How Indigenous Knowledge Can Help Protect the Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef is one of Australia’s most unique environmental gems and the world's largest reef system, spanning 2,300km. First Nations peoples have been nurturing this reef for millennia, especially the 70 Traditional Owner groups whose Sea Country includes the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. These First Nations groups are highly concerned about the severe environmental damage the reef is facing from oil spills, rising sea temperatures and coral bleaching. Many people are unaware that these Traditional Owner groups still have a significant role in protecting and maintaining a healthy ecosystem for the reef. By looking to Traditional Custodians and listening to their intimate knowledge of sea Country, we can help to minimise the many environmental threats that the Great Barrier Reef now faces (BBC, 2021).

The Dazzling colour of the Great Barrier Reef near Airlie Beach. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, 2018.

Indigenous History of the Great Barrier Reef 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have lived in the Great Barrier Reef region for over 60,000 years. Prior to the sea level rise and reef forming over 7000 years ago, First Nations people lived on what is now the seafloor. Astonishingly, significant stories and cultural practices from this site still remain to this day. Once the reef formed, Indigenous peoples continued to care for their sea Country, protecting it and making sustainable use of the reef's resources. Despite the loss of land and sea Country rights, displacement and the disruption of culture, many Indigenous peoples still maintain a strong connection to this Country (Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, 2021).

Queensland’s Land and Sea Ranger Program

Queensland's Land and Sea Ranger Program is a key way in which Traditional Owner groups are continuing to look after the Great Barrier Reef. Through the program, the State Government partners with First Nations communities to conserve important ecosystems and cultural heritage in locations stretching from Cape York to the Bunya Mountains. Through this program, Indigenous rangers combine traditional knowledge of Country and western science. Rangers share knowledge between their teams at annual workshops, where they gather, hear stories of success and take field trips to broaden their understanding of different caring for Country approaches. The program is successful in improving environmental outcomes for the reef, and benefits the Indigenous communities carrying out the work culturally, socially and economically (Queensland Government, 2021).

Protecting the reef and preserving its inhabitants. Photograph by Yuku-Baja-Muliku Rangers. Courtesy of National Indigenous Australians Agency, 2021.

Rescuing Turtles

Gudjuda Rangers, from the Burdekin region 650km south of Cooktown, are one of the groups supported by the Indigenous Land and Sea Ranger Program. Currently, the rangers are working alongside scientists to protect turtles, which are under threat from the turtle-specific Herpes virus called fibropapillomatosis. The virus is thought to be caused by marine pollution, and results in tumors that can blind the turtles. As a part of an extensive turtle monitoring program, the Gudjuda rangers conduct periodic turtle rescue and tagging excursions. In the coming months, visitors will be able to join their catch and release data collection events with Gudjuda Tours. These tours will be a chance for the Gudjuda rangers to show people how they look after turtles, and educate the public about the important role turtles play in the reef’s ecosystem and Indigenous culture (BBC, 2021). 

Inevitably, as our climate continues to deteriorate, so does the Great Barrier Reef. Groups of scientists and activists are working hard to protect this precious environment and it is so important that Traditional Custodians continue to be involved as well. With knowledge of the reef, stretching back tens of thousands of years, Indigenous rangers form a crucial part of reef protection efforts, through practical work and through educating the wider public about the Great Barrier Reef’s environmental and cultural importance (BBC, 2021). 

If you’d like to learn more about Traditional Owner reef protection check out the Great Barrier Reef Foundation

Or, if you would like to make a contribution to the protection of the reef, then take a look at the incredible work of our partners Great Barrier Reef Legacy and make a donation.