Edited transcript of an interview with VENA OLIVER
Vena Oliver is the wife of barramundi fisherman, Ken Oliver of Borroloola in the Northern Territory. Vena was a nursing sister and Ken was a veterinarian when they decided to change careers and enter the fishing industry. Their first venture in the industry was reef fishing from North Island in the Sir Edward Pellew Group in the Gulf of Carpentaria.
One of the many problems fishermen face in northern Australia is weather conditions and in a vivid account, Vena describes a cyclone and its aftermath when it struck the North Island during their time there. In addition to outlining their experiences in fishing, Vena discusses many aspects of family life in a remote area and the condition of the fishing industry in Arnhem Land and adjacent areas. It is a moving story.
The interview is part of Murdoch University's oral history of the Australian fishing industry and was recorded by Jack Darcey in the Oliver's home in Borroloola, Northern Territory on the 14th May, 1990. There are two sides on one tape and the interview starts at 021 on the revolution counter.
TAPE 1 SIDE A
JD Vena, would you record your full name, date and place of birth please.
OLIVER Vena Anne Oliver. I was born 6th September, 1948 in Latrobe, Tasmania.
JD And your husband is Ken Oliver?
OLIVER Yes, Kenneth John Oliver. Ken was born on the 8th April, 1947 and he was born in Maryborough in Queensland.
JD How did you come to get into fishing?
OLIVER Well Ken, his father had some history in fishing. He was on the coast of Queensland north of Hervey Bay at a place called Toogoom and he was a citrus farmer but also did a bit of fishing on the side, mostly for mackeral. Ken sort of, [was] not so much helping his father (he was only a kid at the time) but the stories and then as he grew older, the professional fishermen were around there. He used to go out with them. A lot of them were old German fishermen and they used to get into a lot of processing where they would sell a lot of fish fresh but then they would smoke a lot of them, kipper, things like that. He was fascinated by that, absolutely fascinated by it and of course amateur fishermen, he met amateur fishermen who would fish all day and all night. He went through school in Queensland. He went to Agricultural College and did animal husbandry there. Then he worked in the bush, as they say, in western Queensland for some years on cattle stations and sheep stations. When he was about 21 he decided.... Well I should say first he did a year of university, didn't do very well in his first year and he decided, well he'd give that away and went bush for about six or seven years. Then he decided he would go back to university so he got in touch with the university and they said yes he could go back and finish. He'd started veterinary science and he could finish it. So he finished veterinary science in Queensland.
When he finished he was in a quandry what he was going to do or where he was going to do it, except to go bush. He came to Alice Springs and I was working in Alice Springs at the time as the theatre sister at the local hospital there. So we met there and we married there and he had a veterinary practice there for some years but Ken still always hankered to go fishing. He used to come up here to Borroloola every possible opportunity amateur fishing. We had two sons and by the time Hugh, the elder, was about four or five, I suppose, Ken enjoyed veterinary science but he realised that he was just putting so much time into that practice that this child was growing up and he didn't know this kid. By that stage we had James who would have been, just a baby. So he had the opportunity to sell the practice and he did and he put to me that perhaps we could come up to North Island for a while and see how we enjoyed that. So we agreed that we'd give it a go. So that's really how it started. Jim was just one when he came up here. Hugh was just about to start school. He was pre-school age. So we initially came up.
JD Why Borroloola?
OLIVER Well I guess mainly because from Alice Springs it was the nearest sea [laughs] that had a road to it, anyway. In fact in the Northern Territory there are very few places there is a decent road goes to within cooee of the sea that is not controlled by Aboriginal land or pastoral land or something. So that was, I think, the main reason. Also because he had come here amateur fishing so he knew the area. So I guess in some respects it wasn't such a gamble. He knew what the fishing was like.
So he got in touch with Fisheries to see if he could get some sort of a licence and at that time they were just starting to take some control of the Fishery. Up until then Joe Blow could almost literally come off the street and say, "OK I want to go barra fishing" and they'd just write out a ticket, he pays whatever and away he went. There was no control over where he fished or how he fished to a big part[?] nor whether he was viable or that he was going to be true to fishing or whatever. It was just about that time they started to bring a bit of control into the fishery. They still went on a bit and said, "Oh well, we're not sure about this bloke, whether he's really keen. He's obviously a vet. He's obviously going to dabble on the side like our [unclear] or whatever" [laughs], the hobby farmers. So [unclear] chaps who were in the Department of Primary Industry which is involved with Fisheries here, of course it's now [unclear]. At that time it wasn't but it still was very closely linked. They sort of said, well you know, "This bloke's mad on fishing, that's all he ever thinks about." [laughs] So they said, "Yes, we'll give you a reef licence." Here they call this an offshore licence, an inshore licence, a barramundi licence, a [unclear] licence and a [unclear] with larger fishery licence. So he initially got the offshore licence which was a reef licence. We went out and lived on North Island and Ken....
