Karumba lies on the Norman River where it enters the Gulf of Carpentaria. In its heyday, it was the main port for the prawn trawlers plying their trade in the Gulf, but these day the big companies use motherships to process their catch. Still, fishing is a big deal here, especially for prawns and the much-prized barramundi, a wonderful eating fish. Karumba is also an important port for the live cattle trade exporting beasts to Indonesia. Apart from that, the CBD is a block of shops along the main street, one of which is a brilliant bakery.
We stayed at the Karumba Lodge resort, a flash name for a not-so-flash premises which is well past its best days. The accommodation is an add-on to the pub which has two bars – the suave bar and the animal bar, which probably gives you a hint. Some of the ladies in our group were not impressed with their rooms, which needed a good clean and some new fittings. Joe took us for a run (in the bus) to the more salubrious part of town at Sunset Point which boasts a large new pub, but it is several kilometres from town. It’s popular for people wanting to watch the sun set into the sea (while eating fresh prawns, a schooner of beer at their elbow), and for fishermen after barra. Our tour leader told us they used to stay at a motel out here, but people complained it was ‘too far from town’. Uh-huh. I think I would have preferred to stay at Sunset Point.
One positive point about Karumba Lodge was that the units opened out on a wide lawn above the Norman River. Some of the ever-present kites had nested in a row of large gum trees, one so old that mistletoe had grown over the nest’s structure, making it even harder to spot. I found the other nest because it had a chick, which was demanding food.
Later that day we visited the Barramundi discovery centre. The establishment tells tourists about the fish’s fascinating life cycle, but its main role is to breed stock to replenish the local fisheries. It’s not a farm, barra don’t respond to farming, despite attempts. Everyone knows how salmon spawn in rivers, eventually move to the sea, and eventually return to the place where they were spawned. Barra are similar – but different. Spawning takes place in a river estuary when three factors coincide – the water temperature, the full moon, and the approach of a storm. In the Karumba area the water temperature has to be 33C. Tests have shown that while spawning can take place a degree either way off that, the results are significantly poorer. What’s more, the temperature isn’t the same for all barra. For example, in the fishery near Townsville, spawning takes place at 28C. This means that if you take a fish spawned in Karumba to Townsville, it will live quite happily – but it will not spawn. Our host told us the fish kept for spawning in tanks are aware of the phase of the moon, and when a storm is on its way. When conditions approach ideal, the female stops eating. The water in the tanks is sourced from the estuary, and no chemicals are used. Some of our group took the opportunity to feed a barra, but before they did so, they had to sanitize their hands to prevent any contamination to the tank water.
Another thing about these fish – they are all born male. At some point, some of the males become female. Nobody knows why, or how. The females are much larger than the boys and fertilisation is actually pretty boring – she expresses her eggs, then a few of the boys release smelt over them. In the tanks there are six males to every female. In the wild – who knows? Once they are fingerlings the baby fish hide in the mangroves, which is sensible, because everything will eat them, including their siblings. After a time they move up the rivers to live their lives. That’s the importance of the full moon (high tide – lots of food) and the storm – lots of water in the rivers. Eventually, the grown fish will make their way back to their spawning grounds, to start the cycle again.
Now let me tell you about the ghost nets.
A quick look at a map will tell you Australia is very close to Indonesia and as Indonesian fish stocks run low, Indonesian fishermen take the risk of venturing into Australian territorial waters to fish. They use nets, some of them kilometres long. If the Australian border force or the navy comes across them, they know they’d better get out of there fast. So they cut the nets loose because if they’re caught with fish, they have no defence against a charge of illegal fishing. But the nets are still there, floating in the currents, catching fish and other sea creatures which are never harvested. The carcasses rot – fish, dolphins, turtles, sharks – whatever. Once a net like this is in the Gulf of Carpentaria the currents take it round and round the Gulf, sometimes throwing it up on a beach at high tide, drawing it back at the next high tide. Indigenous communities are assisting in the important task of finding these nets and getting them out of the water. Read all about the problem and what’s being done about it here. By the way, yes, they’re going to be Indonesian nets. Any Australian trawler losing a net is in for a mountain of paperwork, and lots of nasty questions.
In the evening we went on a sunset dinner cruise. We piled into the shallow draft boat, me toting my camera with long lens. While we were served a glass of wine our hosts set the scene by placing pieces of fish on a feeding platform at the front of the boat. The local kites, both black and whistling, are always ready for a free feed. Soon we were surrounded by swooping raptors which were actually difficult to photograph with the big lens.
Further down the river a croc basked in the late afternoon sunshine near the river bank. A distant white-bellied sea eagle perched on a branch saw us coming and headed off for quieter parts. We passed the wharf where cattle are loaded for export. We were told about a rusting trawler jammed into the mangroves. (Storm? Poor seamanship? Mechanical error? Insurance claim? Who knows?)
Our hosts served us wine, beer, and an assortment of nibbles, and later we helped ourselves to hot food and salad before going out into the Gulf itself to watch the sunset. I’ll finish this post with pictures and commentary.