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Changes urged to boost commercial access for Aboriginal fishing businesses

David Prestipino -

Commercial fishing opportunities could soon open up for Aboriginal businesses keen to hook a slice of WA's $900 million export market.

The state's current Aboriginal Community Commercial Fishing Licence (ACCFL) Policy enables Indigenous communities to obtain commercial licences to fish Trochus, mud crab and sea cucumber for economic purposes, but approval must be given by the area's relevant native title body.

"The policy is intended to benefit the Aboriginal community whose lands are adjacent to the waters for which access is granted," a spokesperson for the Department of Primary Industry and Regional Development said.

"Access should be grated to the community, with fishing activity only being undertaken by nominated community members."

The DPIRD said changes to the 1989 Aboriginal fishing legislation were being considered to help increase access for Aboriginal groups to commercial fishing and related industries.

The ACCFL is a Ministerial policy that was last reviewed in 1993.

"The current Policy is being considered as part of a broader review aimed at enabling access to commercial fishing by Aboriginal groups," the spokesperson said.

Tidal Moon managing director Michael Wear is hopeful his sustainability-driven sea cucumber business can remain in the fishery after its five-year licence obtained through a minister's exemption expired in July.

He estimated Indigenous fishing businesses accounted for just 0.4 per cent of WA's annual $900m commercial fishing export market and wants the WA government to make access to commercial fisheries easier for them.

Tidal Moon, which gained access to the Shark Bay sea cucumber fishery in 2017, had to forgo a lucrative export opportunity with a Singapore company and three full-time employees after losing its licence.

More than just a sea cucumber business, Tidal Moon has forged key partnerships with CSIRO, APEC and the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research focused on environmental protection, sustainability and research.

The DPIRD said Tidal Moon had been issued a six-month exemption to continue its fishing operation while Mr Wear, a Mulgana Traditional Owner, sought a longer-term arrangement with native title body Malgana Aboriginal Corporation.

"The exemption held by Tidal Moon to fish for sea cucumber is not part of the commercial fishery ... its licence is made available under the ACCFL Policy and is different from commercial fishery licences in that it is only available for Aboriginal businesses.

Licences issued to Aboriginal groups through the ACCFL Policy are free and do not have a value on the open market as they can't be sold.

One company, Tasmanian Seafoods, has a monopoly on commercial sea cucumber fishing in WA after it acquired all the licences on the open market from previous holders, an option unlikely to open for Mr Wear.

"Limiting the number of commercial licences that can operate in a fishery is a common approach used to manage fishing pressure and support sustainability," the DPIRD spokesperson said.

Each year approximately 74 tonnes of sea cucumbers, with a gross production value of $250,000, are fished commercially from the Pilbara and Kimberley coastlines.

The majority of the niche product is exported, mainly as a dried and salted food known as beche-de-mer, a highly-valuable and sought-after delicacy across Asia and Europe, with sea cucumbers prized for their culinary and medicinal properties.

WA's sea cucumber fishery in 2019 earned MSC certification, recognising its sustainable management of a fisheries resource, the 10th fishery in WA such accredited.

"The sea cucumber fishery has demonstrated it has minimal impact on the environment, due to the small size of the fishing fleet, the expansive fishing area and harvesting by hand," Fisheries Minister Dave Kelly said at the time.

WA Fishing Industry Council CEO Darryl Hockey recently criticised the planning and lack of Indigenous consulation on the proposed South Coast Marine Park, a McGowan government policy launched in 2019 to create five million hectares of new national and marine parks and conservation reserves called the Plan for Our Parks.

He said the Department for Biodiversity, Conservation and Attraction's consultation on the project was worse than the recently-amended new Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act.

"The consultation process not only fails to address the serious socio-economic impacts of sanctuary zones, it also falls well short of genuine engagement," Mr Hockey said.

"It especially fails to consider the creation of shared economic opportunities for the Indigenous people who have a close association with the coastline."

DBCA said it was taking all feedback into account on the proposed South Coast Marine Park, due to be established in 2024, locking off areas of coastline from Bremer Bay to the South Australian border for marine conservation.

"We have actively consulted and continue to consult with planning partners along with all key stakeholders and industry groups, including commercial and recreational fishers," the DBCA said last month.

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