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Tasmanian aborigines and muttonbirding : an historical examination


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Skira, Irynej Joseph 1993 , 'Tasmanian aborigines and muttonbirding : an historical examination', PhD thesis, University of Tasmania.

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The Tasmanian muttonbird, scientifically called the short-tailed shearwater Puffinus
tenuirostris probably obtained its name because its flesh tasted like mutton. Over 80
percent of the world's population of 23 million birds breed in Tasmania, with the largest
' rookeries on the islands of Bass Strait. The bird has an egg-laying season of remarkable
constancy enabling commercial exploitation to be carried out to a strict calendar. The
term "muttonbirding" defines the capture of the bird, its killing and its processing into a
product fit for human consumption.
The remains of muttonbirds have been found in archaeological sites in Tasmania and
mainland Australia, but the meagre number present suggests that the birds were not an
important food source to the Aborigines.
In 1798 the seal colonies of Bass Strait were discovered and exploited by nonAboriginal
sealers to near extinction. The sealers who remained took Aboriginal women
for "wives". The population grew slowly, based on a subsistence muttonbird economy.
By 1872 the descendants of white sealer-Aboriginal women liaisons constituted just 40
percent of the total 27 4 people in the Fumeaux Group, as immigrants took up leases of.
islands once occupied by the descendants and eventually for~ed them onto Cape Barren
Island. The area they settled on Cape Barren Island was 'declared a Reserve in 1881,
and became an enclave requiring laws and government money to administer. Having
very little income, the annual harvesting of muttonbirds was the highlight of the year to
these people.
The immigrant settlers also looked to muttonbirding to sustain them through hard times,
and to pay off mortgagees. By the early 1900s up to 400 people participated in the
annual season. In the 1920s, catches of up to one million birds were recorded. Such a
locally important industry required regulations to be frequently gazetted to conserve the
birds, for administrative purposes, and to bring about hygiene in the presentation of the
muttonbird for human consumption. The industry enticed some people into believing
that t~ey could make much money by buying and selling birds, even as recently as the
1980s. All such enterprises collapsed. Nowadays, the total catch is approximately
150,000 birds annually, with the largest number coming from islands in northwest
In recent years there have been protests against the taking of muttonbirds by amateur
muttonbirders as people have become more environmentally conscious. These protests
resulted in the closure of many traditional rookeries around Tasmania, but left the
industry unscathed.
The future of the industry largely lies in the hands of the young generation of
muttonbirders. As long as there are people who believe strongly in the tradition of
muttonbirding, and people who will eat muttonbirds, there will probably be an industry.
The short length and ready accessibility of nesting burrows, easy landings, and the close
proximity of the resource to human settlements are the main reasons why the industry
existed and has persisted in Tasmania.

Item Type: Thesis - PhD
Authors/Creators:Skira, Irynej Joseph
Keywords: Muttonbirding, Short-tailed shearwater, Aboriginal Tasmanians, Aboriginal Tasmanians
Copyright Holders: The Author
Copyright Information:

Copyright 1993 the Author - The University is continuing to endeavour to trace the copyright
owner(s) and in the meantime this item has been reproduced here in good faith. We
would be pleased to hear from the copyright owner(s).

Additional Information:

Thesis (Ph.D.)--University of Tasmania, 1995. Includes bibliographical references (leaves 314-339)

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