About This Week’s Guest

Stephan Schnierer

Stephan Schnierer works on Indigenous cultural fishing rights and has extensive knowledge and experience in fisheries biology and management, Indigenous fisheries and traditional fishing knowledges.

This week on Saltwater Library, Stephan Schnierer talks about the importance of accounting for Indigenous cultural rights, knowledges and practices in how we take care of coasts and oceans.

Discussed in this Episode

  • Indigenous ecological knowledges
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s cultural fishing rights
  • Marine parks
  • Coastal management
  • Relationships to place
  • Settler colonial politics
  • Fishing
  • Surfing
  • Arakwal Country
  • Byron Bay

Episode Transcript

[00:00:02] Rebecca Olive: Hello, and welcome to Saltwater Library, a podcast about our relationships to coasts and oceans.

The Saltwater Library team acknowledges the Jaggera and Turrbal people as the traditional owners of the land and waterways where this podcast is produced. We acknowledge their elders and ancestors, their young people, and recognize their sovereignty was never ceded.

[00:00:35] Rebecca Olive: I’m Rebecca Olive and I research ocean sports and physical activities like swimming surfing and sailing. I’m interested in how these spots shape our relationships to coast and oceans, in who has access to these sports, and how more people can get involved.

[00:00:53] Rebecca Olive: Stephan Schnierer is a researcher, with a focus on indigenous cultural fishing. He has extensive knowledge and experience in fisheries biology and management Indigenous fisheries and traditional fishing knowledges.

Cultural fishing is a topic that’s close to his family and community, and Stephan’s long been committed to advocating for the rights of Indigenous people to maintain their cultural fishing practices, and to ensure Aboriginal cultural fishing practices are recognized in Australian fisheries legislation. The respect for his expertise is reflected in the many, many advisory roles he holds with local, state and national governing bodies, including as a founding member of the Indigenous Reference Group that advises the Australian Government to ensure indigenous fishing rights. And he’s worked on advisory committees for the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council, the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries, and as a member for the independent expert panel for the Australian Government’s ‘Reef 2050’ plan. He’s an Honorary Associate Professor at the School of Environment Sciences and Engineering at Southern Cross University, where he was also a founder of the first Aboriginal studies college in Australia. My first knowledge of Stephan was from the surf where I always admired the skill and joy that he brought to his wave riding. But today I’m really pleased to be able to talk with Stephan to learn more about his work, and about the relationships to oceans in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural practices.

[00:02:17] Rebecca Olive: Thanks so much for talking with me Stephan. So we’re meeting today on the country of Arakwal people. And this is the area where we both grew up so I wondered if to start our conversation today, you could tell me a bit about your relationship to this place and how it’s shaped the work that you’ve come to do.

[00:02:36] Stephan Schnierer: First of all, I’ll say that this is not my traditional country. This is the traditional country of the Arakwal people. I grew up down the Belongil Creek, Childe St, just to the north of Byron Bay. And Linda Vidler grew up down there with her children and she’s one of the TOs [traditional owners] for this area. So yes, I was born here in 1955 in the hospital in the middle of town and spent my first 12-18 months with my mother and father at Wategos Beach in my grandfather’s old house there, Murray Watego, who the beach was named after. It used to be called Lighthouse Beach but it was renamed in I think it was the 50s to Wategos Beach. So I grew up and eventually my parents moved to the other end of town, as I mentioned before, Childe St, the Belongil, bought a little fishing shack down there, and that’s where I lived until eventually I went to university in the early 70s in Brisbane.

[00:03:44] Stephan Schnierer: The connection with the environment that we had down there [at Belongil] was, I look back and it was wonderful. We fished in the sea, we fished and crabbed in the Belongil Creek and that was that was basically to get a feed for the family. It introduced me to the marine environment and its connection with land environment, via the Belongil Creek. So I became very interested, my father was a fisherman and my mother also love to fish.

And in the late 40s she had one of the first commercial fishing licenses, as a black woman in New South Wales. That commercial license allowed her and her brothers to be able to fish for tailor and mullet using a net on Wategos Beach. And my on my father’s side, he was an avid fisherman. In fact he built the house that we eventually grew up in, down on Childe St, from money that he made from fishing in Byron Bay, off the coast here. And his grandfather was a fisherman on the Danube in Hungary. So I have a strong connection.

