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Sea Country Rights

On 30 July 2008 the High Court of Australia confirmed that traditional owners of the Blue Mud Bay region in north-east Arnhem Land, together with traditional owners of almost the entire Northern Territory coastline, have exclusive access rights to tidal waters overlying Aboriginal land.

Northern Territory coastal and marine areas remain some of the world’s most intact environments, rich in natural resources, biodiversity and cultural heritage and support a range of growing regional and local economies and livelihoods.

The coastline of the Northern Territory mainland is 5,100km long and offshore islands contribute a further 2,100km of coastline. Around 84% or 6,050km of this coastline is owned by Aboriginal Traditional Owner groups. 

Sea country is important because it is relevant to a large demographic of Aboriginal people. Not only do Traditional Owners have significant land holdings, Aboriginal people make up around 50% of the general population, with greater percentages living in remote coastal areas.

Traditional Owners of sea country also enjoy Native Title rights, exclusive access to closed seas, protection of sacred sites and managing their Indigenous Protected Areas.Traditional Owners of sea country also enjoy Native Title rights, exclusive access to closed seas, protection of sacred sites and managing their Indigenous Protected Areas.

Exclusive Access to Intertidal waters

Aboriginal land is privately owned. It is not Crown land, nor public land. Permission must be obtained in accordance with the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 before going onto Aboriginal Land.

This includes access to tidal waters over Aboriginal land. That is, access to the water and land between the high and low tide watermarks requires permission by the land owner. This is regardless of whether you hold a fishing licence issued by the Northern Territory Government.

This right was affirmed on 30 July 2008 by the High Court in its decision on the landmark Blue Mud Bay case (Gawarrin Gumana & Ors vs Northern Territory).

The ‘interim’ (short-term) arrangement put in place in 2007 that allowed all recreational fishers and commercial operators’ access to tidal waters over Aboriginal land ended on 31 December 2016. After almost 10 years, the interim arrangement between the NLC and the Northern Territory Government has not been renewed.

On 24 December 2016, the NLC issued a Public Notice, pursuant to section 5(8) of the Aboriginal Land Act that waives the requirement for a permit to enter tidal waters overlying Aboriginal land for a period of six months, until 30 June 2017.

The Public Notice was issued to allow for a period of transition to the conclusion of the ‘interim’ access arrangement.

Read the Information Sheet on Access to Tidal Waters on Aboriginal Land published December 2016

As of the 1 July 2017, permission will be required for access in accordance with the Aboriginal land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976.

Closed Seas

Two sea closures have been Gazetted under the Aboriginal Land Act (1978). They are in the Milingimbi, Crocodile Islands and Glyde River area (1981) and the Castlereagh Bay and Howard Island area (1988). Both closed seas are adjacent to Aboriginal Land and extend 2km seaward of the low tide watermark. Closed seas provide exclusive access to Traditional Owners. Permission from the land owners is required to access closed seas and can be granted through a Work, Transit, Rcreational Fishing and Tourist Permit

Native Title determinations for sea country

Non-exclusive native title determinations cover sea country surrounding Croker Island in west Arnhem Land and in the north region of Blue Mud Bay in east Arnhem Land.

These determinations, in accordance with and subject to traditional laws and customs as recognised rights under common law, provide for Aboriginal people the ability to hunt and gather resources and practice traditions. Native title enables unobstructed access from other competing interests, including commercial operators and recreational interests.

Sacred Sites

All sacred sites are protected in accordance with the Northern Territory Aboriginal Sacred Sites Act (1989). Many sacred sites are registered in sea country. Access is not permitted within 100 metres of any sacred site, though some sacred sites may have more restrictive access. Visit www.aapant.org.au/sacred-sites for more information