The Milingimbi Fishing Industry: The story of the River Song 1960 – 1975



The crowning glory of the Milingimbi Fishing Industry RIVER SONG at Dhamala on the Glyde River steaming towards ‘White Star Landing’ and the freezers at Naŋgalala (Photograph courtesy Joyce Gullick Collection, Circa mid 1960’s)

Yolŋu people say ‘ŋuli napurr gan ninhan gapu monukŋur : We have always lived by the sea”, and so in 1961 some of the older Yolŋu men and the Milingimbi School Principal Alan Fidock sought to develop an appropriately culture based fishing enterprise at Milingimbi.[i] During the 1950’s and 1960’s this industrious group of artists provided paintings for a prosperous arts industry generating a comparative wealth for a number of senior men and giving them disposable money to buy boats.[ii] These senior men wanted boats to go fishing for their families. They collaborated in an autonomous local fishing industry which employed several important old and new techniques to catch fish. These techniques incorporated; spears, fish traps, trolling lures, baited fishing lines and the key commercial technique of gill-netting rivers for barramundi. Barramundi was at the time the most marketable of local fish, although mackerel and tuna were sometimes caught around the outer Crocodile Islands of Murruŋga and Gurriba. Local fishermen were paid for their catch and profits took care of the local business infrastructure.

My beautiful picture

L – R Bininyawuy (Nyinyimi), Dawiti, Djawa and Burranday. Painting in the shade at the park at Ŋarawundhu (Photograph courtesy Fidock Collection, 686. Circa 1965)

A good deal of the fish caught, except those for sale, were shared freely with families in accordance with Yolŋu tradition. The ethic of sharing is central to Yolŋu values and at the heart of the local industry. Many local stories extol the virtue of sharing and warn against greed[iii]. Yolŋu fishermen say they are related to the sea, and that they sing the songs of the fish and the names of the sea. When island people have caught enough fish for their needs they stop fishing. People say, ‘we are not greedy fishermen: limurr yaka ḻalkal guyaginiŋ’. It is the nature of local business that after the fish has been shared out; sometimes there was not enough Barramundi to sustain a strictly commercial fishery. Yolŋu people do not see the market as the judge of value in their relationship with each other, the sea, or the commercial interests in their fisheries; they have a far older tradition to sustain their views.[iv] While out on their sea country they are looking after the coasts, keeping up island fire regimes, beach combing and visiting important ritual sites.

My beautiful picture

RIVER SONG moored at Ŋamuyani (Photograph courtesy Fidock Collection, 939. Circa 1965)

In 1965 Yolŋu Skipper Alfred Guŋupuny Garawirrtja and Yuwati Djambarrpuyŋu went to Brisbane to pick up the new fishing boat RIVER SONG. The captain they had paid to help them learn the ropes abandoned ship on Thursday Island, leaving the young men to sail her home alone.

With the RIVER SONG’S esky filled with ice the men would take their families out to the islands to collect wurrurwurruru (sand crabs) and shellfish for bait. Children would chase and dig out the scuttling sand crabs for the fishermen, and the women would collect nyoka’ (mud crabs) for sale as part of the crabbing industry. Although a number of traditional methods for catching fish were used, like the old three prong spear djimiṉḏi’, the most prolific methods were netting and line fishing. The reason why such comparatively large quantities of fish were able to be caught by line fishing is simple; Yolŋu people really know a lot about how to catch fish. Given thousands of generations of intimate co-existence with the sea they know precisely the pattern of seasonal fish movements. They know where the different kinds of fish are, what they eat, and when and how to catch them and more interestingly they know their names, dances and their family relationships. [1]

My beautiful picture

L- R Buruminy, Djapala, Yipity (sitting), Mamukun, Banhdharawuy, Djeriŋgal, weighing fresh fish (Photograph courtesy Fidock Collection, 277. Circa 1965)

