A voice for Indigenous fisheries

A Tweed region survey gathers Indigenous ideas on sharing and managing local fisheries

By Bianca Nogrady

Fingal Beach, Tweed region, NSW.

As the world’s oldest continuous culture, Aboriginal Australians have not only maintained a connection to the land for tens of thousands of years, but also to the waters that encircle and run over it. These waters have provided a wealth of food and other resources to countless generations.

With the arrival of European settlers, Indigenous cultural fishing practices and access to fisheries were dramatically changed. But Stephan Schnierer, an adjunct professor at Southern Cross University, is working to ensure that Indigenous fisheries are recognised as the original fisheries in Australia. This will help to ensure that Indigenous people have a strong presence in both management and use of Indigenous fisheries.

Stephan Schnierer says that for a long time, Indigenous fishing was lumped in with recreational fishing in Australia. This failed to acknowledge the unique and often vital role that fisheries play in the day-to-day life and culture of Indigenous communities on the coast and inland.

“We need to build greater awareness within the broader community as well as with policy makers, managers, researchers etc, to ensure that Indigenous Australians get access to a fair share of their fisheries resources and a say in the way those resources are managed,” Stephan Schnierer says.

“When you look at fisheries management today, a big problem for Indigenous fisheries has been its invisibility. This is due, in part, to the lack of research that could help guide appropriate management strategies within agencies and provide communities with documented evidence of the value of their fisheries,” Stephan Schnierer says.
With support from the FRDC and its Indigenous Reference Group, Stephan Schnierer and colleagues recently undertook a comprehensive survey of the Indigenous community’s relationship with fisheries in the Tweed region of far northern NSW. But there is more to it than simply asking who is catching what and how much.

Seeking the big issues

He and his colleagues organised a series of workshops in which they spoke to the local Indigenous people in the Tweed region about what species they were catching and why, and at the same time listened to what the community saw as the big issues for them in the fisheries space. The workshops were also attended by representatives from the NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI).

“This kind of data is sensitive, because people don’t like giving up what they catch and how much they catch, because they’re worried that it will come back to haunt them in the form of policies that further reduce their access to fisheries resources.

“What we wanted to do with the Tweed project was to try working with the community in a two-way process to collect data,” Stephan Schnierer says. “We do this research so that managers are better informed, so they get some benefit out of it, but the community also become better informed too.”

What emerged was a clear message that the community wanted more of a say in fisheries management, including on issues such as bag limits, gear and economic opportunities. It also raised the possibility of Indigenous governance of fisheries.

Following on from these workshops, the Tweed community has developed its own local Aboriginal fisheries management plan, which it hopes to implement in conjunction with the NSW DPI. It is a big change from the usual top-down approach to fisheries management and does require a shift in government thinking, Stephan Schnierer says, but the end result is likely to be worth the effort.

The ‘Tweed Plan’ contains information on both historical and contemporary Aboriginal cultural fishing in the region, and makes suggestions for cultural bag and size limits, Aboriginal fishing gear, waters that can be fished, and identification of who can fish under the plan.

“If we can get an agreement then the community can go ahead and catch fish the way they want to catch them; once you’ve got an agreement on bag limits, then compliance is likely to be a lot easier.”

While negotiations are underway with NSW DPI to implement the ‘Tweed Plan’, other communities have expressed a desire to develop their own plans. 

FRDC Research Code: 2012-216

More information

Stephan Schnierer, stephan.schnierer@scu.edu.au