[00:04:54] Stephan Schnierer: So When I grew up, you’d go to sleep at night, listening to the sea, listening to the waves break and that was what helped us kids go to sleep. The sea is an important part of my life. It always has been and I have always chosen to live near the sea, apart from a short stint in Brisbane at university. But I must say that while I was at university if I had a day where there was a few lectures free, time between lectures and pracs or whatever, I’d scoot off down to Burleigh Heads to get a wave or if I had a bit longer I’d go up to Noosa and get a wave up there. But my favourite place for surfing was at home, particularly The Pass in Byron Bay and Broken Head and Lennox to a lesser extent. Just that connection with the sea. Being near, being next to it, being on it and even being under it.

[00:05:52] Stephan Schnierer: As kids we used to swim and quite often we’d walk up to the Main Beach from our place, took about 20-30 minutes and we’d swim out to the wreck, which is quite a famous left hand break, right hand break there. And we’d skin dive, with our own little broom stick with a bike tube that was the thing that you stretched and attached to the front was a pointed thing made out of some thick wire that was used for fencing. We’d beat the end down, flatten it out and then sharpen it and that became the spearhead so we had, like, a hand spear. And we’d go out on the wreck, [a sunken shipwreck] called the Tassie II, and you’d dive there and maybe get a flathead or something like that.

Or we’d fish off the jetty which was close to us, the second jetty that was built north of the main beach there, that was used during the whaling season, when the whales were migrating and the whaling boat would go out and harpoon them off the Cape, drag them back into the jetty, and they’d be pulled around the corner and cut up and turned into whale oil. And I guess my first stunning experience of marine life is as a little child, standing beside the jetty watching these huge creatures being pulled up into a trailer type thing, round to the flensing station and then going around there and watching these things being cut up. It was the start of many experiences in the marine space and the estuary space and the freshwater space, of the species that lived in the water and under the water. All I ever wanted to know as a kid was more about them.

[00:07:48] Stephan Schnierer: Certainly, we’d get to see quite a bit of the marine life. When I first walked out on the jetty was like walking across the world, because up to that point, the experience with the sea was mainly from the shoreline and trying to get out to the break, catching waves. But when you walk out the jetty you’re above all that and you’re not being pounded or getting wet or whatever. And you actually walk out and you can be like this, almost like god-like, just looking down and seeing all the fish swimming around. Used to fascinate me. I could spend just as much sitting on the jetty, looking into the sea as fishing.

[00:08:36] Rebecca Olive: So fishing has always been a big part of your life and your family history.

[00:08:52] Rebecca Olive: And so now your work is to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s rights to continue cultural fishing practices in different places. So what are cultural fishing rights and why are these rights so important?

[00:09:07] Stephan Schnierer: Well, cultural fishing rights it’s a term that mob here will use to describe what we believe is an activity has always been used to catch fish. A as far as we’re concerned that when this country was invaded and subsequently colonised, people were separated from their country by being out on mission and reserves, especially on the coast here. So the ability to engage in that activity was never given up. No one said, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re happy to do. We’re gonna live over here and not do that anymore, not catch fish anymore.’ It wasn’t given up. And quite forceful tactics were used to stop people from doing that. And the word rights is a way of describing that activity and being able to do it.

Subsequently, the definition of rights and that sort of thing has been played out internationally in all sorts of spaces. Particularly after the second world war and in the United Nations was establishing conventions of human rights and that sort of thing.

But it took quite a few years before the international community started recognizing Indigenous people had a certain set of rights associated with the fact that they were in particular environments for long periods of time. And in those countries that were subsequently colonised and those rights were taken away that in fact there should be something done to restore some of those rights, if possible. And a lot of the work in that space happened in the 80s, 90s, early 2000s in the environmental space and also the human space, and it was about recognition internationally that Indigenous people have certain rights to cultural practice. They’ve got the right to be able to practice their culture. Now if part of the culture is fishing, then if you say you’ve got cultural rights, then you’ve got fishing rights, if that’s what you were doing.

