Comment: Lock-out of Finniss River & Tiwi Islands just the start

LAST Friday was a very dark day for tens of thousands of the Northern Territory’s non-aboriginal anglers with the announcement that they will now be locked out of all but 12km of the 152km iconic Finniss River located 140km south-west of Darwin.

This ban on accessing just about all of the Finniss River, announced by the Northern Land Council (NLC), follows on from a similar decision by the Tiwi Land Council (TLC) earlier this year to stop non-aboriginal recreational anglers from being able to use their own boats to fish any of the extensive creeks, rivers and intertidal zones on both Bathurst and Melville Islands, with the exception of a small strip along the southern coast line where a $100 access permit is required.

The ability of aboriginal traditional owners (TOs) to now choose to lock-out non-aboriginal anglers in the Northern Territory has arisen from a ruling made back in 2008 by the High Court of Australia in what has become known as the Blue Mud Bay case. Justices of the High Court ruled in favour of aboriginal TOs who had argued that the land granted to them in the NT under Aboriginal Land Rights Act (ALRA) should not only cover the land itself, but also capture the inter-tidal waters out to the low-tide mark. This ruling meant that non-aboriginal Australians would be trespassing on to aboriginal land if they navigated their boats into waters covering the inter-tidal zone, and/or entered any creeks or rivers which flowed through aboriginal granted land.

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The Finniss River – the majority of this waterway is set to become off limits to non-aboriginal anglers.

Since the 2008 decision of the High Court, respective NT Governments have been adamant that there would be no lock-out of recreational anglers or the need for individual fishing permits to access 81 per cent of the Territory’s coastline which has been granted as aboriginal land. To try and achieve this outcome the government entered into negotiations with respective land holders and representative land councils to see if a deal could be struck – in other words TOs would be paid by the public purse to ensure continuing access.

Last year the Government was successful in striking a monetary deal with local TOs to allow non-aboriginal anglers to keep fishing Australia’s most iconic barra waterway – the Daly River south of Darwin. As many readers would be aware, the Daly is home to both the legendary Barra Classic and the Barra Nationals fishing tournaments.

Unfortunately, deals with the TLC for accessing the Bathurst and Melville Islands, and now the NLC with regards to the Finniss River, were both not achieved after the breakdown of negotiations. At this stage specific details regarding the lock-out of non-aboriginal anglers from 92 per cent of the Finniss River are still sketchy, but supposedly the ban will come into force on 1 July of this year (2013).

Non-Aboriginal rec fishos up in the Territory are understandably angry with the new lock-outs which many feel are discriminatory and made for no good reason. Any look at some of the Territory’s fishing forums such as the ABC’s Tales From The Tinny Facebook page will show how frustrated local anglers are with this latest decision.

They also know that this is only the thin end of the wedge as aboriginal land covers much of the Territory, and as mentioned earlier, encompasses over 80 per cent of its coastline.

If other TOs follow the precedents that have now been set by the TLC and the NLC, then all of the Territory’s remaining big fishing rivers – such as the East and South Alligator, Roper, McArthur River etc – could be locked away from non-aboriginal anglers for good. Worst of all, there is nothing the NT Government can do about it except to try to pay TOs what many would consider to be a ransom to get full or limited access for non-aboriginal fishos.

As the NT is only a Territory and not a full state, the NT’s laws can be overturned by the Federal Parliament so there is no capacity for the NT Government to legislate its way out of this mess without the help of the Commonwealth. Unfortunately for rec fishos, the Territory is the only jurisdiction where exclusive aboriginal land ownership exists (under ALRA) which differs from the less stringent Native Title Act which applies Australia-wide. As a result there is likely to be little appetite for the Feds to do anything to allow Territorians of all races to be treated equally when it comes to navigating and fishing inter-tidal zones, creeks and rivers.

Since self-Government back in 1978, the NT has worked hard to ensure that its fisheries are well managed and has achieved a well-earned reputation in this regard. Further, successive governments have understood the very special place rec fishing has in the hearts of Territorians and over the last four decades it, and the Amateur Fishermans Association of the NT (AFANT), have worked tirelessly to make it the envy of the rest of Australia. Millions have been spent on the buying back of commercial barra net licences and today only a handful of the original hundred remain in operation. The allocating of rec only areas, the creation of extensive artificial reef systems and the building and upgrading of numerous boat ramps has all contributed to the great rec fishing experience the NT has to offer to the local and visitor alike. Unfortunately, the current and pending future lock-outs of non-aboriginal Territorians from fishing four-fifths of the NT’s inter-tidal waters, creeks and rivers means all of this hard work will have come to nought.

Each year thousands of anglers drive up to the Territory towing their own boats to fish the big barra rivers. While in the NT these fishos spend money on accommodation, fuel, repairs and maintenance to their cars, boats and trailers, buy food, drinks and other supplies from supermarkets and camping stores, purchase gifts for those back home, go on other tours etc. Those who fly in spend money on accommodation, restaurants, as well as hiring the services of the NT’s highly professional fishing tour operators. Then there are the Territorians themselves who every weekend spend a small fortune on fuel for their cars and boats as they drive hundreds of kilometres to fish the big rivers. They also heavily support local tackle retailers with their purchases of more lures they can ever use, and of course the expensive 4WDs and boats which also need to be serviced on a regular basis. Any actions which result in reducing the level of recreational fishing access will impact on all of the above expenditure and thus clearly impact on the Territory’s economy.

Every year an almost incomprehensible amount of tax-payers’ money is spent trying to achieve better health, education and housing outcomes for remote aboriginal Territorians. No thinking individual is suggesting that this should not be the case. Experts have differing views on how best the money can be spent to achieve concrete outcomes to bridge the gap. However, one thing is for sure: many thousands of Territory fishos are hard working contributors and pay plenty of taxes.

Unfortunately, many fear that the recent decisions by TOs and Land Councils to start locking-out non-aboriginal fishos (and/or charging them high permit fees to fish) will set back race relations in the NT by 30 years, given it is such a divisive issue. For those who really know the Territory this is not a glib throw-away statement.

Good will and cooperation is hard to build, yet very easy to lose. Given all the social challenges being faced by the Territory, and the need for all to pull together to build better lives, is it really worth putting this at risk by those few making conscious decisions to lock-out those who are contributing to the solution – simply because now they have the power to do so? Missing the bigger picture on this issue will be a tragedy for all.

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