Cultural Access to Aquatic Resources in NSW

Hayley Egan, Barefeet

There are many misconceptions surrounding cultural access to aquatic resources both in NSW and throughout Australia. Many people assume that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have unlimited access or no rules when it comes to harvesting resources. In NSW this couldn’t be further from the truth. There is no single set of guidelines, legislation or regulations to govern cultural access. Native Title over water in NSW has for the first time been formally acknowledged in determinations in 2019. The details of the access rights to those claimants are slowly filtering through. Currently in NSW waters Aboriginal Cultural Fishing is acknowledged as a fishery along with Commercial and Recreational Fisheries. Though unlike the other two there are no regulations to govern access rights for the sector. Since 2010 there have been Interim Access Arrangements, which have evolved slightly over the last nine years. However, these are not legally binding like regulations, and as a result there are a lot of grey areas in their interpretation. This has led to the community mistrusting the Department and being in the dark about their rights within the fishery.

Following acknowledgement of an Aboriginal Cultural Fishery, an Aboriginal Fisheries Advisory Council was formed to advise the Minister. One of the key recurring messages the Advisory Council has communicated to the Department and its Minister is that regulating a cultural fishery with a single set of regulations for the state is culturally inappropriate. The Council agreed that, culturally, it is taboo to talk on another community’s country. The needs and customs of each community are distinct. Geography often dictates the harvest of resources, meaning that setting regulations to suit those communities in the coastal areas in the north of the state would not fit the needs of those in the south, as the species may not even be present in their waters or be in abundance. The same can be said for the communities on freshwater that for many years have struggled not just with access, but much more critically with water and healthy water that will sustain any resources.

In response to continued advice the Department of Primary Industry has begun a trial consultation, and development of Cultural Fishing Local Management Plans with three small community case studies in distinct areas throughout the state. This is the first step in culturally driven management through partnerships.

Marine Parks are established to help protect marine biodiversity, which is a natural system that Aboriginal People have been an integral part of throughout time. The affect of Sanctuary Zones on people and culture has been catastrophic. The percentage of any given park zoned for sanctuary seems minimal on paper, but being denied access to country impacts people’s ability to pass on knowledge specific to areas and activities, as it has been for generations. It severs connections to the past for generations to come. This creates a deep sense of loss in generations that may be the last to hold the knowledge and a loss of identity to future generations who, by no fault of there own, can be criminalised for following in the customs of their ancestors. Maybe it’s time we thought about protecting biodiversity in a different way; acknowledging Aboriginal people as components in that system, who by culture were gifted the knowledge to protect biodiversity on country at all costs.

Marine Parks throughout NSW have engaged Aboriginal people in their establishment and review cycle, though very few special purpose zones or any other access has been granted to recognise and ensure cultural practices aren’t impacted, and cultural continuity maintained.

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