Using drones to study extensive Aboriginal stone-walled fishtraps in the Gulf of Carpentaria


CABAH researchers have used high-resolution close-range Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) photogrammetry and a suite of spatial information analytical techniques to investigate Kaiadilt Aboriginal stone-walled intertidal fishtraps on Sweers Island in the southern Gulf of Carpentaria, Australia.

Stone-walled intertidal fishtraps were built to control the movements of marine animals. They are the largest structures built by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and surround the Australian coastline, with dense complexes around the South Wellesley Islands and some Torres Strait Islands.

The new fascinating aerial images document trap walls hundreds of meters long and up to a meter high. In the Sweers Island case study area, thirteen fishtraps were identified, ranging from 38m to 287m in length.

Inundation modelling shows the fishtraps operate most efficiently at present sea levels, indicating construction within the last 3,500 years when sea-levels attained their present position.

The stone-walled fishtraps
were constructed within the last 3,500 years Ranging from 38m to 287m in length
13 fishtraps were surveyed
ranging from 38m to 287m in length

“These fishtraps are amazing feats of engineering."

The fishtraps were designed to be most effective in enclosing water at mid-tide, which corresponds to the tradition of collecting fish from fishtraps at mid-tide among Kaiadilt Aboriginal people – the traditional owners of the South Wellesley Islands.

Professor Sean Ulm, Deputy Director of CABAH and leader of this study, said: “These fishtraps are amazing feats of engineering, closely following the intertidal topography and enclosing thousands of square metres of the intertidal zone. These structures are aquaculture facilities, constructed on a massive scale to harvest marine resources.”

The study was carried out by a team of CABAH researchers based at James Cook University and the results were recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Professor Ulm added: “The next phase of this project involves mapping all of the fishtraps around Kaiadilt sea country in all of the islands in the South Wellesley Archipelago. Results will feed into plans to protect this extraordinary cultural heritage and help us understand how people used these island environments in the past.”

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