JD When you say North Island....
OLIVER There's a group of islands here at the mouth of the McArthur called the Sir Edward Pellew Group which was discovered by Van Diemen actually then was later explored by Flinders during his circumnavigation. He did a detailed study. He named them by directions and there's a North and a South and a West and a South West and a Centre. The biggest island is called Vanderlin Island which was named by Tasman and obviously North is the most northerly one of the group. It's an interesting island. It's about, probably two or three kilometres wide at its widest point. It would only be about probably ten, fifteen kilometres long. It's the only island in the group that has no feral animals on it. So it was of particular interest to the Conservation Commission because they feel that this group of islands here is a crossover point between the New Guinea and Cape York wildlife, especially the birds and of Arnhem Land. So they were interested to have some sort of foothold there because, as I say, there's no feral animals there. The other islands have got dingoes and some have got goats, all those sort of things. So while we were there they actually came and did a big survey. They made Ken sort of honorary ranger there while they were there.
JD Did you live ashore?
OLIVER We lived ashore, yes. We had buildings there. We had, I guess, seperate rooms. We had one room that was a kitchen area and then we had another which was a guest bedroom and then another one which was our bedroom. Then we had an ablution block and there was another shed that was sort of a workshop come school room for the kids.
JD Had you put it up yourself?
OLIVER Some. It had been put up initially.... Actually a chap here now who's a butcher here, Joe Douglas, he initially started it; coming up from Alice Springs [laughs]. He was a butcher in Alice Springs, came up and liked it out there and started to put up a bit of a building and sort of got added onto over the years. Then he left the area and what was there he sold to the Fittock family. Their son now runs a tourist operation here and owns the caravan park. They decided to leave out there and they gave Ken the opportunity [with] a couple of mates from Alice Springs at the time, three, four of them, and they bought what was there. We had no land tenure whatsoever and we couldn't get any. The islands went under an Aboriginal land claim and most of it was given to the traditional owners, most of whom now live here in town. In fact at that time there was no Aboriginal people living in the islands at all. There was a chap on Vanderlin Island who's half-caste. He is a professional fisherman. He's got a barramundi licence and Steve has always lived there. His father was a Scotsman, he was a shipwright. He taught Steve his fishing, some ship building and the other many crafts that Steve has. He lives out there. There's a weather station on Centre Island which Mt Isa Mines put there so they could have some land tenure because they wanted that as their deep water port if they ever put in a mine up here. Then there was ourselves on North Island. Since then, as I say, a land claim was granted and there is a small settlement on West Island. A few Aboriginal people live there and on South West Island, it's almost all sacred land. There's big burial grounds there. North Island was granted to the Aboriginals only last year but on the same sort of tenure as what Cobourg Peninsula is. That is that it is given to the traditional owners but leased back to the Conservation Commission of the Northern Territory [unclear] as a wildlife reserve. That's what's happening now and there is nobody living there permanently at the moment but they are hoping to have a ranger out there. So we went out there and sat down [laughs]. So we lived as a shore planter (this is a local term for a fisherperson who fishes from a land based camp) and Ken just had a fourteen foot dinghy. [There was] a lot of reef off the islands to the north east. Reef fishing was just, it was magnificent, just wonderful.
JD What species?
OLIVER A lot of what they call nannygai which are red emperor, a lot of golden sea perch. Then there was sweetlip.... Mostly the commercial fishery does a lot of parrot fish and those sort of reef fish, stripeys, [unclear]....
JD Is it a coral reef?
