New fishing permit system to be introduced 14 years after High Court’s Blue Mud Bay decision

New fishing permit system to be introduced 14 years after High Court’s Blue Mud Bay decision

The Northern Land Council will allow recreational fishers to continue to access remote Aboriginal waters under a new permit system set to take effect from next month, however some popular fishing areas will remain off limits for now.

Key points:

  • The new permit system will apply to remote areas not already covered by access agreements
  • Darwin Harbour and Daly River will remain permit-free, but Finniss River will still be off limits
  • The permits will initially be free, but it’s not known how much they will eventually cost

The permit system, which will initially be free, has been finalised ahead of a December 31 deadline, when an existing access agreement between the NLC and the Northern Territory government was due to expire.

The updated arrangements come more than a decade since the High Court confirmed traditional owners have exclusive access rights to intertidal waters over Aboriginal land.

“Fourteen years after the High Court’s Blue Mud Bay decision we are finally seeing the rights of traditional owners being respected,” NLC chairman Samuel Bush-Blanasi said in a statement.

“We will keep looking at the arrangements to make sure they reflect the legal rights and interests of the traditional owners of that country.”

The new permit system will apply to mostly remote areas that are not already covered by long-term permit-free arrangements.

“The permit system will be based on location, date and time and will initially be free of charge,” the NLC said.

The Red Flag Dancers at Blue Mud Bay, in the Northern Territory.

The Blue Mud Bay decision has been described as the most significant ruling for Aboriginal land owners since the High Court’s Mabo decision.(Tim McDonald)

No-go zones to remain in some popular areas

The NLC said permit-free arrangements will continue in popular fishing areas including Darwin Harbour and Bynoe Harbour.

Permit-free access will also continue in the Daly River, Nhulunbuy, Port Keats and McArthur River regions.

However, other popular fishing areas, including parts of the Finniss River and Mini Mini areas will remain off limits pending the outcome of ongoing negotiations.

The Amateur Fishermen’s Association of the NT (AFANT) said while the permit system would ensure access in many remote areas, the Finniss and Mini Mini exclusions should be addressed.

“We certainly hope [the government] will crack on with those negotiations with the NLC,” AFANT chief executive David Ciaravolo said.

“I think in the more remote areas where people will need to apply for a permit, it will certainly be an adjustment, but it does offer some good certainty.”

a man pulling a net out to sea with two other men behind.

Permit-free access will continue in some areas while others will remain off limits. (ABC Rural: Daniel Fitzgerald)

The NLC has also confirmed that commercial fishers and tourism operators will be able to access Aboriginal-owned waters under specified conditions.

“Commercial operators have been advised that Section 19 agreements under the Land Rights Act will be required to operate on waters overlying Aboriginal land from 1 January 2023,” NLC chief executive Joe Martin-Jard said.

“The NLC will continue to work in good faith with traditional owners and all other stakeholders.”

Arrangements locked in after years of negotiation

In 2020, the NLC agreed to provide access to Aboriginal waters for two years on the proviso that the NT government fund an Aboriginal fishing entity, expand Aboriginal coastal licenses and amend the Fisheries Act.

In October this year, the ABC revealed draft government documents expressed serious concerns about that arrangement with the NLC.

The documents — which were prepared by a department for the Fisheries Minister Paul Kirby — described the agreement as “flawed”, “lacking in transparency”, and “heavily skewed” in favour of traditional owners, with “no consideration” of the broader fishing industry.

The documents were addressed to “cabinet colleagues” but were not signed or dated by Mr Kirby.

The leaking of the documents prompted the NT government to threaten the ABC with a court injunction before it later retracted the threat and issued an apology.

A row of commercial fishing boats docked in Frances Bay, Darwin.

Access for commercial fishers is also being worked through, the NT government says.(ABC News: Jano Gibson)

On Thursday, prior to the NLC’s announcement, Chief Minister Natasha Fyles said the rights of traditional owners needed to be respected.

“What everyone would like is certainty,” Ms Fyles said.

“We have to respect the rights of traditional owners, that is something that is law.

“And so we are working through with the land councils but certainly wanting to have as much access as possible for both commercial industry and also [recreational] fishers.”

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