Geoscience Reference
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'thousands of tons of this valuable fish are to be obtained' by Sydney firms that
were willing to invest in the industry. In 1879, Palmer (1879, p31) wrote that
the revenue of the combined bêche-de-mer and pearl-shell fisheries was between
£100,000 and £150,000 per year.
The geographical distribution of the bêche-de-mer fisheries extended as far
south as the reefs to the east of Mackay, and as far north as Torres Strait; hence, the
fisheries were concentrated in the northern Great Barrier Reef. The major centre
of the fishery was located at Cooktown, with smaller centres at Cairns, Ingham
and Townsville. In their bathymetrical distribution, most of the commercial
varieties were found on coral reefs between 4 and 18 fathoms (approximately 7 to
33 metres) of water; the larger specimens of black-fish and red-fish were found at
the deeper end of that range. The fishery used a system of small curing stations,
at many locations in the Great Barrier Reef, from which small luggers - of 5 or
6 tons draught - made daily journeys to the reefs; alternatively, a fleet of luggers
remained in the vicinity of the reefs, and used a tender to carry the catch to
curing stations. In addition, a small number of schooners, weighing between 20
and 50 tons, were built at Cooktown and Thursday Island; those vessels carried
portable curing facilities, as well as smaller boats and the processing equipment,
and sometimes operated at sea for six months at a time (Saville-Kent, 1890a).
The average harvest for a bêche-de-mer station was around a ton of smoked
product per month, as Saville-Kent (1890a, p729), describing the harvests and
the collection methods, stated:
A good average take for a fishing station working with only four boats,
carrying twenty to twenty-four men, is one ton of cured bêche-de-mer per
month. Two tons per month […] represents an occasional but exceptionally
abundant take. […] The greater portion of the bêche-de-mer is simply picked
off the reefs when the water has receded, but the finest red and black fish,
and the prickly-fish almost exclusively, are obtained by diving during the
same low tides from a depth of two or three fathoms.
The collecting process therefore involved bêche-de-mer fishers walking on the
coral reefs at low tide as well as diving for the animals; some damage to corals
must have occurred during the harvest. Saville-Kent (1890a, p729) stated that
the animals were 'collected in sacks by wading or diving from off the reefs during
the low spring tides'. In addition, some bêche-de-mer were caught as food for the
boat crews.
Once the animals had been transported to the curing station, or to the
schooner, they were smoked and dried. The process began when the fresh bêche-
de-mer were placed in large iron cauldrons and boiled. The procedure, after
boiling, was described by Saville-Kent (1890a, p729) in the following terms:
The fish are then taken out, split up longitudinally with a sharp-pointed
knife, gutted, and exposed on the ground in the sun until the greater portion
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