OLIVER It's not coral reef like the Great Barrier Reef. It is more sort of what they call bombies. It's not sort of that area. The water's murky. It's not real clear either as what you get over there. It's clearer than a lot of the rivers are but it's not that beautiful. You can't see down through clear water at all. I guess 'cause you don't get the sun filtration you don't get that type of coral. Certain areas east of Vanderlin you start to run into that type of coral reef but not close in. The prawn trawler fleet from Karumba use those islands to refuel and shelter and to offload their catches onto the mother ships. They used to use Paradice (named after Lord Paradice) quite a lot during the dry season because we get a lot of south east winds there and in Paradice Bay there's good shelter from the south east weather. So we used to get a lot of trawlers in there. That's one of the main reasons the Conservation Commission want us to be there because they wanted some sort of control over what they did out there.
So we used to fish mostly for, I suppose, the red emperor and the golden snapper. You never sort of really got tonnes and tonnes and tonnes. You'd probably be flat getting a tonne a year, for a season. I should suppose say we never worried about that much but financially Ken was still doing large animal work down the station. So he just sort of was finding his way, more than anything.
JD What was your market?
OLIVER Mostly to Karumba. We would send it back on the prawn fleet to Karumba, yes. That for us from there was the easiest way.
JD In fillet form or....
OLIVER Oh fillets, yes, 90% fillets. Occasionally somebody would want whole fish and we would send whole fish back but generally it was fillets; a lot easier to deal with, I suppose. The set-up at the camp wasn't ideal. We had a goods tank which had good water but it wasn't endless, of course. Ken, I suppose, coming from a veterinary science background, was very particular with cleanliness and what you put up with. His great quote is that "people eat with their eyes". So he has always been very particular with his product. He's always striving for great heights and he was never 100% happy with the situation out there.
JD Did you have freezer facilities?
OLIVER We had freezer facilities but just household freezers, the big sort of commercial type ones and we had generators, of course. It was adequate but not ideal. We were lucky that we had the prawn fleet coming in that we could offload on to them as we were going through because otherwise, to get fish out of there, you would have to have some sort of freezer facility to transport the fish here. So we did that for two wet seasons, we stayed out there. Then, as I say, we used to go out to the station in the dry season. Ken would do cattle work.
Then the third season we went back out there, we were just about to leave at Easter time, in fact we should have left but, things got held up and whatever. Then they told us this cyclone's coming. So there we were. We had a couple of old chaps who came up to caretake the place for us. Then they just sort of got there and so Ken said, "Oh we'll wait until after Easter" so we can settle these chaps in. Then this cyclone started to blow up and he said, "Oh well, we'd better wait to see what happens with this." We had a few false alarms, cyclones going around us, you know. Luckily Ken had been through quite a few cyclones himself in Queensland. So he wasn't as blase as probably a lot of people were. We had a lot of these false alarms. In fact, only a couple of weeks before he'd been to Darwin with Steve Johnson who is this half-caste chap on Vanderlin Island and he said to Steve, "Oh they all reckon that we don't get cyclones in this area. Have they ever been through Vanderlin Island?" He said, "1948, Ken". He said, "I can remember I was only a kid and we sheltered on Vanderlin Island. I remember it was up wind of a goat farm. We got pelted by goat shit all the time." [laughter] He said, "If you look down around the river you'll see that there's no mangroves of any size. They were completely wiped out in 1948." When Ken came back he took particular note of that and it was true. You can see butts every now and again of what had obviously been a big tree but there are no big mangroves in this area, obviously even still. You can go through the north especially around Blue Mud Bay which is just on the coast from Groote Eylandt. They've got a lot of timber there in the mangroves; they were huge. Yet here, obviously, they have been devastated.
So when the cyclone warning came we tracked it and tracked it and then, of course, it came in and it came right across. We didn't get the eye where we were but the other side of the island where the trawlers were all sheltering, they went through the eye. It was just horrific. It's been recognised as the strongest cyclone that ever crossed the Australian coast. Course we got winds estimated at 280 kilometres an hour and the wind instruments at Centre Island Weather Station stopped working and got blown down. So they couldn't actually give a true reading. They gave an estimation with what they had been able to get readings from on the devastation. Also the trawlers had their barometers. They kept tracking.... One chap in particular, I think, a Swedish guy, he just kept making notes of where she kept going in between times because the eye was at Walker's Point. So they were able to make some sort of estimate with that. We were in our camp and unfortunately it was supposed to have passed us and hit the Robinson River. About this time at night, about sixish, just twilightish but not quite, it was cloudish but not too dark. Ken suddenly said, "I don't like the look of this. The sky's changing. It's going to come in here." If it had been left to me, I had never been through a cyclone in my life before, I had no idea what they can do or where you're supposed to find out where it's coming from or going to. I would have thought, oh it's nothing yet. [unclear]
We picked ourselves out a bit of a shelter when it was getting dark up over the first lot of sand dunes with some rocks but they were probably a bit higher than this table. We couldn't stand up but we could sort of crouch around in there. We decided well that would be a good place to go because it faced a hill so was relatively sheltered. So Ken said, "I think we'd better get out of here." So we packed up what gear we wanted. During the day we'd packed everything away and tied down as much as we could of the gear we had out there. We took clothing and food and things like that and water with us. We went up to this shelter. By ten o'clock, about two hours later [unclear]. We would have got there by about half past seven, eight o'clock, I suppose. By ten o'clock we would never have been able to move. I don't think we would have survived if we'd stayed in the camp, mainly because we would have been sand blasted.