Fishing with a net catches a number of fish that do not take bait, and are so only caught in this way. These include; nyuŋala, oxeye herring, wäkuṉ, sea mullet, garkuyi, blue-tailed mullet, whereas others, such as ratjuk, barramundi are also caught with handlines. So too are djuḻurrpi, giant threadfin, and yarrwarri the queen fish. Yarrwarri were also commonly caught in good numbers trolling with a lure behind the boat, as were dhinimbu’, mackerel and tuna, warrukay, barracuda, gaḻaya, golden trevally and dhakuḏa’, white trevally. Reef fish were caught by skilful angling with baited handlines, usually with crabs or shellfish, in the lea of the tidal wash over the coral reef as the changing tide brings edible titbits within their reach. Many smaller but tasty reef fish were caught this way including; wuḻwindi, painted sweetlips, maṯpuna’, bream, bambaŋa’, red emperor, ŋarrawu, mangrove jack, wäṉḏurrk, whiting and the highly prized au, or ḏiḏimu, blue tusk fish. There is so much more to learn about fish and fishing here that it takes years of intergenerational transmission, what is patently clear is respect for sharing, kinship and continuities with local traditions remain at the heart of local ideas about fishing.

My beautiful picture

L-R Mamukun, Alfred Guŋupuny (Skipper), Big Bill Danyguli Buthurrugulil going fishing (Photograph courtesy Fidock Collection, 950. Circa 1965)

On return to Milingimbi the fishermen would sell their fish to the co-operative. Commercially valuable species like the big barramundi were processed to a very high standard of sanitation and in a style designed for sale in far flung southern markets. Those fish that were not of any commercial value were often those most highly valued by a discerning local piscatorial palate. For example, garkuyi mullet, gently roasted on mangrove twigs by the beach absorb a smoky flavour into the yellow buttery fat that has no equivalent.

My beautiful picture

Mowandjil Garawirrtja (Birrkili) filleting Barramundi for sale. (Photograph courtesy Fidock Collection, 1064. Circa 1965)

The fish that were in demand for the fishing industry were very carefully cleaned, skinned and filleted to remove all bones and others such as mackerel were cut into cutlets. Fish parts were then packed into polythene bags and frozen for markets. When time to transport came these bags were packed into waxen cardboard boxes of standard sizes and put onto planes or barges with refrigerators. This was all part of maintaining the local industry and creating enough profit to sustain the small scale local infrastructure. Experience shows that many small businesses fail even in times of an economic mining boom and small scale industries are vulnerable to shocks from powerful natural or economic influences.

When the weather got rough the captain would take the RIVER SONG to shelter at Manigarratha Creek just around the corner north of Ŋamuyani .[v] But, on the morning of April 8, 1975 the captain and everyone else was taken by surprise when Cyclone Amelia, the first cyclone after Cyclone Tracy, dashed RIVER SONG on the rocks at Ŋamuyani. There she stayed in front of the giant tamarind tree called Rulku for many years.


(Photo courtesy Milingimbi CEC, BRDU, Ŋamuyani Milingimbi Mid Circa 1970s)[vi]

The death of the RIVER SONG signalled the end of the Milingimbi fishing industry. It may have been possible to have repaired her. In 1976 the Department of Aboriginal Affairs responded, ‘in view of the need to cut government expenditure’ so only 5000 dollars was available for the fishing industry.[2] Yolŋu eagerness to participate in economic activities, while retaining their relative autonomy, married well with the activities of a local fishing industry. It provides a good example of an occasion of a shared interest, interest in fishing by locals and the market’s desire for profit, together supporting conscionable and sustainable ecological exploitation, under local direction. People continue to catch fish and share. The Crocodile Islands Rangers project was set up in part to revive the sharing of fish. In 2009 senior Australian of the year Laurie Baymarrwaŋa inaugurated the Crocodile Islands Rangers program with the expression, ‘Lima gurrku guya riya-gunhanyini ŋalimalamagu gurruṯuwaygu : We will share our fish with our kin’[vii] In the end the ethic of sharing and spiritual connection are strong moral drivers of sustainable social and ecological relations. As Alan Fidock himself says ‘the way a southern fishery is run could never have been acceptable to the people of Milingimbi.’ After all people follow the law, Rom.

