the Muttonbird

Hoisting casks of muttonbird oil into a vessel, 1920 (AOT, PH30/1/6141)

The Muttonbird or Short-tailed Shearwater, Puffinus tenuirostris, only breeds in Australia and is probably Australia's most abundant seabird. It is a circum-Pacific migrant ranging to the Antarctic Circle in the breeding season and to the far North Pacific Ocean in the non-breeding season. In Tasmania approximately 18 million birds breed in 211 colonies covering 1813 hectares containing an estimated 11.5 million burrows. The largest colony is Babel Island in Bass Strait with 2.86 million burrows. The Short-tailed Shearwater commences to breed when aged 4 to 15 years and can live up to 38 years.

Commonly known as the Tasmanian muttonbird, the short-tailed shearwater is one of a few Australian birds to support small cottage industries, in this case muttonbirding on islands in Bass Strait, because of the birds' abundance. At the present day, chicks are harvested commercially for their flesh and oil on Great Dog Island in the Furneaux Group and Trefoil Island in north-west Tasmania. Feathers are no longer gathered. Recreational muttonbirding is also permitted on Bass Strait islands, subject to strict controls.

Aboriginal exploitation dates back 8000 years, and throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, muttonbirding was the mainstay of local island economies, particularly for Aborigines on Cape Barren and Flinders Islands in the Furneaux Group. Present-day Aborigines view the muttonbirding industry as one of their major social and economic activities. In the handback of twelve sites to Aborigines by the state government in 1995, four were islands where Aborigines are permitted to harvest shearwaters for personal use.

Further reading: L Ryan, The Aboriginal Tasmanians, Sydney, 1996; IJ Skira et al, ' Distribution, abundance and conservation status of short-tailed shearwaters Puffinus tenuirostris in Tasmania, Australia', Marine Ornithology 24, 1996; N Brothers et al, Tasmania's offshore islands, Hobart, 2001.

Irynej Skira