We were able to get back down there the next day about probably.... Ken had gone about one o'clock in the afternoon. He walked down with a blanket around him, it was still blowing up the sand but it didn't worry you. By about three it had calmed down enough that we could go down. It had sand blasted all the paint off the steel, right back to basic steel. It was just incredible. We had a measure, rain gauge out the back and it would have been probably 500 yards from the sea, it was full of salt water. Just amazing. The strength of the wind was just.... I can't imagine that wind can do.... The beach was totally changed. You wouldn't have known it. It was just totally changed. What had been sand dunes were just moved for miles. There wasn't a leaf on a tree all seaward side. It was just absolutely bare down to the wood. All the beach sand had been blown in for miles and miles. Boats had just been picked up and just dumped. Our dinghy was on the bottom. Ken had tied it with a brand new rope and it had just snapped it. That's how it went. There was dolphins washed up on the beach and fish and turtles without their shells and it was just terrible. I think that worried the kids, all of us but the kids especially. It impressed them then more than anything, the devastation. They just felt terrible. We were able to get one dolphin back into the water but the other one was just too far gone. You couldn't do anything.
Of course typically, we don't realise these things, but our communication was with radio, obviously, to Darwin, VJY Darwin with Telecom [which was] by now, our main communication. We had a self tuning aerial and of course, it just went west. Goodness knows where it ended up [laughs]. So we had no communication at all. Fortunately because Hugh was on School of the Air, we had a little 25 watt radio which we had taken up to the shelter with us, so it was still dry, as was the battery. So we were able to get contact by about five o'clock.... No, it would have been earlier, probably about half past three that afternoon.... We'd only just got back to camp and walked around to see what was there. It was the last lesson of the day for the School of the Air. I was able to get through to one of the other families, Brunette Downs Station and they were able to get on to Emergency Services and tell them that we were alive and that we were OK and not to worry about us. We had food and water. Such are communications, of course, the Navy was not informed. They were coming down from Groote Eylandt and they had no idea that we were OK. They knew there was a family on the island. They knew who lived on the islands and where and they knew there was a young family on North Island. So, of course, they came straight to us and, of course, the sea was just belting in. They came in. Fortunately one of the ratings had been in here before and there is a bit of a creek that breaks through half way along the beach and they brought in a rubber duck and they luckily hit where this creek breaks through. Otherwise, if they'd hit the beach, they would have just been mincemeat, I think. Well they came up and saw that we were OK and went off again.
After that, of course, we decided well, probably the island wasn't the best place and there was very little left of it. It would have been a big job too, to rebuild it again. We just didn't feel that it was worth it when we couldn't get any land tenure and [were] never likely be able to. We were going back to the station anyway, so we went back to the station. A chappy came through the year before with the boat that Ken has now brought, from Karumba. He'd been up around Groote and Gove mackeral fishing, he and his wife. Ken just fell in love with this boat straight away. In fact I can remember vividly sitting at the kitchen in Paradise Bay and could hear this engine coming. It's an old Gardiner motor and you could hear this going plonk, plonk. I can remember Ken saying, "Listen to that motor. Oh, that's a good motor, you can hear it; slow revving bugger, that's what you like." [laughter] So this chap sailed in or steamed in. It's a steel boat. He bought it from a chap and it had been built at Sydney. The owner must have had shares in BHP because it had more steel in it than BHP had [laughs]. So it, as I say, had a Gardiner in it and it's got a three tonne freezer and it's nearly 38 foot long. So Ken was quite.... It was pretty well what he wanted, really. Brian was trying to get out. He's a man in his '50s and was thinking of getting out of the industry. He had a barramundi licence which he used in Queensland and he had the Territory mackeral licence, or offshore licence which is mackeral. They talked about it and Ken said what a nice boat it was and I suppose Brian stored that away, and Ken did too. Then after the cyclone people rang up to find out how we were and as time went by, Brian got in touch with Ken and said, "If you're interested, I'll be willing to come to some agreement about the boat." So Ken went up to Karumba and saw Brian and they agreed on a price and in fact Ken bought the boat. While Ken was still working Brian leased it back off Ken and he worked it still with his barramundi licence because he kept that seperately. So he did that and at the end of that season we went up to Karumba and we got on the boat and went mackeral fishing.