So in Australia, when the place was invaded and then colonised and people were disconnected and taken away from the places that they lived in, that they gathered their resources, biological resources etcetera from and at the same time utilizing the knowledge of those biological resources in space and time, that is, where are they and when’s the best time to catch them?

For example by biological resources, you can read fish as a subset of that. By taking people away from those sorts of areas you’ve disrupted cultural practice. You’ve disrupted the connections people have with those resources, fish resources. And you’ve disrupted  and the ability of people to maintain an ongoing maintenance of their knowledge of those species, and that is a right to have that. It’s a right that’s been recognized internationally under the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People. But also under less specific conventions like the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, which is one of the few international, environmental conventions that explicitly says if we’re going to do something about protecting biological diversity in this world, we have to recognize that in those ecosystems, there were, in most cases, Indigenous people in those areas where the biodiversity if being impacted.

So if we’re going to do something, i.e. manage it, have strategies about how to protect it, we have to recognise there may be people there, that they’re utilizing these [ecologies] in some way, and that the sorts of management strategies that we want to put there, they may impact those ongoing [cultural] practices. This then has a flow on effect to the maintenance of the knowledge.

[00:12:48] Rebecca Olive: So cultural fishing is about a lot more than just the right to access a food source.

[00:12:51] Stephan Schnierer: It is. When you talk to mob you’ll find that they talk about fishing in a certain way. Yes, we go out to get a feed, but get a feed but while I’m out there I’m on my Country and I feel 10 years younger in this space. And I’m connecting with some of these culturally important species that we utilize as a food source, but also has other spiritual and symbolic meaning for people.

[00:13:16] Rebecca Olive: So I’ve heard you refer to this as Indigenous ecological knowledge,

[00:13:22] Stephan Schnierer: This is the beginning of this thing about knowledge. Because I guess in the management space in the environment management space, the spaces about managing biodiversity, when the recognition that we were basically driving biodiversity richness down from the 70s onwards, there was a call to do something about it, and that led to the Convention on Biodiversity. But having made some sort of pledge to do it, how do you go about doing it? Well, we need to know something about what’s happening. So the first thing that people went to was the science. And the scientists studying in this space, they had good, strong knowledge about biodiversity, about species, about fishing and through that knowledge we will have a better understanding about how we should manage them.

In the early days it was not necessarily recognized that Indigenous people also have knowledge about these species. That changed, subsequently through the CBD (UN Convention on Biological Diversity) process that there is a deep, long knowledge of the species that are on people’s country and that knowledge also has value.

[00:17:34] Stephan Schnierer: Unfortunately, in the 50s when anthropologists who were working with indigenous communities, particularly in the Pacific and other areas discovered that these people know quite a lot about species in their area, about what you can eat and can’t eat, about what’s poisonous and what’s not, and what they use for medicines. They stumbled on a rich source of knowledge that could be utilized eventually by pharmacological enterprises and agri-business and that sort of thing. And there was a lot of what essentially shifted from exploitation of Indigenous tangible cultural ownership to Indigenous intangible, so the exploitation of indigenous knowledge to develop new pharmaceutical products. That’s only one example of Indigenous knowledge in terms of the value. There’s other knowledge that people have about the species and where you find them and when you find them and that kind of thing. And I refer to it as ‘Indigenous knowledge’ and, if you like, a subset of that is ‘Indigenous ecological knowledge’, rather than ‘traditional ecological knowledge’, or TEK, which was the acronym that was made up by white fellas in probably the 70s, or 80s, to put a name on what was essentially Indigenous knowledge systems. I use that term because ‘traditional’ has a sense of locking it into a particular period of time and they go ‘oh yeah, yeah, so that stuff was in the past, so it’s probably not as relevant today’. And Indigenous people having been around a long time in their environment, observing their environment, knowing what’s in that environment what can be used, what can’t be used, how it should be used, how it should be managed. So Indigenous management systems, environmental management systems, are all based on knowledge people gathered.

