Indigenous woman’s 18,000km journey to raise attention to the world’s oceans


Theresa Ardler grew up on the sands of Australia’s east coast, on the fishing boats of her community in the deep blue seas of the Pacific Ocean.

Born into tens of thousands of years of marine knowledge and humpback whale song, the Gweagal woman would spend entire days on the beaches of Wreck Bay.

She would dive deep below the bright water for abalone, conches and periwinkle to grill on makeshift fires on the sand of the beaches of the Indigenous community about 150 kilometers south of Sydney.

Theresa Ardler traveled to the United Nations Ocean Conference in Lisbon, Portugal, to raise awareness of the troubles faced by her home town of Wreck Bay and other oceanside communities. (Jorge Branco)

It was her community’s connection to the ocean, and the humpback whales that glide through it, that drove her to a conference and a protest on the other side of the world.

Lisbon’s Tagus River, about 18,000 kilometers from the Jervis Bay Territory village, is wide enough in parts to almost mistake for the ocean. The air is salty but it smells different to Ardler, not as strong as her home.

The educator and PhD candidate has been searching not for shellfish but for signs the world’s governments are listening to First Nations peoples desperate to protect the oceans that sustain their lives.

The signs, she says, in the shade near a large water feature tucked away behind one of Portugal’s most important churches, are not good.

The peace of the fountain is in stark contrast to the previous day, when the 50-year-old marched with hundreds of others outside the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon to protest government inaction.

Ardler marches at the head of a protest agains inaction on ocean health. (AP)

“What people, humans, are doing with the ocean at this time, they’re killing the ocean slowly,” she says, a clam-shell necklace from home fastened to her neck.

“And one day, the ocean is going to rise and take us all out. Because they will say ‘think. It’s enough. Stop hurting us’.

“Just like our land is our mother, so is our ocean.”

Ardler came to Lisbon as part of a faith-based group pushing back against large-scale overfishing, pollution and deep sea mining.

The anti-mining cause won support from French President Emmanuel Macron when he visited the Portuguese capital.

French President Emmanuel Macron and his Portuguese counterpart, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, right, pose for a photo with well-wishers outside the United Nations Ocean Conference in Lisbon last week. (AP Photo/Armando Franca) (AP)

Macron acknowledged the failure of world leaders to update an international treaty, known as the Convention on the Law of the Sea, High Seas, to include a mechanism that addresses ocean conservation and the sustainability of marine life.

“We’ve been discussing that text for seven years,” Macron said last week.

“It’s now time to achieve it quickly.”

A declaration published on the final day of the conference said delegates were “deeply alarmed by the global emergency facing the ocean”, whose sustainability is “critical” for the planet.

But Ardler is disappointed by the lack of First Nations representation across the board at the major multi-day conference.

“I personally found that Indigenous people from all around the world did not have a say,” the Gweagal Cultural Connections director says.

“And when you look at it, Indigenous people … have lived for generations, thousands of years of the ocean, you know. Our ancestors are buried in the sand dunes in different parts of my community.”

‘They’re killing my people slowly’

A clam-shell necklace from home was fastened to her neck. (Jorge Branco)

While the locals still mostly fish in the old way with small nets and the ocean is still “their life”, a lot has changed from the Wreck Bay Ardler knew as a child.

Beyond the existential threats faced by many communities as the world’s oceans warm and fishing stocks shrink, Wreck Bay faces its own environmental disaster.

Ardler says toxic chemicals from firefighting foam have all but killed off the area’s baby turtles and residents no longer drink the water or fish on Mary’s Beach.

A class action filed by the Wreck Bay Aboriginal Community against the Department of Defense alleges the Commonwealth negligently allowed contaminants within the fire-fighting foam to escape from the HMAS Creswell and nearby Jervis Bay Range Facility bases.

“It’s an absolute disgrace in what the Navy has done,” Ardler says.

“And they’re actually killing it, killing us off slowly with cancer, and especially with the high risk of breast cancer with our women and young girls as well.”

Ocean Rebellion activists stage a protest outside the venue hosting the United Nations Ocean Conference in Lisbon. (AP Photo/Ana Brigida) (AP)

Ardler’s mum died of cancer and she says her aunty, “like my second mother”, also recently succumbed to the disease. The 50-year-old took it as a sign to travel to the conference and be a voice for her community, despite having finished radiation on a cancerous pancreatic cyst herself just weeks ago.

There are concerns the toxic chemicals, known as PFAS, may be associated with several health issues including reproductive effects and some cancers but the science is still in its early days.

A Defense spokesperson said it was still safe to drink the water in Wreck Bay and Jervis Bay villages but admitted the ACT Chief Health Officer had issued “precautionary advice” closing Mary Creek to human use and urgent people not to eat seafood caught in certain nearby areas .

“The December 2021 PFAS Health study conducted by the Australia National University found that ‘for the majority of health outcomes studied, findings were consistent with previous studies that have not conclusively identified causative links between PFAS and health’,” the spokesperson said, in a statement.

They declined to comment on the court case.

Songlines tying people to the ocean

The humpback whale is the totem of Ardler’s people, who she says used to “sing” the whales into the bay as the huge mammals brought fish in with them.

The language of the whale song has slowly diminished but the Gweagal people’s connection to humpback, land and sea is as important as ever, as is protecting them.

“My nan, she was a great storyteller,” Ardler says.

“She used to say, you know, when we came from the ocean, our songline, to the land, the only thing connecting us back to the ocean is our salty tears.

Portuguese police lead away Greenpeace activists that tried to paste big posters by the entrance to the venue hosting the United Nations Ocean Conference in Lisbon, Thursday, June 30, 2022. From June 27 to July 1, the United Nations is holding its Oceans Conference in Lisbon expecting to bring fresh momentum for efforts to find an international agreement on protecting the world’s oceans. (AP Photo/Armando Franca) (AP)

Australia praised for carbon-fighting efforts

Australian Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek came to the Ocean Conference with a message closely echoing the one her colleagues have been touting on climate change since taking office in May.

“Australia is back,” she told the conference last week.

“The Australian government understands the urgency of the challenges facing our planet.

“And we are committed to being a full partner in the global fight to solve these problems.”

Plibersek repeatedly stressed the importance of listening to First Nations people.

She pledged to spend $9.5 million restoring five “blue carbon” ecosystems — such as mangroves and seagrasses — and double the number of Indigenous rangers to 3800 by the end of the decade.

“Indigenous Australians have managed land and sea country for more than 65,000 years,” the minister told the Oceans Conference.

“There is much that Australia and the world can learn from their example.”

Dolphins swim at the mouth of the Tagus River in Lisbon, on the week of the Ocean Conference. (AP Photo/Armando Franca) (AP)

Ardler said the acknowledgment was positive but much more needed to be said and done.

For its part, the Australian Marine Conservation Society praised Australia’s commitments on the world stage, saying Australia’s oceans were under more threat than ever before.

“Minister Plibersek’s clear acknowledgment at the conference on the scale of the threats and the need for government leadership is warmly welcomed,” CEO Darren Kindleysides said, in a statement.

“Marine heatwaves as a result of global warming are cooking our oceans around the country.

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“The coral reef bleaching events that happened earlier this year in the Great Barrier Reef and on reefs off Western Australia, will be more frequent and more intense as a result of ocean heating.”

If there’s one thing Ardler wants people, particularly governments, to take away from the Ocean Conference it’s this: “Sit down and listen to Indigenous people, of their countries, and really come to understand and have a grasp on on knowledge systems and ecosystems of what we know of the ocean and our land.”



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