Aboriginal fishing

Fishing is important to Aboriginal people, for food, enjoyment and is culturally significant. It can support intergeneration knowledge transfer and the continuation of cultural practices.

The Fisheries division supports sustainable and culturally appropriate business and employment opportunities for Aboriginal communities in fisheries management, research, development, training, industry participation and resource protection.

The following are some outcomes achieved in partnership with Aboriginal people:

  • increased employment of Aboriginal people in the Fisheries division
  • introduction of a recreational possession limit on painted crayfish
  • Aboriginal representation on Fisheries Management Advisory Committees
  • establishment of the Indigenous Community Marine Ranger Program
  • joint research projects engaging sea rangers in juvenile mud crab and snapper research, survey of customary harvest of sharks and stingrays and barramundi research
  • fisheries guidelines to ensure Aboriginal sea rangers are engaged wherever possible in any fisheries research activities
  • employment of Indigenous people as apprentices within Fisheries division
  • pilot projects for Indigenous engagement in aquaculture, including oysters, mud crab, trepang and giant clams
  • Fisheries Compliance (Seafood Industry) Certificate II and III delivered to Aboriginal sea rangers
  • Certificate II Measuring and Analysis delivered to sea rangers - this supports their engagement in fisheries research projects
  • amendment of the Fisheries Act to enable to the appointment of Aboriginal people as fisheries inspectors, and the appointment of the first inspectors under this new legislation
  • increased supply of fresh seafood in communities and business opportunities through the Aboriginal coastal licence
  • increased skills and capacity of Aboriginal coastal licensees
  • supporting knowledge transfer and working on country by supporting community fishing operations.
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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have lived along the Australian coastline for over 40,000 years. Many Northern Territory coastal Aboriginal groups continue to practise customary management and education that has been passed down over generations through stories, dance, song, art and ceremony. This usually means Aboriginal people will only fish and hunt within their own country and seek permission before fishing on someone else's country. Many of the marine and freshwater species are totemic featuring in art, craft and stories. These totemic values are linked to the protection of these species which is another form of customary management. These are only some of the customary management practices that Aboriginal people use to ensure the sustainability of their resources.

Subsistence fishing continues to be an important part of culture as well as a traditional source of protein. In recognition of the significant, cultural and spiritual connection Aboriginal people have with aquatic resources, a provision has been made under section 53 of the Fisheries Act 1988 that enables the continuation of culture and traditional use:

“Unless and to the extent to which it is expressed to do so but without derogating from any other law in force in the Territory, nothing in a provision of this Act or an instrument of a judicial or administrative character made under it shall limit the right of Aboriginals who have traditionally used the resources of an area of land or water in a traditional manner from continuing to use those resources in that area in that manner”.

The Aboriginal coastal licence provides a pathway for economic development and sustainable commercial activities in coastal Aboriginal communities. It enables Aboriginal people to establish small scale community fishing business at a low start-up cost.

Under section 183 of the Fisheries Regulations 1992, Aboriginal people living on Aboriginal lands granted under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 may hold a licence to catch and sell fish.

Aboriginal coastal licences allow:

  • the sale of 5000kg of fish per year
  • the use of a fishing line, a net not exceeding 100m in length and with a mesh size not exceeding 65mm, a scoop net, a hand spear and if authorised by the licence, a traditional fish trap
  • fish can be sold to a large range of customers including the public, fish retailers, restaurants, wholesalers and processors.

There are some restrictions, Aboriginal coastal licensees cannot:

  • hold a commercial fishing licence or engage in fishing operations under the Aboriginal coastal licence while being an assistant of the holder of a commercial fishing licence
  • transfer the licence.

The purpose of these limitations is to distinguish Aboriginal coastal licences from existing commercial fisheries.

Application for an Aboriginal coastal licence DOCX (65.7 KB)
Application for an Aboriginal coastal licence PDF (225.5 KB)

Coastal log book return PDF (1.4 MB)

The Aboriginal Fishing Mentor Program (AFMP) provides Aboriginal coastal licence holders with training in commercial fishing skills, net making and repair, and seafood handling, processing and cold storage. The AFMP supports the participation of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory (NT) seafood industry with over 110 Aboriginal people participating in the program over the past seven years.

The AFMP has developed a series of animated videos to promote safe fishing practices in remote communities. These videos were developed with the support of SeSAFE. SeSAFE is funded by the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation (FRDC), the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) and the Australian fishing and aquaculture industry. The goal of SeSAFE is to raise awareness and improve safety performance in the Australian fishing and aquaculture industry.

The videos are available in Aboriginal language and will be delivered in remote communities across the NT.

There are eight videos on YouTube:

  1. Work, health and safety responsibilities
  2. Dangerous marine life
  3. Planning a trip
  4. Launching a net from land
  5. Launching a net from a boat
  6. Processing fish
  7. Working with ropes and nets
  8. Using a cold chain.

The Northern Territory (NT) Government allocates funding, through the Fisheries division, to several coastal Indigenous ranger groups across the NT under its Indigenous Community Marine Ranger Program. The program was established in 2002 and funds are allocated through annual grants and controlled by a grant agreement.

The primary objective of this funding is to recognise and support Traditional Owners to be actively involved in the protection and management of their sea country. Marine rangers are tasked to carry out fisheries patrols and provide written reports back to the Fisheries division and the Water Police. Rangers identify and report on a variety of issues. Reports can be received on environmental threats such as ghost nets and on suspicious activity by commercial or recreational fishers.

The program is more than just the allocation of grants. Fisheries also provide on-ground coordination and support to the ranger groups to assist them patrol their sea country and to help them establish linkages with other government agencies, training providers, environment groups, the fishing industry and the Water Police.

Fisheries also works closely with the land councils to help ensure the ranger program is efficient and effective.

The Fisheries division also coordinates the delivery of the following nationally recognised training to the rangers:

  • Certificate II Measuring and Analysis
  • Certificate II Fisheries Compliance
  • Certificate III Fisheries Compliance.

This training provides a progressive career path for those who would like to further their careers in natural resource management and protection.

Find out more about the Indigenous Community Marine Ranger Program DOCX (786.3 KB)
Find out more about the Indigenous Community Marine Ranger Program PDF (546.8 KB)

The Northern Territory Government is committed to building long standing partnerships with Aboriginal people and developing a capable, committed workforce to ensure the sustainable use and management of our aquatic and marine resources.

The Fisheries Inspectors Program was developed to provide fisheries compliance powers to appropriately skilled and experienced land and sea ranger that have undertaken the required training.

The first Northern Territory fisheries inspectors (class 1) were appointed in May 2018. They have identification in the form of identification cards and inspector badges on their uniforms. Under the Fisheries Act 1988, fisheries inspectors (class 1) can:

  • present authorised identification and approach vessels
  • record evidence (including taking images, video and audio recordings)
  • collect personal information (including names and addresses)
  • ask to see any type of licence and permits
  • inspect fishing gear in use.

It is an offence not to cooperate with fisheries inspectors and to obstruct a fisheries inspector from conducting their official duty.


Last updated: 23 February 2021

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