New NLC permit system: a stronger system for a stronger country

Date: May 10, 2019

Publication Type: News

The Northern Land Council (NLC) is developing a new and easy-to-use permit system that will better protect Aboriginal rights and interests and clearly inform visitors about the conditions of entry to Aboriginal land.

Numbulwar Numburindi rangers: Adam Manggurra, Rheehan Ngalmi and Clive Nunggarrgalu on the SEAL IPA.

Aboriginal land is private land held by an Aboriginal Land Trust for the benefit of Traditional Owners. Traditional Aboriginal owners have the legal right to decide who comes onto their land. 

While a permit system has been in place for many years, our constituents and the public have been calling for improvements to the current system for some time. 

The new permit system will:

  • Regulate access to traditional lands and streamline administration;
  • Ensure visitors understand their obligations under law and are safe and informed while visiting Aboriginal land;
  • Protect and promote Aboriginal rights, interests and culture, and promote mutual respect between Traditional Owners and visitors; and 
  • Record who is on Aboriginal land, who is coming, and clearly state what can and can’t be done.

Under the Aboriginal Land Act (NT) 1978, the NLC administers the permit system for most of the Aboriginal land in the Top End of the Northern Territory.  

Since the enactment of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act and the Native Title Act, approximately 50 per cent of land in the Northern Territory has become Aboriginal-owned, including approximately 85 per cent of the Territory’s coastline.  

Asking for permission prior to visiting is the right and respectful way to access Aboriginal land. Visitors to Aboriginal land need to understand and accept the legal requirements when seeking permission to visit Aboriginal land, and abide by the conditions of entry. 

Benefits of the new permit system 

For Traditional Owners

  • Better oversight of visitors to Aboriginal land and better control in accordance  with the needs of Traditional Owners;
  • Ability to better monitor incidents and breaches by permit holders; and
  • Regular, comprehensive reports and insights about visitors and the reasons for their visit. 

For visitors

  • A streamlined process and a transparent and responsive permit system; 
  • Access to information and advice about Aboriginal culture, communities and land for an enjoyable visit that respects Aboriginal traditions; and 
  • Clarity about where a permit holder can go and what they can do when visiting Aboriginal land.

For everyone

The permit system will be a central database of permit information, so NLC and Traditional Owners can track trends in visitor numbers, compliance hotspots and feedback.

Timeline for the new permit system

The permit system will be rolled out in the third quarter of 2019. The current permit system will continue in parallel as the new system is tested. If you would like to know more about permit reform, email

Applying for a Permit

Visitors can continue to apply for a permit online, over the phone or over the counter. 

NLC can be contacted via email, or at one of the following NLC offices Mon–Fri between 8:30am and 4:30pm:

Darwin (Head Office): 45 Mitchell Street, Darwin, Phone: 08 8920 5100

Katherine: Lot 5/29 Katherine Terrace, Katherine, Phone: 08 8971 9899

East Arnhem: Endeavour Square, Nhulunbuy, Phone: 08 8986 8500

West Arnhem: 3 Government Building Flinders Street, Jabiru, Phone: 08 8938 3000

Standard permits take up to 10 days to process, complex applications may take longer to process as NLC will have to consult with numerous Traditional Aboriginal Owners.

Access to the intertidal zone

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. 

In 2008, the High Court of Australia – in a landmark case referred to as Blue Mud Bay – reconfirmed that the intertidal zone is ‘Aboriginal land’ where it falls within the boundaries of a coastal Aboriginal land trust, even when tidal waters periodically cover the terrestrial surface of the grant; and that Traditional Owners have exclusive access rights to ‘Aboriginal land’. Up until then, NT Fisheries had sought to control access to fishing in the intertidal zone.

The Blue Mud Bay determination is significant considering the size of the NT coastline: 5,100 km on the mainland, with offshore islands contributing a further 2,100 km. The Blue Mud Bay decision recognised Traditional Aboriginal Owner groups have exclusive access rights to 84%, or 6,050 km, of the Northern Territory coastline. 

Even though this significant right was granted in 2008, intertidal access arrangements have not yet been resolved.

Negotiations on the intertidal zone

User groups, including recreational and commercial fishers, have enjoyed permit-free open access to Aboriginal-owned tidal waters since the 2008 Blue Mud Bay High Court decision via various agreements and waivers. The current waiver is in place until 28 June 2019. 

Negotiations are currently taking place to reach a permanent and comprehensive settlement of Blue Mud Bay. At the NLC Full Council Meeting, scheduled for June 2019, the current waiver will be considered for extension pending satisfactory progress of the negotiations to permanently settle Blue Mud Bay.
The representatives of user groups include the NT Seafood Council, the Amateur Fishermen’s Association of the Northern Territory and Fishing Tour Operators.

Where can the public fish on Aboriginal land?

Due to the permit waiver, visitors can access and fish Aboriginal intertidal waters in the Northern Land Council region (the waiver does not apply to the Tiwi or Anindilyakwa regions or closed seas). Visitors need to remember that permit free access is only granted for the intertidal waters. A permit is still required if intending to come ashore or otherwise access Aboriginal land. 
Since 2011, long-term   open access agreements have been negotiated to provide permit-free access to recreational and commercial fishers for certain Aboriginal-owned intertidal areas in the Northern Territory. 

Open access agreements are in place in the Wadeye and Moyle River area, for parts of the Daly River, the Anson Bay area, around Nhulunbuy, and the lower McArthur River and Sir Edward Pellew Islands in the Gulf of Carpentaria. There is also permit free access in various locations in and around Bynoe Harbour near Darwin. 
The Northern Territory Government negotiated open access agreements with Traditional Owners for coastal areas with a high incidence of fishing activity. Currently, permit-free recreational fishing access is permitted for:

  1. Malak Malak (Daly River area) – possession limits apply and the area is closed between 1 October and 31 January. The Daly River mouth region consists of the coastline to the boundary of Mabaluk land within the Daly River/Port Keats Aboriginal Land Trust.
  2. Yanyuwa (Sir Edward Pellew islands area and McArthur River) 
  3. Anson Bay area
  4. Dhimurru (Nhulunbuy area)
  5. Thamarrurr (Wadeye/Moyle River area) – intertidal waters from Dooley Point to a point south of the Old Mission including the tidal area of Docherty Island. 
  6. Roche Reef, Middle Reef, Simms Reef, Charles Point and Talc Head during high tide only (Cox Peninsula) 
  7. Grose Island, Bee Eater Island, Turtle Island, Quail Island, Dum-in-mirre Island, Bare Sand Island, Indian Island and residual coastline of the Cox Peninsula, except private lease areas and sacred sites. 

Please refer to the NLC website,, or for maps and further details.

The agreements were negotiated by the NT Government with Traditional Owners in the coastal areas with high incidence of fishing activity. Overall, Traditional Owners feel that these agreements don’t allow them to participate in decisions about access or management of their sea country, which goes beyond the low tide water mark.

Where can’t the public access?

No fishing access for the public is permitted at:

  1. Sacred sites or within 100m of sacred sites
  2. Cape Scott, within the Daly River Port Keats Aboriginal Land Trust
  3. Upper Finniss River, within the Delissaville Wagait Larrakia Aboriginal Land Trust
  4. Closed seas in the Milingimbi, Crocodile Island and Glyde River area
  5. Closed seas in the Castlereagh Bay and Howard Island area
  6. Intertidal zone of Ida Bay, Knife Island and Crocodile Island on the Cox Peninsula area
  7. Private lease areas

The new NLC permit system will provide clear maps on access and the conditions of access. These maps will be updated as conditions change.