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.
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. Since then, the NLC 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 4 December 2018, the NLC agreed to a 6-month extension of the permit waiver to access the Aboriginal-owned intertidal zone while negotiations can take place. The permit waiver will now expire on 28 June 2019 and the NLC will consider extending the waiver until 30 June 2020 if the Northern Territory Government, the NT Seafood Council and the Amateur Fishermen’s’ Association of the Northern Territory have negotiated in good faith during this time. A Public Notice appeared in The NT News on Saturday 22 December 2018.
The waiver gives certainty for another 6 months to the commercial sector and recreational fishers to be able to continue fishing in the intertidal zone.
Read the Information Sheet on Access to Tidal Waters on Aboriginal Land published December 2017.
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
Nov 16, 2018
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.
Dec 04, 2018
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
Nov 15, 2018
The Full Council of the Northern Land Council has conditionally approved a six-month extension of the waiver of the need for permits to access the Aboriginal-owned intertidal zone. The waiver is set to expire on 31 December 2018.