Rom, nhä yuwalktja romtja wäŋaw ga guyaw ga nyoka’w?[3]

Ga dhuwal ŋapurr gan nhinan munybunuman. Ŋapurr dhu ga nhina yolŋu ga guya ŋapurr warrpam. Yolŋu, ga wäŋa ga guya, ga maypal, yakumirr, ga gurruṯumirr. Nhakun ŋaṉḏimirriŋu wo marimirriŋu, ga yuwalk riŋgitj walalaŋgu ga ŋorra, ga Dhuwa ga Yirritja warrpam. Walalaŋ dhu ga djägaŋur ga nhina. Ga wäŋa, ga guya gurruṯumirr, warrpamgu, Dhuwa ga Yirrijta ga walal dhu manapanmirr ŋurrukidhi romgu, ga dardaryun, ga djäga walaldhu. Balanya, wäŋa limurr dhu djäga, dhuwalidhi ŋapurr yaka dhu ga buma guya warrpamgum, ga ḻurrkundhu märram.

Law, what is the law for country, fish and crabs?

We have been here forever. We co-exist with the country and the fish. The people, fish, shellfish and places have names, and are connected in kinship. Similar to our relationship with our mothers, or our mother’s mothers, we have strong elemental links to other groups, and all are linked by moiety.[viii] We all care for our country and our fish, for all things. All people Dhuwa and Yirritja hold to this sacred law, we sing the songs, we take care. This is how we look after our country, this is why we don’t kill all the fish, but take just what we need.

There were many successful fishing industries spread along the northern coast housed in indigenous communities, on the Tiwi Islands, Crocker Island, Maningrida, Galiwin’ku and further afield with their histories waiting to be told and perhaps waiting to be rekindled.[ix]

Addendum –The Milingimbi Fishing Industry by Lange Powel – Fishing Advisor – 1972-75

Fishing activity at Milingimbi underwent some important changes during the first half of the 1970’s – not only because of the wrecking of the RIVER SONG, and its impact on fishing opportunity; but also because of broader developments in the United Church in Northern Australia (UCNA), and the election of the Whitlam Labour Government in December 1972.

With the RIVER SONG out of action and deemed unsalvageable, Milingimbi fishers had access to privately- or Mission-owned aluminium dinghies, powered by high-revving outboard motors.  The technology was less than ideal, both because of the vessels’ limitations of size, and because of the vulnerability of the motors to damage, drowning, inappropriate fuel/oil mixes and other mishaps.

The financial arrangements of the industry also changed from those which had applied during the 1960’s.  In 1972, men and women assigned to the fishing crews received a training allowance, related essentially to their attendance at the worksite rather than to any assessment of their catch.  In addition, the fishing enterprise was regarded by the Mission primarily as a potential revenue source – by no means an unreasonable expectation, given the financial constraints within which UCNA had to operate; but inevitably in some tension with traditional obligations around the sharing of the catch, as described earlier in this article; and also, to some extent, with emerging ideas about sustainable economic development within the management capacity and cultural ‘fit’ of the Aboriginal community.

In September 1972, UCNA appointed Lange Powell as fishing adviser on Milingimbi, assigned to work with 2 principal families with a strong history (and community reputation) as skilled fishers.  Several members are pictured elsewhere in this article.  Lange arrived after 2 years’ volunteer work in Madagascar, with a keen interest in contemporary thinking around community development in what was then commonly known as the ‘Third World’.

Unsurprisingly, Lange had more to learn from Aboriginal fishers than to teach about fishing techniques in these waters.  Instead, his contribution focussed on introducing more robust, fit-for-purpose boats and engines (consistent with the ‘intermediate technology’ ideas being advanced at the time by EF Schumacher[4]); and on assisting the fishing crews to develop a stronger appreciation of a simple cash economy related to their catch rather than on external (if more reliable) sources of income.