We left Karumba. It was supposed to be a land breeze, well it was blowing and all these blokes are saying, "Well, don't worry Vena, it's just a land breeze. It's bound to be placid outside." Of course, by the time we got to the fairway buoy, we were taking water over the front [laughs]. Well Ken didn't notice it but the kids and I were green. So we decided to go back and so we went back to the first buoy and sat there for the rest of the night. Then the trawlers started going past and Ken's saying, "Oh it can't be that bad. It doesn't matter if they're 50 or 60, 70 footers, they're going out. Must be alright." By daylight we decided we'd make a run for it to Mornington Island and it wasn't too bad. The kids and I were a bit sick but we got our sea legs after a few hours. We went across to Mornington Island and then we came from there across to the Vandelins. We sheltered here for a few days. The wind got up a bit and we thought, well it's about 70 nautical miles from the top of North Island to the bottom of Groote. We could do it in one day, no problem, but we didn't want to tackle it unless it was pretty sure.
So then we took off and got to Groote Eylandt. We fished around there for a while; had some reasonably good fishing. Beautiful water. It is just beautiful up around there. Those islands are just absolutely wonderful. Then we went up to Gove and we fished out from Gove around the Wessel Islands and the English Company Islands round there, just Ken and I and the boys. Then Peter Fittock who is as I say, in tourism now, he was then a barramundi fisherman. He bought his boat up and went mackeral fishing up there as well with us. We had a great time. It was really a great experience. We were away for about, I suppose it was about five months, five or six months.
JD You lived on board?
OLIVER We lived on board all the time, yes. We got [unclear] three bunks, one was a double bunk and two single bunks. We got cooking facilities and things like that. We have a cat [laughs]. Actually it wasn't too bad. Because we had the kids we probably made an effort more to go onshore than we probably would have done if had just had been a couple of adults. We'd go and have a barbecue every two or three nights. We'd go beachcoming every now and again and things like that with the kids. It was just lovely being out there. You'd go to the beaches and there'd be no set of human footsteps anywhere, although then you'd go to another beach.... We went to a beach on Groote Eylandt and we were walking along beachcombing saying, "Isn't this wonderful." Not a soul in sight, we walked round the first set of sand dunes and there's this four wheel drive track [laughs] all the accompanying cans and rubbish and what ever. It was fascinating and we met some lovely people all round different places. Of course word soon got out that Ken was a vet, as well, on the side. Of course most of those places had no veterinary services whatsoever so we'd end up doing a few consultations on the wharf and [laughs] things like that.
After that we went back to Karumba and then Ken did another year [in the cattle] season. Then he decided we would see what we were going to do from there. The mackeral were alright but not really that you could set up solely as a fisherman. Ken was brought up more as a master fisherman in Queensland. You'd sort of work all the fish, you don't sort of just target one fishery and he didn't like doing it. So he decided that he'd like to see if he could get a barramundi licence. By then the Territory had closed barramundi fishery and there were probably about 40 licences current. The Government wanted to bring it back as much as they could. Initially at that time they were going to bring it back to 35 licences. So the only way he could get a licence.... For a while they were frozen altogether. You couldn't buy a licence. Then they decided, once they got it back to a certain number, they would allow people to transfer licences. So he just registered with Fisheries that he was interested in a licence if one did come up and eventually a chappy in Darwin decided....