So if you think about a people living in an environment they get to understand the environment they live in, what’s there, how it’s connected to other things, how it relates to them, how it’s connected to them. That knowledge eventually condenses into a worldview, and from that worldview flows out the rules and regulations about, well, how do I interact with the environment? Should I take that or shouldn’t I take that? And that’s what white fellas refer to as ‘customary law’, but Aboriginal people prefer the term ‘Aboriginal law/lore’. And I must say here that the use of the word ‘Indigenous’ is more of a global sort of term, and it has been used in Australia because in Australia we have Aboriginal people but also Torres Strait Islander people. So, if I’m flicking back and forward between them, I try to make sure if I use the word ‘Aboriginal’ that’s in a space where that is the Indigenous groups for that area. If I was in the Torres Strait, I would be preferring Torres Strait Islanders.

[00:17:36] Rebecca Olive: So something I’ve found interesting in hearing you speak in other spaces, is that they can be tensions between the establishment of marine parks and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s rights to continue cultural fishing practices. And maybe other practices too? But I think it’s easy to assume that marine parks are a universal environmental good, they protect the ecology.  in part three universal environmental glues they protect the ecology. But can you tell us a bit about some of the tensions and challenges that they can pose around Aboriginal cultural fishing rights?

[00:18:08] Stephan Schnierer: So, protected areas. The concept of protected areas has been around for quite a while.

In fact, Aboriginal communities actually had protected areas, sacred areas. They also had what were known as ‘increase sites’ in certain rivers, where people shouldn’t fish because it just so happens that pool was a deep pool with the big logs in it where the Murray cod spawned. So you know this sort of thing, you know the importance of that, therefore we should behave this way relation that. That concept of a way of managing biological space in your space, it’s been around for quite a while.

It’s also been around in Western society, particularly in America where you’ve got Yellowstone National Park and that national park was set up for a particular reason, to try and maintain the natural scenic value of an area. So protected areas is a concept we do use if we think about managing natural, whatever ‘natural’ means, for the natural environment.

But big issue really was how do you select them? And they got the scientists to come on board and say, ‘well, tell us what the biodiversity is in New South Wales? Is it all the same?’ No, because if it was all the same then you’d just pick a couple [of areas]. ‘So, no, it’s a bit different up there, it’s a bit different here, it’s a bit different there. Alright, so we should take samples of each one and then make marine parks, yeah?’ That’s the way to do it.

With Aboriginal people in New South Wales, you have to realise there’s a number of traditional Owners along the coast of New South Wales, starting with the Bundjalung with the various groups of Bundjalung including the Arakwal, Gumbaynggir, Dunghutti, etcetera, in Sydney and then further south. Now, those people had boundaries. They knew their Country. They knew the resources in that Country and the cultural connections with that Country. This is before they were removed over the 200-year period. But still, people remained connected.

Now some of those marine parks, the boundaries when they established them were obviously going to go across someone’s Country. But the Government at the time, even though I was pushing them to engage TOs [Traditional Owners], if in this process they had an area in mind the first thing they had to do, before they did anymore science or study or anything, was to go and talk to the TOs in the area and let them know what you’re about to do because you’re going to create a management system over the top of their traditional Country, for which they still have rights, that’s going to impact them in all sorts of ways.

Particularly, if, as we all think of marine parks as areas where you shouldn’t do too much fishing, which Aboriginal people do fishing, they do other things in these marine parks, then you’re going to create another system of management overlying and potentially impacting their cultural fishing or cultural practice rights.

[00:20:50] Rebecca Olive: So it’s another system of exclusion of culture practice?

[00:21: 21:52] Stephan Schnierer: If people who are doing this aren’t aware of the history, aren’t aware of the current situation, aren’t aware of the current conventions and what legislation says cause the EPBC Act [Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999] is quite clear upfront, it says that nothing in this Act should prevent the maintenance of traditional knowledge and the customary use of biological resources. It sits there, it’s right there. But here we have something that gets set up, and unless you explain to people why you are doing it and you cut a space for people to continue their practices in it, then you’re going to override those rights.

The trouble that governments have is these ‘special circumstances’. It’s one thing to me, ‘you’re gonna plonk something down here and you’re going to impact those people’s rights and they should be allowed to continue fishing’. What happens is all these other stakeholders, like the recreational fishing group and conservation groups too, who should know better, come in and say, ‘well, hang on, this is to protect biodiversity, why should Aboriginal people be able to take biodiversity from it’?

