The shaky video shows the crescent tail cutting through water as the black marlin swims through the creek, hunting bream and tailor.
As the phone camera pans around, the built structures of the Port Kembla steelworks in south eastern Australia come into view, heavy trucks rolling over a concrete bridge, smokestacks and factories crowding the landscape. The roofs, pipes and conveyors are rust-brown, soot and grime coat the surfaces, sulphuric smells drift across the space.
We know this because a steelworker happened that day to see this marlin in the steelworks and filmed it. I found his footage recently when searching Google for information on local creeks. It is highly likely that this sighting was not a one-off event, that large predatory fish like the marlin now periodically hunt in the steelworks unseen by human eyes, or if seen, unreported. The processes of rewilding leak across time and across tenures, the push of natural forces pulsing more strongly as the industrial force of the steelworks declines.
The black marlin is an apex predator of oceanic environments, a wide-ranging swimmer that can grow to 800 kilograms. Marlins have a long, pointed, spear-like bill and a rigid dorsal fin that makes a crest along their back. Regarded as the premier game fish amongst anglers, they epitomise the oceanic wild: fast, powerful and beautiful.
A close relative of the black marlin is the huge iconic fish at the centre of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. And the black marlin, like all animals, is part of a cosmos beyond and including humans, as American nature writer Henry Beston has argued:
In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.
A symbol of new and ancient ways
The most polluted creek in the Illawarra region of New South Wales, Allens Creek flows through the steelworks, its banks lined with concrete and weeds, its channel littered with plastic, broken glass and rusting steel. Its waters and banks are a complex amalgam of industry, abandonment, toxicity, flourishing and decline.Michael Adams
The black marlin was not lost, as some fishers mused. It was in the steelworks with intent and agency, likely following a faint heat trace leaked from the warmed waste waters that support unique marine ecosystems in industrial estuaries.
These margins and ignored edges of industrial Illawarra — marine, freshwater and terrestrial — are home or refuge to a range of human and non-human presences, providing unique opportunities unavailable in the planned and managed land and seascapes surrounding them.
Five kilometres from and in sight of the towering flare stacks of the steelworks, a coastal rockshelf extends north from a local beach. This forgotten corner hosts an Aboriginal shell midden maybe 8,000 years old. Patrick Nunn’s remarkable book The Edge of Memory documents how, at the end of the last Ice Age in south east Australia, sea levels were rising rapidly, moving as much as 20 metres horizontally every year.
Yuin saltwater Aboriginal people observed and responded to these changes, watching their campsites and hunting grounds disappear underwater, seeing their fishing areas deepen and change. The descendants of those people continue to harvest from those waters today, still here because of their skill in responding to immense environmental and social change.Michael Adams
The presence and agency of the black marlin in the middle of the steelworks brings into focus debates about the place of nature in the 21st century. The giant ocean fish swims into the heart of industrial Port Kembla because the “dirty ecologies” of this human-transformed environment provide resources and shelter.
What if we take its presence, a few kilometres from the ancient, living midden, as a symbol of both new and ancient ways to learn? What does the water and its denizens have to teach us? How do we learn from these places on the margins?
In 2012, the extraordinary film Beasts of the Southern Wild was released. Nominated for four Academy Awards, it is simultaneously speculative and deeply realistic.
The film’s imagined Louisiana community of the Bathtub, lost in the interstices and floodzones of the modern American juggernaut, reflecting class and racial neglect, endures a Katrina-esque storm.
But the Bathtub, like Allens Creek and Port Kembla, is not just an industrial wasteland: it is also full of life and energy. Both humans and non-humans living in these environments thrive or struggle with repurposed elements from previous and neighbouring ecologies. The toxic dirt and debris of the steelworks waterway are the hidden byproducts of the glistening steel towers in modern cities; the marginalised workers fishing in these waters are increasingly discarded by the processes of capital and automation.
Commenting on Beasts of the Southern Wild, the late feminist literary scholar Patricia Yaeger argued:
The film’s rags and wastelands — its killing fields — become powerful emblems of the Southland’s (and our nation’s) commitment to toxic inequality … The citizens of the Bathtub practice a dirty ecology, making do with what they can salvage from other waste-making classes.
The redundant maintenance workers of Port Kembla — which in 30 years has lost 17,000 jobs in the steelworks — have similarly taken their skills into an invisible underground economy of community repair and maintenance. Geographer Chantel Carr says, “They look at the world with the viewpoint that everything can be used for something else”. Her work and that of others suggest we need to “invert vulnerability”, to find there instead capacity, endurance and resolve.