END OF TAPE 1 SIDE A
TAPE 1 SIDE B
OLIVER Ken eventually got his licence and we decided we'd come and settle at Borroloola. We had a caravan when we went out the station so we towed that up here and lived on a block of land up here for a while and we decided we would make a go of it. Ken initially went to sea [and] employed just one old chap. He had been a station cook and had also worked for some years on the boats going on the freight run from Adelaide across to the northern ports of Tasmania. So he had quite a bit of sea experience. So they went out that first year. By the end of the year Ken realised that he needed somebody else, another pair of hands. So since then he's always employed two people on the boat. He fishes mostly outside around the river flats, in some small creeks around the estuary, and around the islands. Mainly he doesn't fish in the river because, apart from the fact that there are fewer creeks.... When I say the river, in the Northern Territory rivers actually aren't open to the fishermen as such inside the mouth but because there's an estuary, the river forks at what they call the Batten which is probably about 50 kilometres, I suppose, from here at Borroloola. That is considered the mouth because it then forks and becomes the Delta System. So all the Delta System is considered part of the sea and so the fishermen are allowed to come in to the Batten.
As I was saying before, because this area is one of the few areas where there is a road that comes right through the town and then you get access right through the river and also then on to the sea, there's a lot of pressure from recreational fishermen. So Ken just likes to keep a low profile in the fishery. He actually has quite a good time. In fact Ken is a very outgoing person [and] becomes extremely involved with people. We have got amateur fishermen that come up here all the time. They come up with freezers from down south, with freezer loads of lamb to swap. We barter it for fish or just because Ken's been nice to them and shown them a hole somewhere. He usually keeps an eye on fishermen and he sees the blokes going around. Those who are just tourists, just trooping around, he doesn't worry too much about. If they're obviously keen fishermen, and you can tell that they really don't know where they're going, he'll watch them for a couple of days and then he'd decided, "Oh well, they obviously know what they want to do." So he'll get his map out and say, "well this is a good place to go" and "that's a good place to go and so on. Of course fishermen are grateful if they happen to catch fish [laugh] and they do. He gets on really well with the majority of them by far but of course there's always a few. They see commercial fishermen going passed and think, "Oh well, I can't catch them today. That's the reason I didn't catch a fish today." So he keeps out of the way for that reason.
Also just simply because of the noise. We get a lot of people. It would be nothing to have 40 camps down on that river at any one time with their one or two dinghys each. So there is a lot of noise pollution up and down the river itself. So he sort of tends to keep away from that. So he spends most of his time outside.
JD This is also an Aboriginal community, isn't it?
OLIVER It is, yes. There's an Aboriginal community, a land based one here in Borroloola but there's two or three of the elders who actually did come from the islands. One old chap actually did live out there. He was born on North Island. He in fact worked for the Macasans years ago in beche-de-mer. He's an extremely interesting man to talk to. Johnson Timothy, his name is. Personally, he loves the islands but he's an old man now. He's not interested in living out there but his family, that's his descendants, are the traditional owners of the area. They don't use the islands themselves that much. They have a bit of a settlement there on West Island that some of them go out to and they've got homes out there and that sort of thing, they drift out there and back into town a bit. South West Island is sacred to them and no Europeans are allowed to set foot on there. It has a lot of burial grounds and significant sites, ceremonial sites and things like that on it. When the Europeans came here, it is actually quite interesting because during the War it was one of the observation posts that they had around. You've probably heard of Curtin's Cowboys, the Northern Survellance Group. Well they had a survellance point out there on South West Island. The island's actually quite hilly. They're not flat at all. They're actually rocky outcrops. They used to go out by dugout canoe. It would take them two days to row from here out to the islands with the supply. They reckoned that they had to get them so well balanced, if you didn't part your hair in the middle, they'd capsize [laughs].
As far as our fishing industry's concerned, here locally it doesn't affect Ken all that much. Every now and again some one will say, "Oh Ken, is fishing in a sacred site" or something. There are in fact very few that are actually close to the sea. There's a couple of rocks, just rocks out in the river, in the sea, that are sacred. I shouldn't say sacred, significant, to the Aboriginal people in some ceremonial thing. Ken is always very particular. He never ties up to them. He will always anchor away from them. They are in fact allowed to fish up to the high water mark but he never goes close to them for the reason that it's not worth the hassle. A couple of times some of the local Aborigines have complained that he has. It's gone through the Fishing Council. He's gone to them and said, "I'm having hassles" and they've looked in to it and it's never come to anything.
