Its not unusual to see the retail shops in Perth proudly displaying the sign Dongara Crayfish. Crayfish or the Western Rock Lobster (Panulirus cygnus) range all along Western Australia’s west coast from Hamelin Bay in the south to North West Cape, and seaward to the Abrolhos Islands. The larvae develop in coastal seagrass meadows and then migrate to deeper ocean and coral reefs. Adult crayfish are caught using wooden (formerly cane) pots placed by fishers on and around the reefs, and are ‘pulled’ or emptied daily. The location of favoured sites is usually a matter of some secrecy. Dongara crays have a long-held reputation for being especially delicious.
Aboriginal people fished the shores and reefs around Arurine Bay (now Port Denison harbour). The gidgee, a short spear for catching fish in reef pools, was one of their tools..
The first cray fishing license (D1), also for line fishing was issued to Cliff Barrett and his boat ‘Monsoon’ on 26 March 1959. Boat was 26ft long, motor (4 cylinder Morris petrol) and sail, winch was a converted car differential driven by 3hp Moffat Virtue petrol engine.
Crayfishing has been taking place out of Port Denison and other bays along the Batavia Coast. At these small settlements, fishermen built shacks so they could fish for a few days or weeks at a time. With the opening of the Midland Railway in 1894, live crays were railed overnight to Perth, often served in the best hotels. A crayfish cannery was established on the Abrolhos in the 1930s, and a factory to process and freeze crayfish for export established in Dongara in 1959 at Seaspray Beach, and operated until 2010. It bought seasonal workers to the shire every year.
The picture below was taken off Knobby Head one of the shack settlements
Charlie the Cook (Laurits Enderson Egland from Norway) and Sydney Knowler on his fishing boat (D2)with a dhu fish catch. Inscribed: “Charlie and Sidney off Knobby Head Feb 1937 just before the cyclone.” (IRME0086)
Crayfishing has always been a multi-cultural industry and provided opportunities for many travellers and migrants, as well as those who just love the sea, to make a new life in the Irwin shire.
Ah Chow, standing in his fishing dinghy at Port Denison. The Second jetty seen in background. Jean Leitch owned the dinghy and each day Ah Chow would return from hiring the dinghy and pay Jean the hire fees. Original records written in Chinese. (IRME2090)
Before the construction of the Port Denison Fishing Boat Harbour, boats were moored inside the reef and were subject to bad weather
Sydney Knowler’s fishing boat, Second Jetty in background. Inscribed: “Sidney Knowler’s ‘Awanui’ fishing boat in the hurricane 1937” (IRME0063)
Left to Right: Sweetman, “Ara-nui” Syd Knowler D2, Pegleg, “Radiant”, Monsoon D1 (26ft) Carters, “Rosa”(17ft), Coorree D10, Lorna Doone D6 (18ft), R.E.Carr, “Wenevalenda” (16ft).
The industry reached its peak in the 1970s with up to 100 vessels working out of Port Denison. (IREME0324)
With the expansion of the industry, the Denison Marina was opened in 1978.
Dongara fishers work along the coast and some also work the Abrolhos Islands. Most crayfish are exported, but a tradition of local sales still continues. Besides crayfish, many other fish are caught both professionally and recreationally along the Irwin shores.
The traditional Blessing of the Fleet is held in November each year. Fishers decorate their boats and deckhands show off their rope coiling skills.
Trevally, 1980. Fishing boat LFBD 40 Silver, owner John Cole at Blessing of Fleet in 1980 with Dongara Guides. This was the first fishing boat buil;t by John Fitzhardinge at Dongara Marine.
Maintaining clean healthy beaches and a marine environment is critical to the continuity of all fishing in the Irwin shire.