The Guardian February 14, 2001


Mabo of the Seas

A "major step" towards national recognition of Indigenous traditional 
sea rights: this was how the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander 
Commission (ATSIC) described a court ruling in Queensland last week 
overturning charges against a Torres Strait Islander man who had challenged 
a commercial fishing operation. The decision came at the same time that a 
group of traditional owners from Croker Island, off the Northern Territory, 
were in the High Court in Canberra to defend their native title rights to 
the sea.

A Cairns District Court dismissed armed robbery charges against Benjamin 
Ali Nona, who had used a crayfish spear to challenge commercial line 
fishermen operating in a traditional fishing area.

"The court ruling is a major step towards national recognition of our 
Traditional Sea rights which we have held for tens of thousands of years 
before white settlement", said ATSIC Chairman Geoff Clark.

Mr Clark urged the High Court and all levels of government to take heed of 
the court's decision to back the rights of Indigenous people to protect 
their customary rights.

"Until this decision some of our people had been penalised for trying to 
protect those rights", said Mr Clark, "but now there is some hope that 
those rights are being recognised by white law."

Mr Nona, from Mer Island  the birth place of the historic Mabo land 
rights claim  was also found not guilty of stealing $600 worth of coral 
trout from the commercial fishermen after they had landed their catch in 
the traditional fishing grounds.

Mr Nona belongs to one of eight clans who have lived on Mer Island for 
centuries and who regard the small gardens of the islands and the fish of 
the reefs around the island as integral to their traditional rights and 
livelihoods.

The jury accepted that Mr Nona had believed as an Indigenous person that 
the fish being taken by the commercial fishermen belonged to him and was 
therefore not criminally liable under Section 22 of the Queensland Criminal 
Act. ATSIC said this is a clear indication that the rights which Indigenous 
people have held for many thousands of years before white settlement are 
equally as valid today.

Meanwhile, the Northern Land Council has described the Croker Island 
campaign as the "Mabo of the Seas".

The Land Council's Chief Executive Officer, Norman Fry, said the Federal 
Government was continuing its campaign against sea rights through the legal 
system, arguing that the rights of traditional owners end at the low water 
mark. This is despite two unanimous rulings in the Federal Court that 
native title rights do exist in offshore areas.

"This is the Mabo of the Seas", said Mr Fry. "The issue of native title 
rights to land went through a great deal of legal debate before the final 
High Court Mabo decision. The same scrutiny is being applied to rights over 
the seas.

"We are confident that the High Court will throw out this latest appeal by 
the Commonwealth Government and everyone will finally acknowledge our 
rights. The connection to the land does not stop at the water's edge and 
that fact is well accepted in other parts of the world. Rights to offshore 
areas is nothing new."

The traditional owners are also trying to establish the extent of their 
native title rights. They want legal recognition that they have exclusive 
rights to the offshore areas, whereas the previous decision granted non-
exclusive rights.

The Land Council points out that this does not mean commercial interests 
will be banned, that the claimants have always welcomed sensible and 
sensitive development.

"This is about recognising rights  and for the rational and sustainable 
use and management of the resources of the seas", said Mr Fry.

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