In practice, these endeavours found expression, at various times, in initiatives such as:

  • The purchase of 3 larger fibreglass boats, 2 with built-in iceboxes, powered by small marine diesels;
  • The training of an Aboriginal mechanic in the maintenance of this plant;
  • The trialling of a ‘mobile fish shop’ – a set of scales mounted on a Landrover which slowly wound its way through the Milingimbi camps, selling fish and crabs for cash as it went.

The Whitlam Government introduced a number of policy changes that had a profound impact on these efforts.  For example, the modest training allowance paid to fishers (and a wide range of other workers), on traditional communities was replaced by a commitment to publicly-funded award wage payments.  Wages were still unrelated to basic elements of productivity – a precarious economic approach in a primary industry environment like fishing.

Significant investment capital became available for a variety of enterprises – fishing, cattle, timber exploitation, to name three.  Although a welcome relief from the financial constraints of previous years, this measure had a number of less desirable long-term consequences in many Aboriginal communities.  These included, for example:

  • an over-investment in sophisticated and inappropriate technologies;
  • the formation of Aboriginal companies which remained reliant (and sometimes heavily so), on balanda expertise, both to direct operations and to control finances;
  • the creation of business models in which substantial loans were granted and notionally had to be repaid, but were well outside the experience and world outlook of the Aboriginal families and communities that were responsible for them.

These unintended consequences, and their undermining of what purported to be a policy of building Aboriginal self-determination, have been identified and analysed in a range of publications[5].

These developments notwithstanding, daily life for Milingimbi fishers changed relatively little during the mid-1970’s.  Line fishing remained a preferred technique over netting – often for understandable reasons.  Gill nets placed to seaward of mangroves regularly disappeared overnight under the weight of shark (bulmandji) – a species generally shunned as food by the yolŋu, and of little commercial value in Darwin; and generating a catch which resulted in a good deal of heavy work and lengthy net repairs.

Women, often with their children, continued to hunt mud crabs with djimuku [a hooked steel rod]; and this produce was, in fact, exported in modest quantities for sale.

Larger, more seaworthy boats enabled longer trips to be undertaken to more distant islands like Murruŋga – but with a clear emphasis on maintaining traditional associations with land and on gathering foods like eggs from the nests of turtles (miyapunu), in the appropriate season, rather than on seeking a commercially-richer catch.


[1] Gurruṯu, or system of kinship extends social relations to all aspects of the environment brining everything into named relationships, hence the interesting notion ‘that fish is my brother’ is not so ‘odd’ an expression to Yolŋu people.

[2] National Archives Australia Box E629.1976/10/7203 Department of Aboriginal Affairs – application for funds – Milingimbi Community Incorporated – Fishing and Crabbing.

[3] Rom, the law, includes correct behaviour in sharing, in kinship and proper practice in dance, song, and ritual, but more deeply it urges principled striving for harmony and balance in relationships in society and nature.

[4] EF Schumacher: Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered.  Blond & Briggs 1973

[5] See for example: Charlie Ward: A Handful of Sand: The Gurindji Struggle, After the Walk-off.  Monash University Publishing 2016 and Peter Sutton: The Politics of Suffering.  Melbourne University Press 2011 (second edition)

[i] Alan Fidock Pers Com 2017

[ii] David Malangi received a medallion presented by Dr. H.C. (Nugget) Combes, one 1000 dollars, with which he bought a boat, and a fishing tackle box, for his Gurrmirriŋu great hunter ancestor image on the one dollar note. Norman Daymirriŋu, grandson. Pers Com, Jenkins et al 2004:34.

[iii] Greed is reviled by Yolŋu and expressed in deprecations like; biyaŋ, gaypunhamirri, guḻga, ḻalkal; miyarrka, rakal, ŋaramutj, wangarrak. Zorc 1986.