A classic example of this played out in a big way is up in Queensland on the Great Barrier Reef where there are still Aboriginal communities, and Torres Strait Islander communities that hunt dugong and it’s a primary food source. It doesn’t mean that in 200 years that  exploitation rate has changed in a way that potentially threatens it [dugongs] but they still have a right to do that. And so we’ve seen up there, quite often, scientists coming out and making bold statements about these impacts and conservationists latching onto the very people who for many years have been supportive of Indigenous people, and turning around and saying ‘no, there are certain things that shouldn’t be allowed, and some people have got to wear it’. Well, personally, I don’t accept that because I think that, you know, if we can put a man on the moon then we can certainly work out ways of sustainably looking after the marine environment that doesn’t necessarily need to have that kind of exclusion thing happening.

Really, do you need marine parks? If the fisheries are being managed sustainably with an ecosystems-based approach, do you? If it’s about, okay, it’s not so much that, it’s about the run-off [from farms], then we need to deal with that as a land practice issue. You know, stop the people from mucking up the rivers and catchments that flow into these places and turn them around a bit. I mean there are other ways of doing it. Marine parks, protected areas, are a quick fix or tool.

So, the impact of protected areas in the marine space on the coast in terms of cultural practice is that you had a management regime being plonked on top of an existing TOs [Traditional Owners] framework. Things are changing because we’ve gone through the Marine Parks Authority to some something called MEMA, the [New South Wales] Marine Estate Management Authority, and some of the people are looking in there now, trying to work on how those Aboriginal cultural practices can be fitted. I hate saying it, fitted, because I think they’re part of it and don’t need to be fitted into the system. I keep saying, hang on, you’re creating a marine park to protect the biodiversity in this region and the Convention says Indigenous people are part of that, and their knowledge and practices, so the marine park should be protecting them too. Otherwise, what are you doing? ‘Oh, we’re protecting pristine environments.’ What’s a pristine environment? Are you talking 200 years ago, 230 years ago? Or are we talking 60,000 years ago or are you talking 200,000 years ago? Sometimes these powerful words like ‘pristine’ and ‘protection’ get used very liberally and can have significant impacts on people.

[00:24:32] Rebecca Olive: As is clear from your knowledge of all this legislation, you work a lot with governments, but your advocacy is also based on research that comes from your relationships with communities. How hard is it to navigate all of these knowledges that you hold together in your advocacy?

[00:24:54] Stephan Schnierer: So I’ve got to go back a step here to come to where we are talking now. The things I, I was trained as a scientist and I believe that science is very powerful way of understanding the world around us. And it’s a universalising sort of way of looking at the world. Local knowledge systems, for example, Indigenous local knowledge systems, and you can have white fella local knowledge systems too. In this Byron Bay area there are a lot of white fellas I grew up with, whose families have a long history in Byron Bay, and fished right through all that time and they’ve built up knowledge too, about these systems. So, local knowledge systems, they can be really deep, long ones like in the Indigenous communities, they can also be ones that have been around 200-300 years. So, we’ve got this things called scientific knowledge the science is generates through research. A scientist goes out and he takes a quick picture, then he comes out another three months later and he takes another quick picture, takes another quick picture and by quick picture I mean he collects some fish and measures them and that sort of thing. The he, or she, takes that back into the laboratory, or their office, sits down and crunches the numbers through a computer and it spits out a model or it generates a curve. And you look at that curve and suddenly you have a blinding insight into what might be going on out there. And that blinding insight it can be used in a predictive way to help develop the right sort of strategies.

So I might be doing the science a disservice here. But essentially they’re trying to get a picture of the world in this methodological way, but it’s taking snapshots. With local knowledge systems, the snapshots have been taken every day on a constant basis, so people in place there. They’re not necessarily taking that knowledge sticking it in a computer. It’s just accumulating. And over the years of seeing it you start to put things together in your mind to explain what’s going on there. Over great periods of doing it you do get a reasonable picture of your world. Not necessarily I would say, how the world came to be like that. But certainly the world as it’s seen, and as a knowledge system.

