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.