainstream importance for survival, emotional health and the general wellbeing of all humanity,’ Dr Peeler told her audience. ‘Mainstream Australia hasn’t availed itself of the library of information on seasons, preservation, flora and fauna – Caring for Country on land and waters that the world’s longest living culture embodies.’

The main aim is to educate the wider community about our culture and share our knowledge.

Thousands of generations of fishers

One body that is excited about using the Aboriginal knowledge of the Murray cod is the Victorian Recreational Fish peak body (VRFish) whose executive officer Ben Scullin attended a recent fishing day organised by Dungula Maniga Banga.

‘We know that on average there is three times the participation in recreational fishing in First Nations communities than in other Victorian communities, so when Freddy first contacted us to say, “I want to form a club”, I told him that we would give him any help he needed.

‘He asked why are we not advancing reconciliation through something that we all love doing?’ Ben told Reconciliation News. ‘I thought, this is an amazing idea.’

VRFish now has a statement of purpose written into its constitution to ‘recognise the heritage, culture and contribution of our nation’s First People, and to give practical support to the issue of Indigenous reconciliation through recreational fishing’.

‘Spending time on Country with Freddy just blows me away, the added value that his traditional knowledge brings to me as a recreational fisher who cares for the environment is enormous,’ said Ben.

‘I am an expert in fishing the cod with lures – I won the Mulwala Cod National a few years ago – but I was standing on the river with Freddy as he explained how his people used the silver wattle to catch Murray cod.

‘I was blown away by that and by how he sees, and knows the river, compared to me; about how much I don’t know. His skills finding cod are remarkable … He has the knowledge of more than a thousand generations of catching cod.’

‘Even Freddy’s six-year-old son, Isiah, was telling me things I didn’t know!’

Ben argues that greater input from First Nations people into water and fish management will be a critical component of improving the health of rivers and lakes.

‘In terms of management expertise, there’s not many better is there?’

For Freddy it’s all about saving his beloved Dungala and burnanga, while ‘sitting down together and having a laugh, that’s the way we move forward, that’s the way we can heal.’

Join the club and start fishing for reconciliation: Dungula Maniga Banga Incorporate. 

This article is from the 51st edition of Reconciliation News. Read the rest of the issue.

Paul House with gum leaves and smoke
Paul Girrawah House

Paul Girrawah House has multiple First Nation ancestries from the South-East Canberra region, including the Ngambri-Ngurmal (Walgalu), Pajong (Gundungurra), Wallabollooa (Ngunnawal) and Erambie/Brungle (Wiradyuri) family groups.

Paul acknowledges his diverse First Nation history, he particularly identifies as a descendant of Onyong aka Jindoomang from Weereewaa (Lake George) and Henry ‘Black Harry’ Williams from Namadgi who were both multilingual, essentially Walgalu-Ngunnawal-Wiradjuri speaking warriors and Ngunnawal–Wallaballooa man William Lane aka ‘Billy the Bull’ - Murrjinille.

Paul was born at the old Canberra hospital in the centre of his ancestral country and strongly acknowledges his First Nation matriarch ancestors, in particular his mother Dr Aunty Matilda House-Williams and grandmother, Ms Pearl Simpson-Wedge.

Paul completed a Bachelor of Community Management from Macquarie University, and Graduate Certificate in Wiradjuri Language, Culture and Heritage and Management from CSU.

Paul provided the Welcome to Country for the 47th Opening of Federal Parliament in 2022. Paul is Board Director, Ngambri Local Aboriginal Land Council, Member Indigenous Reference Group, National Museum of Australia and Australian Government Voice Referendum Engagement Group.  

Paul works on country with the ANU, First Nations Portfolio as a Senior Community Engagement Officer

Acknowledgement of Country

Reconciliation Australia acknowledges Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing  connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; and to Elders past and present. 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be aware that this website contains images or names of people who have passed away.

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