Customary fishing

Various definitions exist for customary, traditional or cultural fishing in Australia. The National Indigenous Fishing Technical Working Group defined customary fishing as ‘fishing in accordance with relevant Indigenous laws and customs for the purpose of satisfying personal, domestic or non-commercial communal needs’ (NNTT 2004).

The Torres Strait Treaty is more specific, describing traditional fishing as ‘the taking, by traditional inhabitants for their own or their dependants’ consumption or for use in the course of other traditional activities, of the living natural resources of the sea, seabed, estuaries and coastal tidal areas, including dugong and turtle’ (Department of Trade and Resources 1978).

The NSW Department of Primary Industries defines cultural fishing as ‘fishing activities and practices carried out by Aboriginal persons for the purpose of satisfying their personal, domestic or communal needs, or for educational or ceremonial purposes or other traditional purposes, and which do not have a commercial purpose’ (I&I NSW 2009).

The WA Department of Fisheries defines customary fishing in its customary fishing policy as fishing activities applying—within a sustainable fisheries management framework—to a person of ‘Aboriginal descent, fishing in accordance with the traditional law and custom of the area being fished and is fishing for the purpose of satisfying personal, domestic, ceremonial, educational or non-commercial communal needs’ (WA Fisheries 2015a).

The definition of ‘Aboriginal traditional fishing’ in the South Australian Fisheries Management Act 2007 is ‘fishing engaged in by an Aboriginal person for the purposes of satisfying personal, domestic or non-commercial, communal needs, including ceremonial, spiritual and educational needs, and using fish and other natural marine and freshwater products according to relevant Aboriginal custom’.

In late 2013, in Akiba v. Commonwealth of Australia, the High Court of Australia found that commercial native title fishing rights still exist in Torres Strait and are not extinguished by Commonwealth and state fisheries legislation (Butterly 2013). It remains unclear how this judgement will affect and/or change licence arrangements for Indigenous commercial fishing. The various Commonwealth and state definitions of customary fishing indicate that the value attached to fishing activity and catches of individual species by Indigenous fishers extends beyond the values associated with commercial and recreational fishing. For Indigenous people, fish is often viewed as an important food source and a component of many cultural, ceremonial and social events. The act of fishing allows communities and families to retain their independence and connection to their fishing areas, reinforce their social networks through the sharing of gathered food and maintain their traditional fishing knowledge systems (Campbell & Murphy 2005; Schnierer & Egan 2011). Fish and fishing are important educational tools in Indigenous communities, with traditional fishing knowledge being passed on to successive generations to enable them to continue traditional practices. Indigenous fishers have also traditionally harvested a range of species that are prohibited for non-Indigenous Australians, including crocodile, turtle and dugong. For these reasons, customary fishing by Indigenous people has become increasingly recognised as separate from other commercial and recreational fishing activities.

At the national level, the importance of Indigenous customary fishing was formally recognised with the establishment of the National Indigenous Fishing Technical Working Group in October 2003. The working group aims to enhance Indigenous people’s participation in protecting, sharing and using Australian fisheries (NNTT 2003). One of its key outputs is The Principles Communiqué on Indigenous Fishing, which was endorsed by the Australian Government in August 2005.

The principles represent a commitment from stakeholders to:

  • recognise customary fishing as a sector in its own right
  • integrate and protect customary fishing within fisheries management frameworks
  • implement strategies to engage Indigenous people in fisheries-related business
  • expedite processes to increase Indigenous involvement in fisheries management and vocational training (NNTT 2005).

The principles have supported efforts at the state and territory level to separately recognise, support and protect customary Indigenous fishing activities. A common challenge across all jurisdictions has been implementing initiatives that support customary Indigenous fishing while also achieving sustainable fishing practices.

