The Guardian November 24, 1999


Call for Indigenous sea rights

Aboriginal people from across Australia last week called on all 
Australian governments to recognise Indigenous ownership and management of 
the sea, inland waterways and their resources. Aboriginal delegates 
attending the Fish Rights 99 conference in Perth, demanded the Commonwealth 
Government and industry act immediately to begin discussions with 
Indigenous people in order to address property rights issues for natural 
resources in Australia.

"We're not threatening the government, we're actually providing them with 
with some pretty sound advice", said Parry Agis, Chairperson of the 
National Indigenous Working Group.

"The longer the government and other interests continue to ignore us and 
our rights, the greater the implications will be for further litigation and 
compensation issues."

In two cases, Croker Island in the Northern Territory, and more recently 
Yanner v Eaton, the High Court recognised native title interests in natural 
resources, saying that these rights appear to exist beyond the definitions 
currently outlined under the Native Title Act 1993.

Brian Wyatt, from the Goldfield Land Council and also a member of the 
Native Title Working Group, said that a number of factors work against the 
participation of Indigenous people in fisheries throughout Australia, such 
as different legislation in States and Territories as well as a government 
tendency to pander to big economic interests and large interest groups.

"There needs to be recognition from government and interest groups that we 
have legitimate and significant property rights in all Australia's natural 
resources, including the sea and fisheries", said Mr Wyatt.

"Until this recognition is forthcoming, all management plans and quota and 
licensing regimes in Australia's fisheries will be flawed and open to legal 
challenge."

Mr Agis added that the group would consider using international forums to 
bring Australian policy in line with other countries. "In New Zealand, 
Maori interests control almost half of the commercial fishing industry", 
said Mr Agis.

"We don't enjoy hauling the Australian Government into the international 
spotlight to hold them accountable", he said, "but we have been left with 
few options. How many more court cases do we have to win before we get 
justice?"

In 1994, the then Labor Government established an Indigenous Coastal 
Reference Group and in 1995 gave funding to State Governments to prepare 
Indigenous Fisheries strategies. Not one State or Territory has yet 
completed such a strategy.

Moves to recognise Indigenous rights and interests in the sea have gathered 
momentum in recent times following the National Indigenous Sea Rights 
Conference held in Hobart in September this year.

Back to index page