by Peter Cunningham, Executive Officer, Furneaux Enterprise Centre

Captain Cook named the island group the Furneaux Islands after Tobias Furneaux, who is generally regarded to have been the first European to sight the islands in 1773. The Furneaux Group consists of over 40 islands lying off the north eastern tip of Tasmania in the Bass Strait. The largest are Flinders Island, Cape Barren Island and Clarke Island.

The islands were mainly a sealing ground in the early days and it was not until 1888 that a permanent settler, George Boyes, arrived to build a house named the Hermitage at Palana on Flinders Island. By 1917, a population of 600 resided on this island. Communication was by means of a Morse Code Wireless Station until 1932 when the first air service was established. In the 1950s a Soldier/Farmer Scheme was initiated with a total of 33,559ha of land being cleared and sown for pasture. By 1965 eighty such farmers were working the land.

In 1991 the total population of the Municipality was 905 people which has decreased further since then. The economy of the islands is basically dependent on the export of livestock (sheep, cattle), wool, fish (crayfish and abalone), mutton birds, wallaby meat and butter to Tasmania and the mainland of Australia.

Whitemark on Flinders Island is the civic and commercial centre of the Furneaux Group. It has the Council Chambers, a post office, offices of the Departments of Primary Industry and Fisheries and Environment and Land Management, police station, airline booking office, supermarket and other stores, Westpac Bank, service stations and hotel. There is also a public library, a hospital, senior citizens accommodation, primary and high schools.

The port at Whitemark is subject to adverse weather conditions and is shallow. Flinders is therefore served by a vessel capable of carrying 12 passengers and handling containerised cargo which operates out of Lady Barron. This other main township on the island has a deeper water port and new concrete wharf with roll-on roll-off facilities. The service runs under a State Government subsidy and is weekly to the Tasmanian mainland with additional trips when sufficient cargo is available.

Air transport is provided by Airlines of Tasmania which operates regular flights from Launceston and Hobart. Residents receive a discounted fare. The service runs at a loss in winter but this is offset in the summer through the carriage of tourists.

On Flinders power is supplied by diesel generators and there are two windmills which can supply up to 7% of the island’s power needs depending on wind velocity. Cape Barren Island is also supplied by a wind turbine system.

Agriculture and Forestry

Farm holdings have been increasing in size as the economic viability of previously single-unit properties has declined. The system of ‘fee farm’ title is a drawback to property adjustment as subdivision is difficult and costly. Future land development on Flinders Island is prevented by lack of unreserved land suitable for agriculture, however on Cape Barren Island land is freely available. Land degradation, such as waterlogging, soil salinity and sparse vegetative cover has been a concern. A number of Landcare groups and Drainage Trusts have been formed aimed at addressing these issues. To date substantial drainage works have been undertaken, along with tree and pasture species establishment trials.

There is a limit to how much can be physically and sustainably produced from the farming areas using existing agricultural practices. Many farmers have diversified into tourism, downstream processing or have other off-farm income. One of the major problems faced is the seasonal demands of production which places strain on shipping services and effects their viability. This is a deterrent to investment.

The livestock industries have potential for development. In an effort to increase returns for cattle production a Beef Productivity Group has been initiated. It aims to increase the size of the herd by 4% and lift profitability by 50% by the year 2000.

The council owned slaughterhouse closed in May 1996 after failing to meet national hygiene standards. Since then all stock is shipped live. Shipping delays mean that animals are not always in top condition when they leave. A proposal to establish a new multi-species abattoir with a capacity for 600 cattle and 20,000 sheep a year which will employ 20 people is currently being investigated. The study will look at potential markets and supply of livestock. It is hoped that it would be able to double the industry on the islands and allow farmers to diversify into other meats such as deer, wallaby, emu and ostrich. However, the introduction of an abattoir may reduce, at least in the short term, the demand for shipping space, thereby causing freight costs to increase or the service to become unviable.

The Furneaux Forest Cooperative owns 400ha of pine plantation some of which is ready for cutting. There are opportunities to produce treated pine posts for the local market, pine bark and firewood. It is believed that this could provide sustainable employment for 5 people over several years. However, the Cooperative has had a decline in capital reserves leading to a need for funds for equipment.


This has been an important industry in the islands and is currently based on crayfish, abalone, shark and garfish. The number of professional fishermen is dropping as stocks decline. There are now only 12 locally based boats, mainly in the crayfish industry. There are no longer any fish processors on the islands.

As the wild fish catch declines aquaculture has the potential to be an area of major growth. The conditions are suitable for many potential species including pacific oyster, abalone, flounder and yellow tail kingfish. Many of these are high value crops and a marine farming plan for the Furneaux Group is currently being drawn up.


This is a major contributor to the islands’ economy. The Furneaux Group offers excellent fishing, bushwalking, challenging rock climbing, scuba diving and gemstone fossicking. There are around 270 beds available in two hotels, a guest house and several holiday farms as well as camping facilities. The Guild of Philosophers is developing a resort at Lady Barron for its members which includes an airport that will be available for public use.

Flinders Island receives 6-7000 visitors per year with an average stay of 2-3 nights. Total expenditure per visitor is around $4-500 including air fares. It is a highly seasonal industry with most visitors coming in the summer months. There is scope to increase tourist numbers, extend stay times, lengthen the season and offer better services although residents are concerned that the impact of visitors needs to be controlled.


The residents of the islands are proud of their heritage and way of life. The present community have recently been afforded a golden opportunity to improve telecommunications infrastructure and preserve their environment. Some of the huge proceeds resulting from government selling one third of Telstra are to be used in furthering both these objectives throughout rural Australia. The Furneaux Enterprise Centre, a community organisation dedicated to regional sustainable development, are now actively planning how best to utilise this windfall.