Initiatives and measures implemented include the following:

  • The NSW Government released an Indigenous Fisheries Strategy and Implementation Plan in December 2002. It aims to protect and enhance the traditional cultural fishing activities of Indigenous communities (NSW DPI 2013). In 2010 the NSW Government also amended its Fisheries Management Act 1994 to formally recognise cultural fishing; and established an Aboriginal Fishing Advisory Council to advise the NSW fishing agency on cultural fishing issues.
  • The NT Fisheries Act 1988 exempts Indigenous people from bag limits, size limits and taking protected species when fishing in traditional areas. The NT Government also has an Indigenous Fishing Development Strategy 2012–2014 (DPIF 2012). This aims to support sustainable, culturally appropriate business and employment opportunities for Indigenous communities involved in fisheries activities.
  • The SA Fisheries Management Act 2007 explicitly accounts for management of Indigenous traditional fishing (the previous Act did not). It allows for Indigenous traditional fishing management plans to be developed, in association with the Fishing Indigenous Land Use Agreement, which are consistent with the objectives of the Act.
  • The Tasmanian Living Marine Resources Management Act 1995 provides for Indigenous activities, including non-commercial fishing and taking of prescribed fish for the manufacture of artefacts for sale. The Act also allows for the issuing of permits and exemptions (Tasmanian DPIPWE 2015).
  • The Victorian Department of Environment and Primary Industries released the Victorian Aboriginal Fishing Strategy in August 2012. This strategy provides a guide to addressing native title, customary fishing, economic development opportunities and increasing Indigenous participation in fisheries management (VIC DPI 2012).
  • WA law has recognised customary fishing by Indigenous people since 1905 (WA Fisheries 2015b). The WA Government drafted a new policy in December 2009 to recognise these activities in its fisheries management (WA Fisheries 2009).

In line with The Principles Communiqué on Indigenous Fishing, and to better ensure sustainable outcomes, agencies have also focused on promoting greater Indigenous engagement in fisheries management. For example, the Northern Territory has three Aboriginal Fisheries Consultative Committees that better allow Indigenous groups to participate in fisheries management (NT DPIF 2012). In the Torres Strait, the Torres Strait Regional Authority established a Land and Sea Management Unit under the Land and Sea Management Strategy in June 2006. This unit provides support for Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal communities to care for land and sea resources in the Torres Strait region (TSRA 2010). In New South Wales, an Aboriginal Fishing Advisory Council was established to advise the NSW fisheries agency on a range of cultural fishing issues. Similarly, Fisheries Victoria’s Aboriginal fishing strategy (VIC DPI 2012) aims to increase Aboriginal participation in fisheries management.

The importance of customary Indigenous fishing is widely recognised, but little data is available on such fishing activities when compared with commercial and recreational fishing activities. This is likely to reflect several factors, including the relative isolation of many Indigenous fishing activities and the small-scale and dispersed nature of these activities.

A comprehensive evaluation of Indigenous fishing activities in Northern Australia was completed in 2003 as part of the National Recreational and Indigenous Fishing Survey (NRIFS) (Henry & Lyle 2003). This survey aimed to better understand the level of Indigenous fishing by surveying Indigenous people aged five years and over living in coastal communities across the north of Australia, from Broome in Western Australia to Cairns in Queensland (excluding those living in Torres Strait).

The survey showed that an estimated 37,000 Indigenous people living in the north of Australia fished at least once during 2000–01. This was equivalent to 92 per cent of the Indigenous population in the region. These individuals spent an estimated total of 420,000 days fishing in that year (Henry & Lyle 2003).

This fishing was estimated to be associated with a harvest of approximately 900,000 finfish, 1.1 million molluscs, 660,000 prawns and yabbies, 180,000 crabs and rock lobsters and smaller numbers of other species during 2000–01 (Henry & Lyle 2003). The major finfish species groups harvested were mullet, catfish, tropical snapper, bream and barramundi. Major non-finfish species groups included mussels, freshwater prawns, mud crabs, prawns and oysters. A large proportion (70 per cent) of this Indigenous harvest was taken from inshore and coastal waters that are relatively more accessible to traditional fishing methods. Methods typically used include lines, traps, nets and more traditional spear and hand collection methods (Campbell & Murphy 2005).