So, I was trained as a scientist, but my brother came to me one day and said ‘you should. Look at some traditional Indigenous knowledges in the fisheries space. It was starting to get a little more prominence. The Bundjalung elders [Traditional Owners] said the same thing to me and so I started to go into that space. And I realized I couldn’t give up my beliefs about science. I mean, you look at the hammer, it’s a tool for nailing something, for hitting a nail in the wall. But in the wrong hands it can be quite a brutal weapon. Science is the same. You generate knowledge and it’s how that knowledge gets used, and for what purpose. Depending on what the values the people hold when they’re using it. And then we’ve got these local knowledge systems that also need to be fitted into the equation.

What I found was that because I understood this one and this one, I could act in these sort of advisory capacity capacities on these advisory bodies that were being established over the last 20 years. In environmental management, and I use that loosely, fisheries management, biodiversity management, that sort of thing, where science is a big factor but then Indigenous cultural rights, how does that fit into the scientists saying ‘we’re objective and, you know, this is what the data is telling us and if we don’t do this then this is what’s going to happen’. I’m saying yeah, but you know, if we do that then the Indigenous people are going to impacted by the way and you have a moral right under the various Conventions to address that kind of thing.

[00:28:31] Rebecca Olive: So legislation and policy become kind of a tool as well, like your description of the hammer can be used to be productive and useful ,or it can be used to do damage as well. So working with legislation is another part of that toolkit?

[00:28:43] Stephan Schnierer: If the legislation is developed in consultation. Now remember that legislation is a white man’s institution. It’s part of a legal institution. If you go back originally, it was common law, then you got into this legislation. Common law was historically through experience, and so we do have a lot of common law and that’s the same with Aboriginal people. Legislative law is law that gets created by a Parliament, supposedly voted in by a public, that wants new law in a space. The problem for Aboriginal people is that quite often their rights are necessarily taken into consideration. It has an indirect impact that’s not seen by the people that are developing it. That’s what they need people to sit there and say, ‘that’s what that’s going to lead to if you do that’. Some legislation is good and is done in consultation. But in Australia we have the historical enmity to white fella legal systems because they’ve basically been used to lock [Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander] people up. They haven’t been there really to protect people’s rights. They’ve been there to secure the rights of other people in terms of their access to resources.

You know, the south coast, it’s horrific what’s going on down there with those abalone guys. You’ve still got people fronting court, and potentially going to gaol for collecting large number of abalone above the bag limit, to feed community. Because it’s seen as a commercial catch, and they get stiff fines and gaol time. So there’s a real hard element to this stuff that comes out in terms of blocking cultural practice, and it’s the legislation that’s doing it, because it’s only recognizing the particular values that a certain group have with abalone, and that’s a dollar value. It’s not the cultural value. The cultural value is the connection of being on Country, being able to go out and do what  you’ve always done, you know diving for these things, collectin them, taking them on shore and distributing them to the community, it’s the way they’ve always done it. Now, it’s not to say there could be some guy that’s not doing the right thing, but there’s also a lot of people that want to be able to do the right thing, but they can’t.

[00:31:20] Stephan Schnierer: Anyway, surfing.

[00:31:23] Rebecca Olive: Surfing! We should talk a bit about surfing! Well, that actually is the next question. Because I used to see you at The Pass going down, you always got these great set waves so I noticed, yeah. And so a lot of the issues that we’re kind of talking about, about access and Indigenous knowledges, ecological knowledges, they play out in the surf too.

[00:31:41] Stephan Schnierer: For me, surfing is hugely, hugely a personal, solitary thing. Which, might be hard to understand for some people because when you see a good surf break there’s lots of people out there. I’ve been around it a long time. I’ve surfed The Pass since the late 60s, early 70s. And, constantly, over all those years, more so than a lot of other locals, and so I’ve seen progression of grommets, and I was a grommet at one point, to the earlier crew, but we had a certain relationship in those days that when you were surfing there was an understanding, you know, this is The Pass, that’s yam rock, that’s where Lepi or Ian Denham, that’s where he got smashed one time, when a wave just picked him up and put him on the rock and we all sat there and just were amazed. You know, and we shared the waves. And then you get the influx of people from Sydney and that, when the surf was really on on the Gold Coast, and we’d always get a bit of aggravation and irritation, and that’s how it was.

