Ancient know-how meets a modern challenge

By Lincoln Bertoli 8 July 2024
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Contemporary marine park management is infused with traditional knowledge to tackle new threats on the Great Barrier Reef.

This article is brought to you by Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

Almost 25 years ago, the lure of playing professional football took Jason Ramsamy from northern Queensland to the Northern Hemisphere. But it was the call of Country, and an inherent connection to Australia’s greatest natural wonder, the Great Barrier Reef (GBR), that brought him home.

A leading sports commentator once described Jason as “incredibly versatile”. A professional career that started in a Cairns welding workshop and culminated in the upper echelons of Australian sport, spanning three continents and twice as many job titles, suggests this may be something of an understatement.

Tradesman. Athlete. Coach. Counsellor. Manager. Director. Jason’s jack-of-all-trades resumé is testament not only to mercurial talent, but opportunities taken and a professional life lived well. He’s long since laid down the tools, and despite being a self-confessed late bloomer, his rugby days are also behind him. Today Jason’s professional passion is irrevocably tied to his Indigenous cultural heritage, as he helps the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) work to further integrate modern marine park management with traditional knowledge borne from the world’s oldest continuous living culture.

Image credits: Reef Authority; Braden Smith

“I grew up around the Cairns and Mossman areas in North Queensland where two World Heritage areas meet – Land and Sea Country,” Jason says. “It’s in my blood.” And with ancestral ties to the Eastern Kuku Yalanji people (Jalunji clan) on his maternal side, and paternal connections to Boigu Island (Malu Kiwai) in the top western cluster group of the Torres Strait Islands, Jason’s role as Director of Traditional Use of Marine Resources Agreements (TUMRAs) seems less a vocation than a natural fit.

TUMRAs are legislated, community-based plans for the management of traditional resources, and are vital to the successful co-management of the GBR. “Essentially, in my role, we help facilitate how GBR Traditional Owner (TO) groups work in partnership with the Australian and Queensland governments to manage traditional-use activities and their Sea Country aspirations,” Jason says.

“I’m a hunter and a fisher, but my Country is further north,” he explains. “So for me to exercise my traditional rights and interests here on Gimuy Walaburra Yidinji and Yirrganydji peoples’ Country and the area where I now live, I would seek prior permission from the rightful TOs as a sign of respect.”

Image credits: Reef Authority; Braden Smith

It’s a custom as time honoured as the GBR itself. There are approximately 70 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Traditional Owner groups spread across the GBRMP. All of them share a unique cultural and spiritual affiliation with the GBR, and have done so since time immemorial, caring for their Sea Country through the sustainable use of its resources.

Traditional Owner knowledge is critical to helping preserve and protect Australia’s greatest natural wonder.

“In some of the more remote areas, a lot of the groups still rely heavily on the GBR, be it through fishing and hunting, to provide for their families in a very traditional way,” Jason says. “But there is also a lot more education and awareness around the GBR now, and a lot more opportunity for Traditional Owners, some of whom may have been displaced and dislocated from their Sea Country over time, and have now returned home.

“The beauty of the TUMRA program is we help facilitate that reconnection to Country. I know as a kid we used to hear stories about trading routes, songlines, shell middens and where our ancestors used to hunt and gather, but at the time, I took the Indigenous values and the historical context of it all for granted.

“Today, I see firsthand how important it is to really embrace our history and protect our Indigenous heritage values.”

Image credit: Reef Authority

Thanks to the work of Jason and his predecessors over the past 20 years since the program’s inception, there are now 10 long-term accredited TUMRAs in place, as well as an Indigenous Land Use Agreement, which are helping to preserve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, and inform the future management of the GBRMP.

Each Traditional Owner-led TUMRA employs a TUMRA coordinator and has its own committee to represent its respective language group/s and Sea Country area to collectively manage and implement the agreement and traditional use of marine resources.

Management of traditional-use values and Sea Country values is based on both cultural lore and contemporary science, and is also utilised where relevant for broader Sea Country planning and policy development.

Image credits: Reef Authority; Braden Smith

Despite these agreements covering more than 43 per cent of the Marine Park coastline, Jason says it’s not about the metrics, so much as laying the foundation for mobs (TOs) to have a seat at the table with local, state and Commonwealth government agencies. “We also have six Sea Country Planning Agreements in place with new and emerging TO groups, and that’s the most pleasing aspect – that other groups are now expressing their interest in working with the GBRMPA, not only through TUMRAs, but on Sea Country management actions, policy and planning programs,” he says.

And with another mass bleaching currently affecting the GBR (the fifth in just eight years) Jason knows, holistically, that TO knowledge is critical to helping preserve and protect Australia’s greatest natural wonder – now and for future generations.

Image credits: Reef Authority

“The GBR is part of our identity, but it’s under increasing pressure from climate change and other impacts,” he says. “We all have a role to play to ensure the GBR remains in great hands. Ours, and yours.”

This article is brought to you by Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.