Native title sea rights claim to protect unique Groote Eylandt marine environment
The Anindilyakwa Indigenous people of Groote Eylandt want to better protect their waters.
And early next year, they plan to lodge a native title claim over 17,000 square kilometres of ocean from Groote Eylandt to the mainland to help them do it.
“Hopefully by having this native title claim over the sea country, that will enable us to have rights as Indigenous people living on the coastline,” Anindilyakwa Land Council chairman and traditional owner Tony Wurramarrba told 7.30.
After studying satellite imagery which showed apparent scarring on the seabed, the council became increasingly worried about damage by commercial fishing trawlers.
“We think there should be better controls and accountability around the fishing that goes on in these waters.,” Mark Hewitt, the council’s chief executive, told 7.30.
“Currently, we see evidence of considerable damage occurring, both for the flora and the fauna, from the trawling business.”
Traditional owners are also worried about what will happen when the Northern Territory Government’s moratorium on seabed mining expires in 2021.
For the past eight years, they have been fending off plans by a series of companies to mine 11 rich manganese tenements in the ocean off Groote Eylandt.
“Whether its native title, whether it’s the moratorium on seabed mining, the more protections we can apply, the safer this very unique culture will be,” Mr Hewitt said.
Protecting some of Australia’s most biodiverse waters
As they patrol the spectacular coastline of the Groote Eylandt Archipelago, the Anindilyakwa Land and Sea Rangers despair at the amount of floating rubbish they find in its aquamarine waters.
“You can see the bits of abandoned fishing nets from Indonesia up on the rocks there,” senior ranger Keith Lambert pointed out.
“There is more pollution now, particularly plastics, than there ever was.
“The bottle tops are the worst things that turtles can pick up, because the turtles can’t go down once they’ve taken a bit of plastic, and then they end up washed up on the beach, or floating dead somewhere.”
Fifty kilometres off the Northern Territory coast in the Gulf of Carpentaria, the Groote Archipelago has some of Australia’s most biodiverse waters.
The sea rangers are working with Northern Territory Government senior marine scientist Carol Palmer to research why rare dolphins, called false killer whales, congregate here.
The islands are also a hotspot for spinner, snubfin, humpback and bottlenose dolphins, dugongs and manta rays.
“There’s something very, very unique about it, that these big, top-order predators, particularly the false killer whales, are circling the Groote Archipelago,” Dr Palmer said.
They are satellite tagging the false killer whales to find out whether they are a distinct resident population and should be classified as vulnerable or threatened.
“They need to eat a lot of fish, and so there’s certain areas like Groote Eylandt that are obviously really productive, and to be able to identify those, means that we can potentially manage those areas, and these species, into the long term,” Dr Palmer said.
‘Native title claim should be strong’
To gain native title the traditional owners will have to prove a history of occupying and using the sea.
That’s depicted in the island’s ancient rock art, which includes many paintings of dolphins, dugongs and turtles.
“These animals are important for us as totems,” Anindilyakwa sea ranger Brendan Yantarrnga said.
“They are also important for hunting; the turtles and stingray.”
Anthropologist for the Anindilyakwa Land Council Leslie Pyne has been collecting the information needed for the claim from traditional owners.
“They’ve been trading with the Macassans over hundreds of years, so there’s a strong argument to suggest the people of this region have traditionally used the sea, and it belongs to them, and this native title claim should be strong,” she told 7.30.
As soon as the claim is lodged, the fishing, mining, oil and gas industries will have to negotiate with traditional owners to enter the area.
“With exploitive industries, such as oil and gas and the fishing industry, we’re keen to have a seat at the table to be able to negotiate best practice in those types of activities,” Mr Hewitt said.
‘Tapestry of dreaming tracks’
The claim is being lodged by a total of 23 clans from the Groote Archipelago, Numbulwar and Ngukurr, with the Northern Land Council (NLC) — which represents the mainland clans — leading the legal action.
The clans have grouped together as the Makarda Claim Group, meaning “sea” in the Anindilyakwa language.
“The Makarda Claim Group seeks a determination that will include the right of native title holders to take resources from their sea country for any purpose,” NLC acting CEO Rick Fletcher said.
“Clans on the islands and mainland have strong ceremonial, cultural, economic and familial connections to each other.
“Together, they look after a tapestry of dreaming tracks which criss-cross the ocean.”
‘Certainty needed for industry’
Katherine Winchester of the NT Seafood Council is concerned that jobs will be lost in the fishing industry. (ABC News: Jane Bardon)
The Northern Territory Seafood Council sees the claim as a potential threat to the remote jobs the Territory’s small but valuable fishing industry provides.
“Around Groote Eylandt there’s the Northern Prawn Fishery, also mackerel fishing, and closer to the mainland we have mud crab and barramundi fishing,” council chief executive Katherine Winchester told 7.30.
The Seafood Council expects it will have to be a party to the case once it starts in the Federal Court, to defend the commercial fishing industry’s interests.
“It’s about putting forward what the area means to the industry, and making sure that’s taken into account, so existing commercial activities continue with certainty,” Ms Winchester said.
“We don’t deny the need to have rights recognised, but with Blue Mud Bay, and native title claims, it’s a lot of time and energy spent in courtrooms, and we don’t want that,” she said.
“We want to work on community, with traditional owners, to figure out solutions.”
Net of fishing closures tightening
The industry is already alarmed by the prospect of losing access to some of its richest fishing grounds.
Traditional owners have threatened to lock them out of 80 per cent of the Northern Territory coastline, after a decade of stalled negotiations following the Blue Mud Bay Land Rights Law High Court decision.
The successful 2010 native title claim over Queensland’s Torres Strait set the precedent that traditional owners could gain rights to large areas of the ocean.
If the Groote Eylandt sea claim succeeds that would encourage other Northern Territory Aboriginal groups worried about potential impacts from commercial fishing and gas exploration to follow suit.
“We’ve been speaking to communities all around the coastline and we absolutely understand that communities want to be part of fisheries management, they want to make local decisions, they want to understand what’s happening in their back yard,” Ms Winchester said.
The area claimed around Groote Eylandt contains both Northern Territory and Commonwealth waters.
Neither government directly answered questions about whether they would support or oppose the claim.
“The [NT] Government supports the rights of traditional owners to lodge native title claims and will work constructively with established native title holders to discuss and negotiate a solution which achieves positive outcomes for native title holders and impacted parties,” Chief Minister Michael Gunner told 7.30.
A spokesman for Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion said the Minister, “supports the rights of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to pursue the recognition of their ownership of Indigenous land under relevant legislation”.
Economic development hopes
The Anindilyakwa people hope to farm giant clams if their claim is successful. (ABC News: Jane Bardon)
The Anindilyakwa people hope the claim will bolster their plan to revisit abandoned attempts to farm giant clams and sea cucumbers.
That would help reduce their dependency on royalties from the island’s manganese mine, which is due to close in 11 years.
“The sea country, it is our supermarket, and for us it is a base for our economic future here on the island,” Mr Wurramarrba said.
“In a big way it will open economic doors for us as people living here on the coastline.”
Ms Winchester said that was something the seafood industry was keen to cooperate on with traditional owners from Groote Eylandt and across the Northern Territory.
“We’ve got industry who are willing to partner with communities,” she said.
“It’s a lot of hard work and it’s a lot of investment to get it right, but we’ve already got some successful examples around the coastline.”
“Regardless of the native title claim, we want to improve relationships between all parties, because at the end of the day if you don’t have good relationships and good understandings, then you don’t have a viable industry.”