Sea country rights
On 30 July 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 5,100km long and offshore islands contribute a further 2,100km of coastline. Around 84 per cent or 6,050km of this coastline is owned by Aboriginal Traditional Owner groups.
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 to the water and/or land between the high and low tide watermarks, regardless of whether you hold a fishing licence issued by the Northern Territory Government.
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.
The current waiver is due to expire on 31 December 2020.
Where can I access?
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, Recreational 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.
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
Joint media release between the Northern Land Council, Northern Territory Government, the NT Seafood Council and the Amateur Fishermen’s’ Association of the Northern Territory
The Northern Land Council has given the Government till December 4th to negotiate, or they will lock out all fishermen from up to 80 per cent of the Territory's coastline.