The other thing that Ken always does, he never throws carcasses overboard on the boat. They collect them into one of the dinghys and then they throw them up on the side and sea birds take them mostly. Probably the occasional crocodile will go up and get them. Because of years gone by, most of the fishermen that have fished here have chucked their carcasses over the side. The catfish population is just quite horrific. One time we'd get very few catfish in the river. Ken feels that probably throwing carcasses over the side is not in the best interests. Also, of course, it does attract crocodiles to the boat which is also another reason he won't. There was one case just north of Karumba in the Staiton River where one woman was taken when she was trying to get onto a boat by a crocodile. They hadn't even started fishing but obviously that crocodile was a wily old fellow and had seen the commercial boat come up there for years on end and decided on his tucker. He just waited there and when she got over the side, just went snap. We don't have a problem with crocodiles around the boat much here but he just feels you're asking for trouble, or causing problems, anyway. So they usually take them and put them on the bank. Occasionally we get complaints about doing that from tourists mostly, if they might stink. They usually take them way over the top to a little creek somewhere but occasionally you get the occasional complaint about it. I think generally when it's explained to people why it's done, they can see the reason for it.
Generally throughout the Territory, Aboriginal land rights has made a big impact on the fishery. For all intents and purposes, Arnhem Land is closed to fishermen because under the Aboriginal Land Right Act, they have control of land to the low tide mark, whereas under Territory legislation they have access to the high water mark and therefore that's quite a bit of difference. The fishermen tend not to go up there and also the Aboriginal Councils try and get the fishermen out of the area as much as they can. They often have fishing rights over the areas as well as land rights. So that pressure is coming on to the fishermen as well, so they tend not to go too much near Aboriginal land. Consequently 80% of the Territory coastline is controlled by Aboriginals.
On top of that, the Daly River which is on the western side of the Territory, the Mary River which is just east of Darwin and the Roper River which is just here on the bottom side of Arnhem Land, have all been closed to commercial fishermen as well. So that's also cut the fishery back considerably. The Roper River, in fact, the Minister closed it at the end of the last fishing season and the Fishing Industry Council have taken out an injunction against that. The Government was advised by the Judge that rather than have an injunction served, it would be better to reopen the river until there could be some sort of discussion. So at the moment it is in abeyance and we still don't know what's going to happen but the Queensland Professional Fishermen's Association have recently decided they would like to have this case go to Court. They would like to make it a test case because they would not like to see the closing of rivers be adopted throughout Australia as a method of management. Of course, the majority of fishermen are against it because it's their livelihood but they're also against it as a management principle. They feel it's not a good management principle to close a river. All that does is put the pressure on another river. So they feel, most of them very sincerely, that they would prefer very much to have more of a management input. So at the moment the Roper River closure is in abeyance.
Here in Borroloola we have got quite an active group called the Gulf of Carpentaria Fish Management Group, or Gulf Management Group. It extends from the Roper River to the Queensland border and it's made up of representatives of the barra fishery, crab fishery, amateurs, tourist operators and the police as enforcement officers, and also the Conservation Commission has a representative. The Gulf fishery, as I was saying, involves all these different groups and we've been very involved with it, both Ken and I. The main aim is to try to get some sort of balance with the environmental groups and the tourist groups and the professional groups to try and get some sort of management into our river systems all along this coast. We don't necessarily want to be told what to do but we want Fisheries to be able to say to us, "This is a large [unclear] area. This is an area where the fishery is not a big viable fishery. It is a very fragile fishery, commercial and recreational." We want them to be able to put roads into every little creek so that they spread the effort right across the coast so that they can say, "This fishery will only support two commercial fishermen", whatever they come up with but at least do something.
So far we have come up completely against a brick wall. Our local Minister, Mr Reid, has certainly said, "Well our big interest is tourism and development and you can go and" (do the other thing). When we've asked for management we've been told they don't wish to do specific management here or specific research here. That's all being done in the Mary River in Darwin. Of course we know the Mary River's close to Darwin so research is easily carried out by officers from Darwin. We also know that the Mary River's an entirely different system to this one. It's part of the water shed of Kakadu escarpment. They have miles and miles of wetlands, entirely different setup altogether. Of course, it's since been closed by the Minister and now we've discovered the last few days there is going to be a multi-million dollar development by one of the local pastoral barons and Japanese interests. The Minister came down here and we had a meeting here. I went as the representative because Ken wasn't able to go and I firstly put it to him continually that we wanted management of this river. What were their scientific reasons for closing the rivers? We got absolutely a brick wall.
