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Sea Country


Sea country is important to a large demographic of Aboriginal people living in remote coastal communities and homelands in the NT.

For more than 20 years the NLC has been working with Traditional Owners to improve their rights and interest in looking after their sea country.

This included in 2008 the High Court determined that the Northern Territory Fisheries Act 1988 did not apply within the boundaries of Aboriginal land granted under the Land Rights Act (1976) NT, including the tidal waters over their land from the high to low tide marks (the intertidal zone). This case, Gumana vs The Northern Territory, is commonly known as the Blue Mud Bay (BMB) case.

The BMB determination is significant given that around 85% (6050 kilometres, including islands) of the entire NT coastline is owned by Aboriginal Traditional Owner groups.

Regardless of this significant right, a permanent settlement of this matter has not yet been reached. However, significant progress was made during 2018-19 when the NLC, NT Government and key user groups (NT Seafood Council, Amateur Fishermen’s Association NT, and NT Guided Fishing Industry Association) agreed upon a roadmap to resolve BMB.

Maningrida-based coastal fisherman Don Wilton

In late June 2018, the NLC submitted a proposal to the NT Government that articulated a roadmap to permanently settle BMB. Negotiations between the NLC, NTG and the other parties followed.

On 28 June 2019, at the Nitmiluk Full Council meeting, the parties signed a Heads of Agreement, which articulates the roadmap to permanently settle BMB.

In approving the NLC to sign the Heads of Agreement, the NLC Full Council extended the open access waiver to Aboriginal tidal waters through until 31 December 2020. This means that commercial and recreational fishers can enter Aboriginal waters without a section 19 land use agreement or NLC permit until that date. But as of 1 January 2020, users will require either a section 19 or permit

Key points from the Heads of Agreement are:

  • There will be a full review of NTG fisheries legislation and policy, and fisheries management in light of the BMB decision;
  • NTG will develop a regional approach to fisheries management, giving Traditional Owners real input to the management of their sea country;
  • Aboriginal people will become owners in the NT commercial fishing industry;
  • Exciting opportunities exist for Aboriginal people to create businesses and jobs around sport fishing tourism and commercial fishing;
  • The NLC will facilitate discussions with the NT Government if Traditional Owners wish to discuss and/or negotiate access agreements. (In Aboriginal waters, where an agreement is not in place, recreational fishers will require a permit) and
  • A boat identification system and Codes of Conduct will be developed for recreational fishers who use Aboriginal waters.
  • There is a large amount of work for the parties to complete before the waiver ends.

A work plan will be developed by the parties early in the 2019-20 financial year. At each of their meetings through until 31 December 2020, the NLC Full Council will review progress against the work plan in consideration of continuing the open access waiver.

Sea Country Working Group

In the years following the BMB High Court decision, the NLC has established a number of groups to provide advice and direction on intertidal matters. In particular, in June 2015 the Sea Country Working Group (SCWG) was established by the NLC Full Council.

This group has been active ever since, and instrumental in advising the NLC around settlement of BMB. They were heavily involved in the development of the settlement proposal to NTG and the subsequent negotiations. They remain active and are a key component of the NLC’s sea country unit. The group is made up of one elected Full Council member from each of the NLC’s coastal zones. Membership presently includes:

  1. Keith Rory: Borroloola Barkly (Chair)
  2. Shadrack Retchford: Victoria River District (Deputy Chair)
  3. Wesley Bandi Bandi: East Arnhem
  4. Gregory Daniels: Ngukurr
  5. Bunug Galaminda: West Arnhem
  6. Calvin Devereaux: Darwin/Daly/Wagait

NLC's Sea Country Wokring Group member John Christophersen speaks at signing of the Blue Mud Bay Heads of Agreement at Nitmiluk

Coastal Area Intertidal Fishing Access Agreements

Since 2011, six coastal area intertidal access agreements have been negotiated to provide permit-free access to recreational and commercial fishers.

These agreements were negotiated by the NT Government with Traditional Owners in coastal areas that have high incidence of fishing activity.

One of the agreements provides for a consultative committee, but Traditional Owners are seeking an arrangement that is more appropriate; they wish to strengthen customary management of their sea country. Generally speaking, Traditional Owners feel that the agreements don’t provide them with the ability to participate in decision-making about access to or management over their sea country.

As part of permanently settling BMB under the Heads of Agreement, NTG has committed to a process of reviewing these agreements together with Traditional Owners and amending accordingly.

Areas with agreements are:

  1. Malak Malak ALT for Daly River area: 1 July 2012 to 2032;
  2. Narwimbi, Wurralbi & Wurralbi No.2 ALTs for the Yanyuwa area (Sir Edward Pellew Islands Group and lower McArthur River) area: 1 July 2012 to 2032;
  3. Daly River Port Keats ALT for Anson Bay area from the mouth of the Daly River to Cape Scott: 1 January 2013 to 2033;
  4. Arnhem Land ALT for Nhulunbuy area: 1 January 2014 to 2034; and
  5. Daly River Port Keats ALT for the Thamurrurr Area (Hyland Bay and Moyle River): 1 July 2014 to 2034.

A sixth agreement was previously in place (Arnhem Land Aboriginal Land Trust for the Iwaidja Armurduk area – Mini Mini and Murgenella Rivers south of Coburg Peninsula), but this expired on 30 June 2018.

Participatory Sea Country Planning

In May 2018, as part of efforts to resolve issues relating to the intertidal zone, the NLC initiated participatory sea country planning in the three coastal areas: Blue Mud Bay, Maningrida and Limmen Bight.

This work aimed to provide tools for Traditional Owners to manage their sea country, and to articulate their sea country desires and aspirations for the future. The plans are also a key communication tool for the Traditional Owners and their stakeholders.

Dwayne Alangale of the Wagiman Ranger Group working with fire