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 definition of Aboriginal traditional fishing in the Fisheries Management Act 2007 (SA) 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’.

At the national level, the importance of Indigenous customary fishing was formally recognised with the National Indigenous Fishing Technical Working Group being established 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.

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 in the survey year and that a total expenditure of $22.5 million was incurred by these fishers. Expenditure on fishing was estimated to be $2.4 million for Indigenous people residing in northern Australia and $20.6 million for those residing in southern Australia.

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 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.

Last reviewed: 4 November 2019
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