As we've been saying, there are only 27 licences in the Territory at the moment. We have good rapport here in this group. We've all pulled together. We get on well with the tourist side. We get on well with the recreational side. There's no great anomosity at all. One of the tourism people said what we all know, that there's only about 70 blokes in the fishing industry. It doesn't mean much against the rest. So we're not going to get much say whatsoever. Therefore the big push here is tourism. If that's where the dollars are, they've decided to push, push, push. That's where it's going to be.
So when they closed it, I personally wrote to the Minister and all the other fishermen representatives around the country. I put it to them that if they close this river, where do we go? We have made a commitment as Territorians to this town. We've built a home here. We've got our boat. Ken's bought his boat. He's put a lot of money into his boat and into his licence. We can't sell that because there's no future in the barramundi industry. Who's going to buy a boat that has no future in that? Who's going to want a home in a town that can't have that industry? Our boys may not be in the least bit interested in fishing but they should at least have the opportunity if they want to. I put it to them that how would other people feel in the community if suddenly by a stroke of the pen the Minister decided that there'll be no more service stations, there'll be no something or other. It is just so wrong to just suddenly decide by stroke of a pen that they're going to wipe out one whole industry.
What makes it ironic for us is that our chief Minister, Mr Perrin, has a fish feeding industry in Darwin at Doctors Gully. You can't go there to amateur fish. You could legally commercially fish off it but, of course, you'd be putting your head in a noose if you did. Obviously he doesn't own those fish. Those fish come up there and feed every day by his wife and employees and he charges tourists to go down there and feed the fish. That is a completely seperate little entity really. It really makes you cynical. Fishermen get really mad when you consider that they now buy back a licence for $750,000 only. They've taken no notice of the commitment that they've made to the rea they live in, to the house they've bought, the boat they've got or to the general part of the economy. [unclear] So we just feel that closing the river is not a management thing and we just feel that there should be more consultation. There shouldn't just be these political decisions made where a person's livelihood is just taken away from them without really having very little input into it whatsoever. What about the recreational fishery? Every second man and his dog goes fishing. We just haven't a voice at all; no voice at all.
It's difficult in places like this and Vanderlin with education and with health, all those sort of things. We're lucky. Our kids are healthy. If they're not, the nearest hospital is Katherine so they have to be either flown or driven to Katherine 600 kilometres down to Katherine by road. It's two hours by plane. We've a basic health system here, a couple of health sisters, but there's no medical training, medical people. In fact Ken often gets asked by people round the place because his expertise is probably more than most of the people that are here anyway.
JD What about education for children?
OLIVER There is a school here and facility wise, it's very, very good but because the Aboriginal population tends to be drifting, they have homes in town. They also have out stations either on the islands or further up the coast or on their billabongs or wherever. They tend to drift between one and the other and a lot of the kids drift with them. So the attendance rate at the school is probably about 30/40% which has a lot to do with the school standard. Therefore the school standard is generally low.
The other thing is in the Territory they have two curriculum. One is called the urban curriculum which covers all urban schools in town. Then there is the community curriculum which covers Aboriginal settlements. Well Borroloola is an open town and not an Aboriginal community. The school is still using the community curriculum which is a lower standard than the accepted standard for ordinary every day Australians on the street, Perth, Sydney, wherever. So the kids here are behind the eight ball before they go away. School goes to year seven. There is what they call a posh primary which is really just to fill in the legal requirement to stay at school. So we therefore have to send our kids away for high school and tertiary, of course. They have to be educated away from this area [loud banging noises in background]. That doesn't only apply to fishermen, of course, that applies to everybody. So we have to make a big financial commitment to send our children away. Our son Hugh is going to Townsville next year. Well that's a big financial commitment to have to send a child to a boarding school for five years, probably and then on to tertiary education, if he wants to. We've got two children. It's a big commitment and it's also a big decision. It means our children who are twelve or thirteen when they go away will probably never be with us as a family unit again. So that's a problem too.
Another thing that's possibly against us, you're paying almost double for virtually anything you buy here. So most of us buy out of town but then to do that you've got to organise that. You've got to arrange for transport etc. So as families, there's a lot of pressure put on families living in places like this. I don't think governments take that into consideration at all. I guess that's about it.
JD Right. Thank you very much for this interview. It's been wonderful to get your view point as a wife and mother in these remote areas. It's been great to listen to you speak so very, very well. Thank you.
OLIVER Thank you.
JD That is the end of this interview with Vena Oliver, wife of Ken Oliver of Borroloola, Northern Territory.
END OF TAPE 1 SIDE B
END OF INTERVIEW