Based on the NRIFS, Henry and Lyle (2003) estimated that 186,200 Indigenous people (excluding those living in Torres Strait) participated in non-commercial fishing during the survey year and that a total expenditure of $22.5 million was incurred by these fishers. Expenditure on fishing by Indigenous people residing in northern Australia was estimated to be $2.4 million, and for those residing in southern Australia it was estimated to be $20.6 million.

More recent research on Indigenous cultural fishing was conducted in New South Wales to determine a methodology for estimating cultural catch (Schnierer & Egan 2011).

The report found that cultural fishing in the Tweed River region occurred on a regular basis, was predominantly shore-based and was focused around the estuary and adjacent coastal waters. The main gear types used were rods and handlines, with nets, traps and spears used to catch some species. The top 10 culturally most important species, based on a ranking given by participants, comprised a mix of finfish and invertebrates. Pipis and mud crabs were the top two, followed by sea mullet, tailor, sand whiting, dusky flathead, beach worms, Sydney rock oysters and the bait yabby.

A separate project in New South Wales identified the participation of Indigenous people in the commercial fishing sector (Schnierer & Egan 2012). This study found that 28 Indigenous people operated in share management fisheries in New South Wales; most operated in the Estuary General Fishery and Ocean Hauling Fishery. Aboriginal people hold approximately 3 per cent of the total shares available in all of the share management fisheries in New South Wales. More than 90 per cent of Aboriginal commercial fishers indicated that they gave some of their commercial catch to their local Indigenous communities. These contributions ranged from 5 per cent to 20 per cent of annual catch, with the average contribution approximately 10 per cent.

In recognising Torres Strait Island and Aboriginal people as a key stakeholder group, the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation (FRDC) increased its focus on improving the research and information available on Indigenous fishing.

In 2010 it established an Interim Indigenous Reference Group to provide expert advice on the FRDC’s investment in research development and extension (RD&E) for Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fishing and the fisheries and aquaculture industry. The first face-to-face meeting of the group occurred at the Cairns Forum 2011, which brought together more than 30 relevant experts. A key outcome of the forum was six Indigenous people being nominated to form the  RDC’s Indigenous Reference Group (IRG) (FRDC 2013b). The aim of the IRG was to develop a fisheries and aquaculture research, development and extension plan for Indigenous Australians. In line with this, the IRG has developed a futures plan that includes 11 key principles for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander RD&E in the fishing and fisheries and aquaculture industry. Drawing on the identified principles, the IRG has also developed a ‘Five RD&E Priorities for Indigenous Involvement in the Fishing and Seafood Industry’ document. These documents were endorsed at the Cairns Forum 2012, and the principles and RD&E priorities were unanimously supported by Indigenous participants as a sound basis for guiding RD&E focused on Indigenous fishing.

The five strategic priorities for Indigenous participation in fishing and aquaculture in Australia were identified as:

  • Primacy for Indigenous people—Indigenous people have certain recognised rights associated with, and based on, the prior and continued occupation of country and water, and activities (such as fishing and gathering) associated with using and managing these.
  • Acknowledgement of Indigenous cultural practices—Indigenous people have the right to maintain and develop cultural practices to address spiritual, cultural, social and economic needs associated with aquatic resources and landscapes.
  • Self-determination of Indigenous rights to use and manage cultural assets and resources—Indigenous people have the right to determine courses of action in using and managing aquatic biological resources.
  • Economic development opportunities arising from Indigenous people’s cultural assets and associated rights—Indigenous people have the right to engage in economic activity based on the use of traditional aquatic biological resources and/or the right to share in the benefits derived from the exploitation of aquatic biological resources.
  • Capacity-building opportunities for Indigenous people are enhanced—Indigenous people have the right to access capacity-building activities to further their aspirations in using and managing aquatic biological resources (FRDC 2013a).

The IRG has identified RD&E actions to achieve these priorities. It is now working to promote these to relevant stakeholders (FRDC 2013b) and encourage activities that deliver improved benefits to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

An important factor for realising improved benefits will be the willingness and capacity of other sectors to effectively engage with the Indigenous fishing sector and communities.

Last reviewed:
24 Apr 2018