The Indigenous Salt Water Advisory Group (ISWAG) have launched a 10-year-plan for turtle and dugong conservation. The plan has been created and will be led by Indigenous saltwater managers across the Kimberley region.

Sea turtles and dugong hold significant cultural and conservational significance in the region, yet both species are facing threats to their habitats both in the Kimberley and around the world.

ISWAG Co-Chair Daniel Oades said that “both animals are culturally significant” to all relevant Native Title groups, both species remain in “healthy Country plans” for those groups, and beyond being a “primary food source over the years, [the] traditional knowledge of these species is immense”.

“[The aim of the plan is] to clarify to investment partners and sciences that we’ve accentuated our priorities for these species. We’re looking for coordinated investment,” said Oades.

Utilising a cooperative approach where both western conservation science and Indigenous knowledge, the long-term management plan seeks to maintain healthy and sustainable populations of the two animals in Kimberley waters, aiming to ensure Indigenous livelihoods, culture and customary practices are supported.

Oades made clear that this cooperation and collaboration has “come a long way in the last 10 years in bridging the gap with western science” and ensuring that “right way research” is practised.

“[It was] a formative and challenging time, but we came out of it much more understanding of each other’s needs,” he said.

“There’s room for really good work with cooperation.”

The initiative further hopes to develop foundational ecological and biological knowledge, expanding Indigenous science capacity and two-way knowledge systems.

The initiative draws on the collective of nine established Kimberley saltwater Native Title groups, with backing from Western science partners.

Speaking in 2016 on the topic of a collaborative scientific approach, a Kimberley Traditional Owner commented “people who have Indigenous Knowledge are scientists themselves”.

The groups involved represent Traditional Owner groups for 90 per cent of the Kimberley coastline; Balanggarra, Wunambal Gaambera, Dambimangari, Mayala, Bardi Jawi, Nyul Nyul, Yawuru, Karajarri and Nyangumarta.

The initiative is addressing the challenge with a complicated range of policy and planning instruments.

The management of the coastal waters of the Kimberley has changed significantly in the last 10 years. Most nearshore waters covered by state marine parks are jointly managed by the governments, both state and federal, and Traditional Owners. Indigenous Protected Areas additionally cover a small area of Sea Country in the region, while some areas remain without formal environmental management frameworks.

ISWAG believe the initiative will act as a regionally coordinated effort towards conservation of species and habitat, enabling consistent data collection for researchers and improving efficiency of management challenges.

Oades hoped that once investment comes in, the initiative can be implemented effectively to “coordinate and target effort on research and monitoring”.

In addition, Oades made clear that further goals of maintaining clear governance, evaluation and organisational monitoring, as well as the coordination of “keeping all mobs together and on the same page”.

“Key agencies are very happy to be a part of collaboration where Traditional Owners have got organised,” he said.

“Mobs have realised that to get better investment, you’ve got to get organised and put out these documents.”

By Aaron Bloch