Indigenous people have been fishing and gathering seafood along the Northern Territory’s vast coast for more than 50,000 years.
Now they are poised to become major players in the commercial industries.
The Aboriginal Sea Company was set up by the Northern, Tiwi and Anindilyakwa land councils after several years of consultation with Traditional Owners, the Territory Government and other stakeholders.
Board chair Calvin Devereaux says: “This is all about self-determination and empowerment for Aboriginal people. I don’t think we’ll look back from this point on.
“It’s a great opportunity for Traditional Owners and saltwater people to advance themselves, become owners and operators in their own right and be in charge of their own destinies.”
The Darwin-based company is taking a calm, practical approach to getting involved in commercial fishing, aquaculture and fishing tourism.
Chief executive Bo Carne, who has 17 years’ experience working with the Territory Government’s Fisheries division, says: “There’s a lot to be done. We want to partner with long-term, experienced people.”
The company plans to drive training of Indigenous workers.
“We won’t become a registered training organisation ourselves, but we will partner with RTOs to build up a pool of people with the right skills,” says Mr Carne.
“There has been a lot of training in other fields leading to a lot of qualifications – but not leading to jobs for Aboriginal people. We want to change that.”
The company wants to help Traditional Owners take a major stake in commercial fishing and set up aquaculture ventures.
Anindilyakwa Land Council already has an oyster farm on Groote Eylandt.
Brood stock provided by the Anindilyakwa Land & Sea Rangers were sent to the Government’s Darwin Aquaculture Centre, where they were successfully spawned and transported to Thompson Bay for a two-year grow-out trial.
About 6000 oysters are now growing in baskets and feeding naturally as they are covered by the tide twice a day.
The Aboriginal Sea Company envisages similar Indigenous-owned high-end aquaculture ventures stretching right along the Territory coast and the Tiwi Islands.
More than half the fish eaten in Australia is now farmed and the demand for other seafood, such as oysters, is growing rapidly.
“We are not going to push ourselves on Traditional Owners, but we’ll always be here to help in whatever business they decide on,” says Mr Carne.
He foresees Aboriginal organisations owning and operating their own commercial fishing boats.
“It’s not just about the fishing licences, ownership and participation. It’s also about having a greater say in management.
“Indigenous people have always had a small voice in the fishing industries, but they are now major players in it.
“On top of that, we’ve got all these coastal communities looking for employment, so it’s a great leap forward.
“I am particularly looking forward to partnering with the fishing industries and using their long-term expertise.”
The founding of the Aboriginal Sea Company follows the historic 2008 Blue Mud Bay settlement, which found that Traditional Owners have the right to control access to waters overlying Aboriginal land, including the intertidal zone.
More than 85 percent of the Territory coastline is owned by Indigenous people and a further 10 percent is subject to claim.
The Northern Land Council is delighted that delicate negotiations over many years have led to setting up the Territory’s first Indigenous-owned seafood company.
NLC chairman Samuel Bush-Blanasi says: “Everyone has been waiting for this for a long time, especially Traditional Owners.”
And land council chief executive Joe Martin-Jard says: “This is only the beginning of the story.
“Not only will the Aboriginal Sea Company provide the opportunity for more jobs, but it will enable Aboriginal people to implement profitable and sustainable fishing policies and care for their most precious resource in a way only they know how.”
The company is governed by a board made up of three representatives from each other saltwater land councils.
Industry experts will be engaged.
“Aboriginal people have fought hard for rights to land and sea country and the Northern Land Council has taken up the fight for almost 50 years,” says Mr Bush-Blanasi.
“We have had many critics of land rights over the years, but the sky hasn’t fallen in. It’s good for the economy and it’s good for Traditional Owners. Everyone benefits.”
Mr Devereaux says: “Moving forward, the ASC goal is not to close access. Access to Aboriginal waters is not being denied.
“We are looking for win/win situations that allow First Nations participation in management and businesses of the resource while providing access to existing operators.
“We will seek partnerships and inclusiveness from everyone, but Aboriginal people will decide any conditions of any access arrangements.”