[iv] The average price for frozen ‘barra’ circa 1960s from north east Arnhem Land was around 1.50 per kg.

[v] Alt: Maduŋgum Ck – (Walamaŋu-Yan-nhaŋu) (James et al 2003)

[vi] Milingimbi Community Education Centre Bilingual Resources Development Unit BRDU. Thankyou to Paula Madiwirr, Jenny Robins.

[vii] Laurie Baymarrwaŋa 2006 Crocodile Islands Initiative (Crocodile Islands Rangers program) History of the Crocodile Islands Rangers Unpublished notes, B. James.



Baymarrwaŋa, L., James, B. 2014, Yan-nhaŋu Atlas and Illustrated Dictionary of the Crocodile Islands. Tien wah press, Singapore & Sydney Australia.

Fidock, A., Williams, D 1982. Introducing Aboriginal Australians., The Aboriginal Austrians of north eastern Arnhem Land, Series III, the Curriculum Development Centre, Canberra, Mead and Beckett Publishing Sydney.

Jenkins. S, 2004. No ordinary place the art of David Malangi Susan Jenkins (Ed). National Gallery of Australia. NGA. ACT.

National Archives Australia Box E629.1976/10/7203 Department of Aboriginal Affairs – application for funds – Milingimbi Community Incorporated – fishing and crabbing.

Zorc, R. D. P. 1986. Yolngu Matha Dictionary. Batchelor, NT: School of Australian Linguistics, Darwin Institute of Technology.


A very big thank you to: Alan and Lillian Fidock for their enormous contribution over the years and their wonderful photographic record of an amazing period. Thanks also to Joyce Gullick who, with her husband Clem and son, who worked with Yolŋu in East Arnhem Land for many years in the commercial fishing industry that operated at Galiwinku Elcho Island in the 1960’s. Thank you to Ted Whittaker who worked at Milingimbi for years and brought our attention to this photo of the Rivers Song that appeared on the ALPA RJCP face book site under the title. “EAST ARNHEM’S ECONOMIC PAST: 2015-05-27. Thanks also to Ross Campbell from the Galiwin’ku fishing industry, son Don Gindha, and daughter Sonia, for their friendship and knowledge. Thanks to Ruben and his wife and their son David Collins for their work and companionship at Milingimbi and at Elcho. Thank you to Sue Raeburn, Kay Thurlow, Henry Harper and Margret Miller who have in one way or another been behind so many positive projects of over the years. More thanks goes to my mother Michele Barratawuy Garrawurra, and elders; Colin Yerrilil Djambarrpuyŋu, Master Joe Baŋguli Wangurri, Nellie Milindirri Gupapuyŋu, Susan Balbuŋa Warrawarra, Judy Djinmalina Gamalaŋga, Norman Daymirriŋu and to Sandra, Michael, John and Mathew Garawirrtja for their help. Thank you to Baymarrwaŋa.

[viii] Dhuwa and Yirritja are two halves, or moieties of the Yolŋu system of thought that divides the world into two categories, classifying every aspect of the physical and spiritual world. These moieties are characterised by complementary reciprocal relations understood to create the fundamental conditions for life. (Baymarrwaŋa and James 2014:26)

[ix] Text and research Bentley James.

2 thoughts on “The Milingimbi Fishing Industry: The story of the River Song 1960 – 1975

  1. Paul Neary says:

    I enjoyed reading this article, I wonder if someone could send a greeting to Paula Madiwirr, I was her teacher in 1975!! Very happy to see her contributions acknowledged in this article

  2. David Morgan says:

    An interesting history Bentley – thank you. However, I did notice one minor error of fact – the Riversong was already a hulk on the beach adjacent to Top Camp when I arrived at Milingimbi in mid-1972 (and was already in a quite broken-down state) so it must have come to grief at some time prior to that date.

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