AFANT has called upon the Northern Territory Government to act promptly, in the interest of all Territorians, as fishers are locked out of some of the most popular and socially significant recreational fishing areas in the Top End for the first time.
On Sunday February 28, the Northern Land Council (NLC) announced that the popular Finniss River, Mini Mini area and 100’s of kilometres of other intertidal zones and rivers would be closed to recreational fishing from Monday, March 1. Meanwhile, a permit/ registration will be required to access all other Aboriginal tidal and river waters, not already covered by a Long Term Access (LTA) agreement between the Northern Territory Government (NTG) and the NLC.
While fully respecting Traditional Owners rights to decide upon access to their waters, AFANT is not convinced that the new regime taking effect this week is anywhere near the best solution to resolve Blue Mud Bay access. Instead, it is a product of an unbalanced deal, and seems like a failure by the NTG to secure the best possible outcome in the interest of all Territorians.
Permits despite announcements to the contrary
The arrival of lock outs and fishing permits comes despite the Labor Government and the NLC announcing a $10M agreement to progress Blue Mud Bay negotiations and secure fishing access until December 2022 on August 6, just two weeks before the 2020 NT election. Compounding confusion, the NLC issued a media release on December 14 2020, titled “The NLC Full Council approves permit-free access to Aboriginal intertidal waters until 2022”. Yet only one day later, on December 15, AFANT discovered that a fishing permit and fishing licence had appeared on the NLC website. Many of the areas that were shown to be off limits, were apparently listed as such due to consultations with Traditional Owners that were yet to be conducted or concluded .
Responding to a question from an ABC Darwin reporter about the permit system on December 18 2020, Acting Chief Minister Nicole Manison said “certainly what we have seen there, was not in line with what we felt the agreement was that was made” adding that “what we want to see is permit free fishing up to 2022, as has been committed to..” At the time AFANT were able to convince the NLC to grant a permit waiver until March 1 2021, with the aim being to allow more time for consultation with undecided Traditional Owners, as well as time for the Territory Government to make its best efforts to influence a positive outcome.
AFANT are not a party to the Implementation Action Plan agreement that was announced by the NTG and NLC last August, and our CEO declined to attend the announcement at Timber Creek, because AFANT were not aware of the details in the deal and held concerns about the timing of the announcement. Since that time, while our CEO has ensured that the concerns of recreational fishers have been presented at a number of executive level meetings, AFANT are not a decision maker and our ability to influence developments has therefore been limited.
The Territory Government must act now
On Thursday Feb 25, AFANT’s CEO wrote to Chief Minister Michael Gunner calling for immediate action and a better outcomes for all involved.
The letter makes it clear that AFANT lays the blame for the current situation with the Northern Territory Government, citing the deal signed last August and a lack of effective action from the Government since December 15, when it was first made aware that the NLC intended to bring in permits. The hands-off approach by the Government has certainly not led to the best possible policy outcomes and this is inexcusable for such an important matter, to both the Traditional Owners who have been waiting 12 years to see some benefits from the Blue Mud Bay Decision of the High Court, and the 30,000 recreational fishers who are now left with unprecedented uncertainty and lock outs.
Meeting with the NLC last Friday, AFANT was informed that after welcoming recreational fishers for the past 12 years under various permit waivers, Traditional Owners in the Lower Finniss River decided to close access for the first time. Apparently, not because they don’t want to share access to their river at all, but because they don’t want to sign up to 2 years of access for no benefit or additional control. Remarkably, this situation is a direct consequences of the $10M 2020 Action Plan deal, which prioritises progress on commercial fishing over resolving long term access through agreements that directly benefit the Traditional Owners, who may wish to share their waters with all Territorians.
Permits or permit-free? – It’s an uncertain arrangement that could be much better
For the areas not immediately closed on March 1, the NLC have announced what they call “a simple and free registration process” to allow fishing access to intertidal waters and rivers where Traditional Owners have consented to interim arrangements until December 2020. Despite the “registration” being mandatory, the NLC media release argues that it is not a permit. Nevertheless, users must apply through the NLC permit system and the registration received is labeled “permit”. Questions from AFANT and the media on this matter and the legal basis behind the registration remain unanswered as of Monday morning.
Having applied for and received his registration permit, AFANT’s CEO was disappointed to find the low resolution map attached was hard to read and not suitable for identifying the yellow “Blue Mud Bay Registration Access Area(s)”. A slightly higher resolution map has been published on the NLC website, however, this map is also not detailed enough to define accessible areas with any useful precision. AFANT has urged the NLC to provide higher resolution maps, and we have been told these should be available soon.
Perhaps the most concerning thing about the Blue Mud Bay Registration Access permits is the lack of certainty they provide to fishers and the lack of benefits provided to Traditional Owners.
In areas where Traditional Owners have decided they wish to offer simple permits for recreational fishing, AFANT wants to see an improved system that provides real benefits, which could include funds, Indigenous Rangers, and new infrastructure for Aboriginal communities, as well as certainty of access being secured via agreement between the NLC and NTG. It is essential that agreements underpin any fishing permit system, so dispute resolution mechanisms can offer certainty of ongoing access to fishers and the many businesses that rely upon recreational fishing. Such a system would also ensure that Traditional Owners who share their Sea Country are appropriately recognised and compensated, without the need to wait until the end of 2022.
A vision for a harmonious & enduring resolution
AFANT fully respects the law, including Aboriginal Land Rights, and recognises that Traditional Owners are the decision makers for what activities can occur on their lands and waters.
As the peak body representing NT recreational fishers, we have a proud history of caring for and protecting our fisheries and the environment. We have a vision for a more complete, harmonious, and enduring resolution of Blue Mud Bay access than has been achieved to date.
Many of the benefits of recreational fishing flow from a sense of being connected to special places, the natural environment, and shared natural resources. Recreational fishing is an ever evolving, yet age-old cultural activity with social, economic, health and wellbeing benefits that flow throughout the community. The Northern Territory fishing community wants to enjoy harmony and respectful relationships with Traditional Owners; the recognised original custodians of the lands, rivers, and tidal areas that we all love and respect.
Only the Northern Territory Government can provide the leadership, funding and foundations required to achieve enduring and mutually beneficial agreements with Traditional Owners who decide they want to share their waters, so that all Territorians may enjoy and care for these special places.
The current Action Plan agreement does not prioritise enduring and mutually beneficial access agreements. The continued failure of the Government to put generous and more suitable offers before Traditional Owners, and the failure to secure any agreements since taking Government in 2016, has resulted in increased feelings of uncertainty, disharmony, and disconnection for many Territorians.
AFANT is convinced that the Government can do better by listening to all parties and approaching this matter with genuine intent to benefit all Territorians, as soon as possible. To this end, our CEO was constantly engaged with the Government over the past week, meeting with senior staff and Ministers to urge action, and encouraging them to think about this long unresolved policy challenge in ways that break out of the current dynamic.
Over the weekend AFANT contacted Government staffers to promote new approaches toward better access agreements, with or without mandatory registrations, depending on the wishes of Traditional Owners. This is consistent with our policy request before the 2020 election, which asked the Government to review the existing access agreements on offer for adequacy, and to improve them as necessary. We believe it is time for alternative and dynamic solutions that respect key aspects of the Action Plan, while going over and above to actively secure agreements with enduring benefits for Traditional owners and fishers. We hope to further discuss these solutions with Ministers this week.
For more information and to apply for a Blue Mud Bay Registration permit, visit the NLC website: https://www.nlc.org.au/apply-for-permit