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Brewarrina Aboriginal Fish Traps (Baiames Ngunnhu), Doyle St, Brewarrina, NSW, Australia

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List National Heritage List
Class Indigenous
Legal Status Listed place (03/06/2005)
Place ID 105778
Place File No 1/03/225/0001
Summary Statement of Significance
The traditional Aboriginal fresh water fishery at Brewarrina (Ngunnhu) [pronounced noon-oo] comprises a number of dry-stone construction weirs and holding ponds (pens). The weirs and pens are formed from Schist rocks and boulders. While the individual elements of the Ngunnhu are simple, they are arranged in an unusual and innovative way that allowed fish to be herded and caught during both high and low river flows.  According to Aboriginal tradition, the ancestral creation being Baiame [pronounced By-ah-mee] revealed this design by throwing his net over the river.  Baiame and his two sons Booma-ooma-nowi and Ghinda-inda-mui built the fish traps to this design.  The role of an ancestral being in creating the Ngunnhu (a built structure) is unusual in Aboriginal society.
Ngemba people are the custodians of the fishery and continue to use and have responsibilities for the Ngunnhu.  As Baiame instructed, these responsibilities are shared with other Traditional Owner groups who periodically gatherered in large numbers at the Ngunnhu for subsistence, cultural and spiritual reasons.
Official Values
Criterion B Rarity
The Aboriginal fishery at Brewarrina (Ngunnhu) is rare in being a dry-stone fish trap located on a large river system and the largest trap recorded.† The Ngunnhu features a very complex design that exploits an unusual location.
Aboriginal people used the unusual combination of a large rock bar, seasonal river flows and suitable local rocks to develop the Ngunnhu.† It is nearly half a kilometre long and consists of a series of dry-stone weirs and ponds arranged in the form of a net across the Barwon River. The size, design and complexity of the Ngunnhu is exceptionally rare in Australia.
Criterion F Creative or technical achievement
The Ngunnhu is exceptional as it is an unusual and highly innovative development in pre-European Aboriginal technology.† The stone-walled pens are designed to withstand the high water flows of the Barwon River.† They are tear-drop shaped with the convex wall facing upstream.† Some of the pen walls are higher than others enabling their use during both low and high water flows.† This is combined with pond gates set at different locations enabling fish to be caught as they migrated both upstream and downstream.† The structure of the Ngunnhu demonstrates the development of a very efficient method for catching fish involving a thorough understanding of dry stone wall construction techniques, river hydrology and fish ecology.
Criterion G Social value
The Ngunnhu has a strong social, cultural and spiritual association with Aboriginal people.† While the Ngemba people are the custodians of the Ngunnhu, it was Baiameís wish that other tribes in the region, including the Morowari, Paarkinji, Weilwan, Barabinja, Ualarai and Kamilaroi should use it in an organised way.† He allocated particular traps to each family group and made them responsible under Aboriginal law for their use and maintenance.†
The Ngunnhu is of outstanding heritage value to the nation because it shows how an ancestral creation being, under Aboriginal law, determined the social, cultural and spiritual associations between a number of Aboriginal groups and a built structure on one groupís land.
Criterion I Indigenous tradition
Baiame, an ancestral being, is responsible for the design and traditional use of the Ngunnhu.† He created the plan of the Ngunnhu by throwing his net across the Barwon River.† Baiame dug up stones and boulders and he and his two sons Booma-ooma-nowi and Ghinda-inda-mui set them out in the pattern of a great fish net.† They were constructed to resist damage during periods of high and fast water flows.
Neighbouring tribes were invited to the Ngunnhu to join in great corroborees, initiation ceremonies, and meetings for trade and barter.† The Ngunnhu were, and still are, a significant meeting place to those Aboriginal people with connections to the area and continue to be used.
The role of an ancestral being (Baiame) in creating built structures is extremely unusual in Aboriginal society and makes both the structure (Ngunnhu) and the story nationally important.
The Ngunnhu is a complex fish trap comprising an arrangement of dry-stone walls built on a rock bar in the Barwon River, a major tributary of the Darling River in western NSW.  The Ngunnhu is nearly half a kilometre in length.  The fish traps consist of lines of stone-walled pens joined by lengths of stone walls arranged in the form of a net across the Barwon River.
The Ngunnhu was built at some unknown time in the past.  Baiame, an ancestral and creation being for the region, is said to have been responsible for the design and its intended use of the Ngunnhu.  R.H. Mathews, in the early 1900s was the first to undertake any detailed documentation of the fish traps.
There is no direct measure available for the age of the fish traps.  One indirect measure is to consider changes in the flow of the river.  The water flow in the Murray-Darling River system has fluctuated greatly over the last 50,000 years.  Before about 15,000 years ago, enough water flowed to fill the enormous and now dry lake basins of the Willandra and Darling Lakes.
Fish traps would have been pointless if river levels were consistently high, or if low water periods were not reasonably frequent and regular.  On evidence from the lower Darling River, the last two periods of low and/or extreme fluctuations in stream flow conditions were between 15,000 and 9,000 years ago and about 3000 years ago to the present.  Further research would be needed to see if those dates can be supported for the upper Darling and its tributaries (Hope and Vines 1994). 
The rock bar from which the material for the traps is sourced consists of schists, which underlie sands and gravels marking the bed of an ancient river that flowed at right angles to the Barwon River at the location of the Ngunnhu.  Both the schists and sands and gravels have been hardened by the formation of a layer of silcrete, which is believed to reflect a period of land stability and soil formation many millions of years ago.
The traps are primarily intended to catch migrating fish and were designed and operated with an extensive understanding of the behaviour and ecology of migratory native fish.  Stone walls guided fish into enclosures which had narrow openings.  Fish could be hunted within the enclosure.  Knowledge of fish migration in relation to season and river flow was essential to the efficient operation of the Ngunnhu.  The traps were used more extensively in Spring when large numbers of fish were migrating upstream, and different traps were used at high and low flows.  Small rises in river levels, or 'freshets', were known to stimulate migration of native fish and the traps were specifically used at these times.  Some 'freshets' were known to stimulate downstream migration and the traps were effectively reversed by opening entrances on the upstream side of the traps.
Spiritually, the link between the Ngunnhu and its creator Baiame is highly significant.  Aboriginal people in this region are intrinsically connected to Baiame and the Ngunnhu and have cultural obligations under Aboriginal law to care for them.  The fishery is highly valued by the Brewarrina Aboriginal community because it is a symbol of traditional life and land ownership.  It is a landmark for the Brewarrina Aboriginal community – essential for the community’s sense of place.  The Ngunnhu was, and still is, a significant meeting place to those Aboriginal people with connections to the area and continues to be used.  It is also important for teaching Aboriginal children about traditional fishing methods and their cultural heritage.
Condition and Integrity
The Ngunnhu has been considerably damaged in the past.  In the mid 1860s a crossing was built by European settlers at the upstream end of the Ngunnhu by filling holes with stones from the traps and moving other stones to provide the ford that bullock drays could use.  Stones from the traps were also moved to enable navigation of river craft, and in the 1920s dray loads of stone were removed for building the foundations in the town.
Construction of the 1.2 metre high Brewarrina weir on the Barwon River in the mid 1960s further disturbed the ruins of the Ngunnhu at the upstream end. The weir was built to provide a domestic water supply for the town.  The weir has adversely impacted on the cultural integrity of the Ngunnhu and on the ecology of the river.  Where the Ngunnhu enabled many fish, particularly small sizes of fish, to pass up stream, the weir prevents the upstream migration of all fish except during floods when the weir is submerged. 
The weir, and the fishway that was included in the original construction, also changed the flow pattern through the traps.  The weir evenly distributed flow across the river where beforehand it followed a channel near the south-east bank.  The fishway also channelled low flows to the north side of the river.  Prevention of fish migration by weirs and dams is a major reason for the decline in native fish populations in the Murray-Darling river system. 
However, despite these impacts much of the Ngunnhu remains, particularly at the downstream end.  There is great potential to rehabilitate the individual traps (which are currently in disrepair) to their original condition. 

