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Compiled by Leon P. Zann
Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Townsville Queensland
Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories, Canberra (1995)
ISBN 0 642 17391 5
The coastal Aboriginal peoples have been users and custodians of Australia's marine environment for 40,000 to 50,000 years. For coastal communities 'salt water country' was, and in many communities still remains, an indistinguishable part of the clan estate and culture. Aboriginal shell middens as old as the present coastline (around 5,000 years) are found in many coastal areas around Australia.(19)
The cultural associations and concerns of coastal Aboriginal peoples for the sea and its resources remain strong, even in areas where they have been historically dispossessed. However, this has not been adequately documented and is little understood by non-indigenous Australians.(20),(21)
Major issues and concerns of coastal Aboriginal peoples today centre around their dispossession from their traditional land/sea estates; the threats, desecration and injury to sites of cultural significance; the loss of ancient fishing and hunting rights; their lack of commercial fishing opportunities; and their general lack of participation in coastal environmental planning and management.(20),(21)
Legislation protecting Aboriginal rights in the sea exists in the Northern Territory. Here, 84% of the coastline to the low tide mark is Aboriginal land. Beyond the low tide mark, Territory legislation provides for the closure of waters up to two kilometres offshore for Aboriginal usage(82). In the Torres Strait, indigenous fisheries are specifically protected under the Torres Strait Treaty (22),(74).
Sea rights and interests may yet be found to persist in southern Australia. However, the establishment of indigenous rights over an area may not necessarily be followed by closure to other parties since rights and interests may co-exist(84).
While native title in the sea was not tested in the historic 'Mabo decision' of the High Court in 1992, claims regarding sea title are currently before the High Court and State Supreme Courts.(20)
The Law Reform Commission (1986) and the Resource Assessment Commission (1993) strongly recommended that indigenous interests in environmental management be accommodated(20). The full implications of the recognition of the persistence of indigenous common law rights and interests is yet to be determined, and implications for indigenous management of resources or other interests in the marine environment is yet to be resolved(20). The special rights of indigenous peoples, including recognising their traditional rights relating to environmental management, have been recognised under international agreements(20).
The Torres Strait Islanders, a maritime people of mainly Melanesian origin, have long been dependent on the reefs and marine resources of Torres Strait. While they face many of the problems of the Aboriginal peoples on the mainland, they were generally not dispossessed from their estates and continue to identify strongly with the sea.(22)
Today there are 14,500 Torres Strait Islanders in Queensland, of whom around 5,200 live in Torres Strait. Many of the islands are relatively small and infertile, and the Torres Strait Islanders continue to rely heavily on seafood in their diet, particularly green turtle. The Islanders are some of the greatest consumers of seafood in the world, and take around 2,400 turtles and 1,000 dugongs each year.(22)
Land and sea title are important issues. The historic 'Mabo decision' resulted from a legal challenge by three Murray Islanders. While it did not include customary sea tenure, by tradition clan territories comprise both land and sea. Sea territories include home reefs adjacent to their lands, and an extended sea tenure over waters, submerged reefs and sand banks beyond the home reef. Islanders continue to claim home reefs under custom, if not law.(22)
Figure 44: changing patterns of dugong and turtle hunting
Major environmental and management issues in the Torres Strait include the high levels of heavy metals in seafood; threats of enhanced greenhouse effect sea level rise on coastal erosion and water tables; threats of oil spills from pipelines and shipping in Papua New Guinea; effects of prawn trawling on the sea floor communities and on fisheries; the lack of access of Islanders to commercial fisheries; possible overhunting of dugongs and turtles; and conflicts in resource sharing with Papua New Guinea.(22),(74)