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First Nations get a bite at lucrative commercial fisheries

David Prestipino -

Fresh opportunities are on the line for Traditional Owners and Indigenous businesses keen for a bite of Australia's lucrative $3.5 billion fishing industry.

Recent lures from governments have seen renewed engagement with Indigenous fishing businesses and Traditional Owners, mirroring initiatives in other sectors to accelerate economic prosperity, particularly in remote communities along Australia's 34,000km coastline.

Despite many Traditional Owner groups having long, strong cultural connections with their Sea Country, opportunities for Indigenous businesses have been limited, while the industry has rarely leaned on traditional Aboriginal marine knowledge to improve the sector.

The tide appears to be turning, with two commercial fishing licences on the horizon for Indigenous fishing businesses and organisations along Western Australia's vast Kimberley coastline and in New South Wales.

NSW late last year accepted 16 Aboriginal-community-owned fisheries business proposals under a new Department of Primary Industries and Department of Regional NSW program aimed at bolstering Indigenous presence in the commercial fisheries sector.

It was the government's first response to a state parliamentary inquiry into cultural fishing, with three commercial fishing enterprises chosen to develop business models, with a view to receiving commercial fishing licences, with NSW keen to foster economically-viable commercial fishing, aquaculture, seafood processing and tourism-related businesses owned and managed by Aboriginal community organisations or businesses.

Three Aboriginal community-owned businesses have since received support from the NSW government to break into the commercial fishing sector.

Joonga Land and Water Aboriginal Corporation will spend two years developing a business strategy to create Walbunja Aboriginal Fishing Cooperative on the south coast.

Yaegl Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation will develop a commercial fishing enterprise on the north coast, while the Wonnarua Nation Aboriginal Corporation is eyeing an aquaculture and aquaponics venture in the Upper Hunter region.

NSW Aboriginal Land Council chair Danny Chapman said knowledge sharing of marine environments from Indigenous people was "a win-win" for the fishing industry and eventually led to commercial enterprises for Indigenous fishing businesses.

"We think we could contribute to NSW, Australia and probably the world if we sit down and work out ways in which Aboriginal people can get back into the industry and be involved in aquaculture," he said about the NSW program.

Commercial fishing opportunities have also risen to the surface on the other side of Australia, with WA's Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development's first comprehensive research into Kimberley mud crabs in the King Sound involving Warrwa traditional owners, surveying the mangrove creeks and mud off Derby, 2,200km north of Perth.

Traditional owners and the WA government hope it leads to an Aboriginal mud crab fishery, with the DPIRD hopeful the unique study would eventually create economic opportunities for traditional owners across the Kimberley.

A DPIRD spokesperson said the time was right to examine economic development opportunities for Indigenous businesses and communities, with more than 90 per cent of the Kimberley recognised under native title.

Supporting Aboriginal people to realise the economic development potential via commercial fishing rights was a high priority for the department.

"This program is just the very first step in being able to engage and empower Aboriginal communities to enter that commercial fishery," the DPIRD spokesperson said.

DPIRD's partnership with Warrwa traditional owners coincides with moves from WA, home to 10,000km of pristine coastline, to overhaul its restrictive Aboriginal Fishing Policy this year and boost Indigenous participation in commercial ventures.

DPIRD research scientist Dr Danielle Johnston said her team in the Kimberley would glean information from Warrwa traditional owners, who share the Karmulinunga Reserve area of Derby.

"This survey provides the foundation for future surveys in other areas of the Kimberley ... and will be used to assist developing an Aboriginal Mud Crab Fishery," she said.

The developments in WA and NSW come after traditional owners in the Northern Territory restricted commercial fishing access in several areas on their Sea Country.

Laws on how First Nations people can fish differ in each state and territory, with exemptions from fishing licences common as they acknowledged they needed to fish to feed families.

Many states have since removed special exemptions for Indigenous people, with most states now recognising Aboriginal rights to fish in a variety of different forms.

ILSC Grout CEO Joe Morrison said it was progressing additional research and engagement to support the development of a Fisheries and Aquaculture Strategy for the period to 2028.

"We want First Nations peoples to prosper, and this includes strong representation in fisheries," he said.

"We can play our part by amplifying Indigenous voices and partnering together to deliver stronger First Nations representation across the fisheries sector."

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