In both popular and scientific discourse there is an increasingly insistent environmental story of damage, extinction and decline. Simultaneously, environmentalists and conservation scientists are arguing for increased use of the standard Western tools of conservation: protected areas or other conservation zones, threatened species recovery plans, and feral species management.
Increasingly, more and more species have less habitat available to them, and more native species approach extinction. At the same time, newly moved species are flourishing in environments all over the world.Michael Adams.
Western (modern) conservation attempts to reverse both processes: we kill more feral animals and we attempt to keep alive more declining species by declaring more protected areas and “recovering” those species. So there are two great trajectories of living and dying, and modern humans attempt to reverse them both, while actually also being the agents driving those trajectories.
Political ecologist Audra Mitchell describes this as a “managing life and death processes” that leaves the species which survive living “controlled existences in parks, reservations, zoos or petri dishes.”
Yaeger, arguing the urgent need for a new vision of our relationship with the natural world, asserts “we must dirty ecology, the science of whole environments, with myths, fictions, half-truths, dirty imagery”. Bringing together the mesh of what these differing ideas offer might help us.
Unguarded, unmanaged spaces
I want to argue then that all environments are still whole environments, that the whole is constantly reassembled, reorganised, from the available constituent parts and processes. And that the planet has been through these processes before, in fact, relatively recently.
I am talking about time immemorial experience – how to grow roots like that. Not like scrap of paper made yesterday – a second ago, flimsy, impermanence, that type of thing saying you got the title over blackfella country, you are on top. That’s nothing. You are not owner. Scrap of paper only painful in the heart, only cover the surface with poison. It can’t get inside proper deep law in my head …
The spaces of Allens Creek — marine, aquatic and terrestrial — are constantly rewilding themselves. Country reasserts itself everywhere. These are the unguarded, unmanaged spaces where lives can flourish and decline unobserved by the auditing eyes of power. Where futures can be surprising, paradoxical and spontaneous. The black marlin can travel from the open ocean into the steelworks to find new resources for its life. The living midden archives millenia of data about climate change, extinctions, the presence of new species, the sustainability of ancient harvests, and human and non-human responses.Michael Adams
One of the local fishers commenting on the marlin video said, “yeah, but I wouldn’t want to eat it.” He refers to presumed levels of toxicity stored in the fish’s body from feeding in highly polluted environments.
Bioaccumulation of toxins is a well known issue with large predatory fish like marlin. But because industrially-produced heavy metals have been present in mining and manufacturing regions now for centuries, some species are evolving in response to this presence. A recent study in the Australian mining town of Broken Hill showed that an isolated population of introduced house sparrows there had evolved to avoid lead poisoning – they had developed a genetic adaptation to avoid the uptake of lead in their bodies.
While we don’t know about this in marine species, recent studies indicate surprising outcomes. Port Kembla in the past had internationally high levels of metal contamination, leading to scientific prediction that such places would be low in biodiversity and have simplified and impoverished ecosystems.
However a recent detailed survey of south east Australian estuaries, including Port Kembla, by a team of marine researchers concluded, “on the contrary, communities in modified estuaries had greater species cover and were comparable in diversity to those in unmodified estuaries”.
Still, like the midden, Allens Creek is also an archive of industrial debris. Heavy metals are often stored in bottom sediment, retaining their toxicity, unproblematic until they are disturbed.
Accepting an open future
Thinking about the effects of pollutants on our bodies and the bodies of those we eat can remind us of our animality. Our shared material bodies — humans, the black marlin, the ocean water itself — are composed of the same elements: each is a rearrangement of the other, and each will be rearranged again as they die and return to the matrix from which the next lives will grow.Michael Adams
The evolutionary processes that created the minds and bodies of Yuin Aboriginal people, the British colonisers, and the black marlin, are the same. Australian environmental philosopher Val Plumwood’s famous crocodile attack story, Being Prey, reminds us we can reenter the food chain in a different place. We can be both predators and prey: not just eaters of species we judge appropriate and killers of species we judge not appropriate.
Part of this opportunity for learning is to respect the knowledge of those vernacular in-between worlds. Another part is to trust our ancient ways of understanding that lie beneath the more recent cognitive processes and cultural conditioning.
Our Western preoccupation with planning, with certainty, is a recent and particular phenomenon. In The Great Derangement, Indian writer Amitav Ghosh argues that this is an outcome of colonialism, with the industrial and scientific revolutions paralleling the expansion of European nations, who initiated the practices of capitalist extractive practices in their colonies.
Authors: Michael Adams, Associate Professor of Human Geography, University of Wollongong