Blue Mud Bay History

In 2008 the High Court of Australia confirmed that Traditional Owners of Aboriginal-owned Northern Territory coastline, have exclusive access rights to the tidal waters overlying their land.

The coastline of the Northern Territory mainland is 5,400km long with the offshore islands contributing a further 5,500km of coastline. Around 55 per cent or 6,024km of this coastline is owned by Aboriginal Traditional Owner groups within the NLC region. 

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. Sea country is very important to Aboriginal people. Sacred sites and songlines in the sea carry the same cultural importance as those on land.  

 The tidal waters and broader seas are important to the livelihoods of Aboriginal people living in remote coastal communities. In addition to the rights confirmed by the High Court in the Blue Mud Bay case, Traditional Owners of sea country also enjoy Native Title rights, exclusive access to closed seas, protection of sacred sites and management of 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 entering these lands.

As a result of the Blue Mud Bay case, this also includes access to tidal waters over Aboriginal land. That means, permission from the landowner is required to access water overlying their land between the high and low tide watermarks, regardless of whether you hold a fishing licence issued by the Northern Territory government (NTG).

Interim arrangements were put in place in 2007, allowing all recreational and commercial fishers to access tidal waters over Aboriginal land. This arrangement ended on 31 December 2016. Since then, the NLC Full Council has waived the requirement for a permit to enter tidal waters overlying Aboriginal land in a series of waiver extensions, pursuant to section 5(8) of the Aboriginal Land Act.

On 29 July 2020, the NLC and the NTG signed the Blue Mud Bay Implementation Action Plan, which allowed to the end of December 2022 for the NTG to confirm and deliver in relation to its commitments, and for the NLC to undertake further consultations with Traditional Owner groups to find out which of them wanted to include their tidal waters in the open access plan. Many Traditional Owner groups agreed for their waters to continue to be openly accessed through to 31 December 2022. 

As of 1 January 2023, if people wish to access Aboriginal Waters, the following access arrangement will apply:

  • Recreational fishers need to apply for a Recreational Fishing Permit
  • Fishing tour operators need to apply for a Section 19 Land Use Agreement
  • Commercial fishers need to apply for a Section 19 Land Use Agreement

Timelines of Sea Country Rights

1963 – 2007

2008 - Present

Information updated on 22 December 2022