About 6ha, off Doyle Street, Brewarrina, comprising an area enclosed by straight lines joining the following Map Grid of Australia (MGA) points consecutively:
1. 486260mE 6685850mN, 2. 486230mE 6685810mN, 3. 486060mE 6685810mN, 4. 485780mE 6685780mN, 5. 485760mE 6685870mN, 6. 485820mE 6685900mN, 7. 485980mE, 6685930mN, 8. 486100mE 6685970mN, 9. 486170mE 6685970mN, then directly to the point of commencement.

Bandler, H. 1993. Expertise in Water Resources Exploitation in Australian History.
Bandler, H.1993. Hydrology of the Australian Nomads: Australian Aboriginal expertise in exploiting water resources.
Builth, H.  2002.  The Archaeology and Socio-Economy of the Gunditjmara: a Landscape Approach.  Unpublished Doctoral Thesis.  Adelaide: Flinders University.
Dargin, P. 1976. Aboriginal Heritage: Aboriginal Fisheries of the Darling-Barwon Rivers. Brewarrina Historical Society.
Gill Merri. 1996. Weilmoringle: A unique Bi-cultural Community. Unpublished National Estate Grants Program Report
Hope, J and Vines G. 1994. Brewarrina Aboriginal Fisheries Conservation Plan. Unpublished National Estate Grants Program Report.
Mathews, R. H. 1903. The Aboriginal Fisheries at Brewarrina. Art and Material Culture.
McBryde, I. 1973 Stone Arrangements and a Quartzite Quarry Site at Brewarrina. Mankind. 9(2): 118-121.
New South Wales Heritage Office. 2000. Brewarrina Fish Traps Statement of Significance. NSW Heritage Office Website (
Petrie, C. C. 1904. Tom Petrie's Reminiscences of Early Queensland. Watson, Ferguson and Company.

Sutton, M.  2004.  A Comparative Study of Indigenous Fresh Water Fish Traps.  Unpublished Report for Indigenous Heritage Assessment Section.

Report Produced  Sun Sep 21 14:49:58 2014