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Endangered sawfish, powerful Dreamtime stories and the future of a major Kimberley river

Kimberley Traditional Owners say they have not been properly consulted concerning the WA State Government’s plans for the Fitzroy River.

The State Government has proposed a new national park in the Fitzroy Valley, a Fitzroy River management plan, and a water allocation plan.

On March 15, the Ministers for Environment, Water, Aboriginal Affairs, Regional Development, and Agriculture and Food, came together at Fitzroy Crossing with other key stakeholders to open a dialogue concerning the long-term health of the river.

“The Fitzroy River management plan is being developed to protect the health of the river while providing a basis for sustainable economic development,” said Minister for Regional Development and Agriculture and Food Alannah MacTiernan.

“We are working hard to establish common ground among stakeholders.”

Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Ben Wyatt said the State Government is looking forward to partnering with Traditional Owners.

“The Traditional Owners of the Fitzroy catchment have, and always will, play an integral role in the protection and management of this significant natural asset,” Mr Wyatt said.

However, senior Nyikina woman Annie Milgin, said that Traditional Owners have no power at the moment.

“We can see with our own eyes what’s happening today. All our places that we usually go fishing or hunting, it’s all dying,” Ms Milgin said.

“We don’t want to be like [the] Murray Darling, what’s been happening there. We [have to] let our river flow.”

Ms Milgin said in the Dreamtime a creation ancestor named Woonyoomboo rode the Rainbow Serpent and named everything in a song. These names are still used by the Nyikina people today.

“Woonyoomboo left a law for us and that law is still [used] today. It’s never changed,” Ms Milgin said.

She said it is important that the State Government and Traditional Owners do the right thing by the Fitzroy River, especially since there are important Dreamtime stories there.

One of these stories, is about the now critically endangered sawfish.

In the Dreamtime, hunters used freshwater mangrove or majalain billabongs to make it easier to hunt fish. Majala acts as a poison and takes oxygen out of the water, forcing fish to come to the surface to breathe.

According to Ms Milgin, Woonyoomboo said you have to get the big fish out of the water first, especially the sawfish.

“He knew that [the] sawfish can urinate in the water and give fish back the oxygen,” Ms Milgin said.

Sawfish urine is what counteracts this poisoning process, restoring the oxygen in the water and keeping the fish alive.

Majala is still used today to hunt fish and the Fitzroy River is now the largest home to the endangered sawfish.

CEO of Walalakoo Aboriginal Corporation Damien Parriman said a major concern for the Traditional Owners is the lack of resources, meaning Traditional Owners can’t get the right experts working with them to provide advice.

“It’s quite unsatisfactory, the level of engagement at this stage,” Mr Parriman said.

“There’s not enough support around the Traditional Owner groups to actually make informed decisions.”

“The resources that have been provided by the state to the Fitzroy River Council to engage is insufficient. It allows two meetings and Annie and most others aren’t happy with that.”

Ms Milgin agreed, stressing that Traditional Owners have a great respect for the Fitzroy River.

“We should be talking more,” said Ms Milgin.

“We gotta do the right thing.”

By Hannah Cross

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