Indigenous customary fishing and aquaculture enterprises

Indigenous customary fishing

[expand all]

Definition of Indigenous 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).

For State jurisdictions the approach taken in defining Indigenous customary fishing varies. For South Australia, 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’. For Victoria, a strategy is being developed to formally recognise Indigenous customary fishing rights in the Fisheries Act 1995 (VIC) and Fisheries Regulations 2009 (VIC), which currently lack a formal recognition of the sector. Victorian traditional owners may have rights under the Commonwealth's Native Title Act 1993 to hunt, fish, gather and conduct other cultural activities for their personal, domestic or non-commercial communal needs without the need to obtain a licence. Traditional Owners that have agreements under the Traditional Owner Settlement Act 2010 (Vic) may also be authorised to fish without the requirement to hold a recreational fishing licence. In NSW, the Fisheries management Act 1994 defines Indigenous 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”.

Indigenous customary fishing nationally recognised in 2003

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 Indigenous customary fishing activities. A common challenge across all jurisdictions has been implementing initiatives that support Indigenous customary fishing while also achieving sustainable fishing practices.

Indigenous customary fishing has high cultural and livelihood values

The Livelihood values of Ingenious customary fishing was released in November 2018 (see Smyth et al. 2018). The research was conducted from October 2015 to July 2017 across three case study regions in South Australia, the Northern Territory and New South Wales. Through qualitative research, the study identified cultural, social and economic values that customary fishing provided to the Indigenous communities interviewed. While results differed amongst the regions, a number of key findings were consistent within all the communities. The study found that customary fishing encompasses a deep, multifaceted value to Indigenous people, allowing for the maintenance of connection to country, culture, identity spirituality and knowledge.

Customary fishing was also found to have an impact on physical activity and accessibility to healthy foods which may be otherwise unavailable or affordable. Economically, customary fishing was also found to be a way in which Indigenous people could provide for their families, enabling them with a sense of pride (Smyth, Egan & Kennett 2018).

The study also found that there is significant interest in greater Indigenous involvement in the commercial fishing and aquaculture sectors. This is because jobs in these fields were seen to not only provide income but also allow the use and passing on of cultural knowledge and skills (Smyth, Egan & Kennett 2018).

Participation in Indigenous customary fishing is high

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 northern 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 northern Australia fished at least once during 2000–01. This was equivalent to 92% 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 Mullets, Catfishes, Tropical Snappers, Breams and Barramundi. Major non-Finfish species groups included Mussels, Freshwater Prawns, Mud Crabs, Prawns and Oysters. A large proportion (70%) 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 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 Yabbies.

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% of the total shares available in all of the share management fisheries in New South Wales. More than 90% of Aboriginal commercial fishers indicated that they gave some of their commercial catch to their local Indigenous communities. These contributions ranged from 5% to 20% of annual catch, with the average contribution approximately 10%.

Indigenous people and aquaculture

[expand all]

Ancient Indigenous eel trap site added to UNESCO World Heritage List

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have for thousands of years managed Australia’s marine and aquatic resources, including through the practice of aquaculture (FAO 2010).

Recognised as one the oldest aquaculture sites in the world, the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape in south-west Victoria was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2019. The ancient aquaculture system was created about 6,600 years ago by the Gunditjmara people to catch and ranch the Southern Shortfin Eel or Kooyanng, allowing for year-round harvesting. The Gunditjmara people used stones from the local volcanic rock to create weirs, channels and dams to manage water flows in order to trap and store the eels for harvest (UNESCO 2019; Neal 2019).

Other examples of ancient Indigenous aquaculture systems include the Brewarrina Aboriginal Fish Traps in north-west New South Wales. The custodians of the fish traps are the Ngemba people and it is unknown how old the site is (New South Wales Office of Environment and Heritage n.d.).

Indigenous-owned aquaculture enterprises

According to a report published in 2015, Australian Indigenous women’s seafood harvesting practices and prospects for integrating aquaculture, a number of unsuccessful attempts have been made to establish commercial aquaculture business in Australia’s northern Indigenous communities (Fleming, Petheram & Stacey 2015).

However, more recently a number of new enterprises are showing promising signs. An enterprise funded by the Northern Territory Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries (DPIF) and through research by the Darwin Aquaculture Centre (DAC) is supporting the establishment of a small-scale farm for Oysters with a view to penetrating the Australian seafood market (National Landcare Program n.d.). The Aboriginal-owned Oysters farm in the Goulburn Islands in the Northern Territory is currently growing 90,000 Blacklip Pearl Oysters for edible consumption in cages on tidal longlines. The farm is owned by the Warruwi community members and is expecting its first harvest in approximately 2020 (Roberts 2018). Further, in late 2019 the Cooperative Research Centre for Developing Northern Australia (CRCNA) announced a collaborative research program aimed at expanding the Tropical Rock Oyster aquaculture industry across Indigenous communities in northern Australia. The three year $4.1 million dollar project is expected to conclude in late 2022 and will cover aspects such as securing commercial spat, and optimising grow out and gear technology (CRCNA 2019).

The Emama Nguda Aboriginal Corporation (ENAC) in Western Australia has recently completed a three-year pilot project to commercialise the breeding of giant Freshwater Prawns or Cherabin—the first of its kind. The project is now planning to upscale by establishing a commercial aquaculture facility and to provide empowerment opportunities for local Aboriginal people. Cherabin is a traditional part of Indigenous diet and culture (Fowler 2019)



Last reviewed: 30 April 2020
Thanks for your feedback.
Thanks! Your feedback has been submitted.

We aren't able to respond to your individual comments or questions.
To contact us directly phone us or submit an online inquiry

Please verify that you are not a robot.