But I’ve seen so many different generations now and I’ve found that over those years that what’s been happening in surfing has just made me more about, I wanna go out and be on the water, first. I want to be paddling on the water, that’s first. So quite often I won’t surf. I’ll paddle from Clarkes around to The Cape, past Wategos Beach, and places like that, and all these spots along that paddling path that I’ve surfed and got memories of. If I do that paddle quite often as I go past, those memories come, and I like it. I like doing that. And then I might get a wave at The Cape. Then I’ll come into Wategos and I’ll get a wave, and I’ll think about my family and the connection that we have there, and Johnny and Jimmy and Leonie and them that used to surf there all the time. I’ll come around to the cliffs, and I’ll remember the time when Nat Young almost drowned in there and one of my cousins saved him. Then I’ll get to then end, to The Pass, which is one of my favourite places, and I’ll catch a wave there, sit down near Thommo’s and catch another wave back to Clarkes. That’s starting to be more how I surf, unless it’s really cranking and then I’ll just hang on the point and take as many waves as I can get til I can’t walk. Got to struggle out of the water.

I had a near-death experience out there this year that sort of woke me up to how old I am. So, um, I’m sort of slowing down in terms of the size of stuff. A lot can happen.

[00:34:33] Stephan Schnierer: Seeing the generations of surfers and the switching attitudes of, it’s almost like, ‘look at me’ now. You know, you’ve gotta get out there and do aerials and go like a steam train, like there’s some kind of competition happening. When I see that sort of personality out in the surf, I’ll sort of look around to see where is the speakers and, you know, the bloke saying ‘okay next crew go out there’ and away you go. It’s become selfish in a different sort of sense. I mean, money’s come into it in a big sort of way. I gave a talk at one of the surf festivals, you know the one? A couple of years back.

[00:35:14] Rebecca Olive: Oh, the Byron Bay Surf Festivals?

[00:35:16] Stephan Schnierer: Yeah, you know the one. They have the stalls and everyone comes down there and it’s like walking through this fantasy world. Anyway, they got me up, and I said you know you guys are practising a culture that actually belongs to another culture? It belongs to Hawaiian people. And you know, when I go out, I always think about that. This is Australia, and another country, the US, has appropriated this culture, and they’ve taken it in a certain direction, which I think is ugly, and also the ugliness of it’s spilled off into the attitudes that surfers have out there these days, you know. The aggression. And I’ll tell you one of the things I really do like about what’s happened is that there are more women surfing. It’s great to have that kind of diversity now, and we’re just waiting for when we can see more African people out there surfing and more Muslim surfers coming up and visiting and enjoying Byron Bay, you know, because it is a very white, very white thing out there.

[00:36:19] Stephan Schnierer: I believe all species have a right to exist. Even cane toads. Um, unfortunately they do a lot of damage in Australia, but I can’t bring myself to actually kill one.

[00:36:28] Rebecca Olive: Yeah, it’s not their fault is it? They were brought in.

[00:36:32] Stephan Schnierer: They were brought in, and there’s a lot of species like that here now. And as much as I’m very wary and afraid of sharks, I don’t think they’re setting out to get back at humans.

[00:36:41] Rebecca Olive: It’s not personal.

[00:36:43] Stephan Schnierer: It’s not personal, no. it’s just business.

[00:36:51] Stephan Schnierer: The problem is there is some interest from these surfers about the natural environment and the issue of sharks, and the issue of fishing and the issue of marine parks. But I just wonder sometimes whether it’s just an opportunity to distract me from catching the wave, or if it’s to learn something. And I feel like saying, ‘guys, there’s plenty of information available if you want’, and you should do it. If you’re really concerned, get out there, find out where there’s some information and learn a little bit about it. It won’t take you very long, you know. Anyone who’s got a computer and the internet these days can find this stuff on the NSW website, there’s a great thing about the whole shark issue, and how they’re trying to manoeuvre their way through pandering to the business community’s worries that something’s going to look bad tourism wise therefore there’s no money coming to the area, therefore we should put nets off there that kills dolphins, turtles, and I’ve seen the stats down here off Ballina. Um, they don’t use the nets off here anymore. And the tonnage of by-catch that was being buried, anonymously, from these nets. And that’s just to catch maybe one or two sharks that can actually swim around the nets anyway, sometimes. Okay, drum lines is less. Using the drum line to trigger something that enables a bloke to come out, get it off the thing, tag it, drag it out to sea and let it go. It means later on we can detect it if it’s near one of these things [Smart drum line]. But the reality is that these new young sharks coming through each year, coming up, these one, they’re the ones that are causing problems.

