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Once were eel farmers

May 2006

A volcanic landscape near Portland in south-western Victoria once housed a thriving community of eel farmers, Monash University researchers are discovering.

Report: Karen Stichtenoth
Photography: Greg Ford and Melissa Di Ciero

Australia's gourmet food industry may have originated many thousands of years ago, if data being uncovered at the Mt Eccles lava flow site near Portland is anything to go on.

History at their feet: Mr Damein Bell, Manager, Lake Condah Sustainable Development Project, and Dr Heather Builth standing where the Gunditjmara people established channels to farm eels.

The area is a haven for shortfin eels that migrate from Vanuatu and New Caledonia, almost 3000 kilometres away, attracted by the climate and abundant moisture of the Portland region.

Evidence collected by Monash postdoctoral fellow Dr Heather Builth shows that the local Gunditjmara people modified a vast tract of swampland to trap and farm eels in what was possibly Australia's earliest and largest aquaculture venture.

Dr Builth has studied the Budj Bim (Aboriginal for 'top of head sticking out') volcanic landscape and associated swamps and lakes such as Lake Condah for more than 10 years.

She is currently mapping the area and documenting its archaeology. The project is part of a long-term study to analyse and interpret the cultural and environmental landscape of the lava flow.

The study is being funded by Australian Research Council Linkage Grants to Dr Builth and to Professor Peter Kershaw from Monash's School of Geography and Environmental Sciences, in partnership with the Lake Condah Sustainable Development Project -- a consortium of the Winda-Mara Aboriginal Corporation, local industries, farmers and Victorian Government department and educational institutions.

Dr Builth's fieldwork has produced evidence that the Gunditjmara people once populated the site near Lake Condah in significant numbers, living in permanent stone dwellings.

Rivers that served as natural migration corridors for the eels bounded the lava flow and were blocked off by the Gunditjmara people to create wetlands. They then used a series of man-made channels to harvest the eels for food and trade.

Remnants of this aquaculture system remain and are gradually being revealed through Dr Builth's three-dimensional mapping of the area using sophisticated geographical data and high-resolution aerial photographs of the lava flow, which extends 165 square kilometres.

"This was a completely different, complex Aboriginal community based on a sustainable economy driven by eels," Dr Builth says.

"The relatively high rainfall in combination with the landscape features provided a permanent and abundant supply of eels that enabled high-density living, rather than the nomadic lifestyle typical of other Indigenous people."

Dr Builth's research has revealed that leaves from Blackwood trees were used to smoke the eels. "The oil was captured and rubbed on the body or drunk for medicinal purposes," she says.

But these traditional practices disappeared soon after the land was taken over by squatters in the 1830s and 1840s and the swamps and lake drained.

Professor Kershaw is conducting a parallel study to Dr Builth's, analysing cores extracted from swamp and lake sediment to determine when and why the landscape was modified.

"This is an archaeologically significant indigenous eel aquaculture system, the extent of which we are still in the process of discovering," Professor Kershaw says.

"In addition, this unique, defined landscape has the potential to reveal the most detailed record of past climate change in Australia."

A key feature of Dr Builth's and Professor Kershaw's research is designing protective measures for this ecologically and culturally significant site.

Their work will lead to the development of a management plan for future land use and build a case for the area's nomination for World Heritage listing.