Indigenous knowledge and cultural values of hammerhead sharks in Northern Australia

Sharks and rays are culturally significant animals for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups. The roles they play in the lives of saltwater people are bound in the Indigenous knowledge that has been passed down from generation to generation.

Hammerhead sharks are perhaps one of the sharks most easily recognised as having cultural significance for Indigenous people in Australia. The Indigenous knowledge that is available about hammerhead sharks is predominantly from the Torres Strait and that outcome may be attributed to the charismatic displays of hammerheads in art pieces, dances and stories that Torres Strait Island people share with the wider community.

Indigenous knowledge (IK) is a place-based knowledge system, so IK from one island or mainland community is relevant only to that area, and rarely scales up to cover multiple language groups. IK is also predominantly an oral form of knowledge and is managed (or protected) through a complex lore system that may restrict its sharing or retelling to certain groups (e.g. women only, or young men going through initiation).

There are two main language systems within the straits (Meriam mer and Kala Lagaw Ya) with 6 different dialects spoken at an island level. Torres Strait creole (Ailen tok) is a common language spoken across all parts of the Torres Strait to allow for trade and communication.

IK from the Torres Strait is often shared through artwork, dance and songs. Many of the hammerhead references within these media not only have a spiritual base but involve descriptions of ecological processes e.g. hunting behaviours, seasonal timing, predator-prey interactions.

Projects that seek to understand the breadth of knowledge that sits within local communities should aspire to meaningful and genuine collaboration and engagement with Traditional Owners.

A major strength of the NESP Hammerhead project was recognising that Traditional Owner priorities may not align with the project objectives, timeline or research outcomes. In recognising this, multiple options for involvement and engagement were developed to ensure that Traditional Owners were aware of what research was going on in their sea country, and that there were a range of opportunities for involvement, and skill and knowledge transfer between all parties.

The Indigenous communication and engagement component of the project was very successful. Involving Indigenous rangers in tagging field trips on their sea country was considered respectful and beneficial for both the scientists and rangers involved (e.g. skill exchange and relationship building). The detailed local knowledge that rangers were able to provide to the researchers in the Dunk Island area was extremely beneficial and resulted in successful tagging trips.

Detailed observations from Torres Strait Islander people would have benefit to any future tagging/ecological studies that might be conducted in the Torres Strait.

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