But understand that stuff. When are they there? Are they there all the year round? No, whites aren’t there all the year round, they come at a certain time. Okay? Just learning something like that. There’s literature. Read it. Bull sharks. They tend to hang around those river mouths, especially after floods, or when the mullet are migrating. Okay, should we surf then? Well that’s up to you. I wouldn’t.

[00:38:50] Rebecca Olive: ‘Here’s the knowledge, you make a decision.’

[00:38:52] Stephan Schnierer: Empower yourself.

[00:38:53] Rebecca Olive: That kind of comes, I guess, in a way to my last question. Given everything we’ve been talking about today, what’s one key thing that people can do or change in their behaviour to take better care of oceans and coasts?

[00:39:07] Stephan Schnierer: It takes trigger. Unless you actually confronted with it, with a trigger like a shark attack or a marine park being set up or a change to a marine park management plan that grabs their attention, if it doesn’t grab their attention they’re not gonna know. Why won’t they know? Let’s go back 10 years, 20 years in their life history to when they were in a school that should have taught them about human connection with the environment, as well as maths, as well english and as well as science, as a key life skill for a being that they are in an ecosystem, and the sorts of things that happen in an ecosystem, like disease, degradation, etcetera, etcetera, and start to build basic elements in kids’ minds through that system. And when they get older and older and older, suddenly they’ll start using that kind of stuff themselves to ask the questions and find out about ‘are there other ways?’ Can you put pressure on politicians? What can you do? Maybe there’s some things that you can do around the house? I don’t know.

But there are sometimes things that require you to be part of civil society and as a citizen you have a lot of power and a vote, so exercise that vote. But exercise it based on your best understanding of the issue. So if it’s a marine space issue, I don’t’ know anything about it, well you can find out about it. And then make sure that your kids, when they go to school, you ask the school, ‘are you teaching them anything about marine biology or anything like that?’ Put pressure on the school and make sure it’s in the curriculum. Um, it’s a difficult task. I’ve tried since the 2000s to bring in that as a school as part of your knowledge system.

We’re so disconnected today from the environment. You want to eat fish, you can go and get a tin of tuna from Woolworths. You don’t have to go out on a boat with a rod or a hand line and try and catch one, and maybe not catch one. You can go and buy it. I don’t understand all the other things that go on with the lifecycle of a tuna. I don’t learn about it because I’m not part of that.

So imagine a world without Woolworth or Coles [supermarkets], you know. For some of these basic things that come from the natural environment, and because we’re disconnected, we accept person-made solutions, which is ‘we’ve stuffed the marine environment up, let’s have some, um, massive aquaculture farms’.

[00:41:40] Rebecca Olive: When we’re activated or triggered by an issue we need to develop an ecological understanding of that issue to then respond to it.

[00:41:50] Stephan Schnierer: Yeah, and I think people are afraid of that because it’s hard work. And there’s a little book that the Australian Marine Society was putting out for quite a while, that listed all of these species that people can eat with a little red or yellow or green thing beside it which indicated whether or not the accrediting body for that thought that they were being caught sustainably. Read it. Have a look at it. The only way you’ll get that kind of change in an economic system is not to buy the product. Hold the people accountable for it. You need a large number of people doing that.

[00:42: 25] Rebecca Olive: Stephan thank you so much for your time. And your insights.

[00:42:33] Rebecca Olive: I hope you enjoyed this episode of Saltwater Library. It was produced by Hannah Reardon-Smith with music by cyberBanshee and art and design by Amelia Hine. Funding is from the Australian Research Council, and The University of Queensland.

For more information on Saltwater Library and the project it’s part of, you can visit www.movingoceans.com.

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Previous Episodes

  • Swim Sisters
    with Yusra Metwally
  • Saltwater Library: Introduction
    with Rebecca Olive