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.