Aboriginal fishing

The role of the Indigenous Development Unit of the Fisheries Division is to support sustainable and culturally appropriate business and employment opportunities for Aboriginal communities in fisheries management, research, development, training, industry participation and resource protection.

In 2011 the Fisheries Division received approval to pursue the development of a network to support and enhance the establishment of Indigenous seafood related businesses in the East Arnhem region. The Northern Territory (NT) Government, through the Fisheries Division, is providing core funds for the network. Additional funding has been sought from relevant Commonwealth and NT Government agencies.

A more coordinated and better resourced support service for Indigenous seafood-related businesses is seen as a positive step to increased participation by Aboriginal people in the seafood industry. This is a pilot initiative that may be extended to other regions if it is successful.

East Arnhem Fisheries Network Program 2011 PDF (2.6 MB)

The Indigenous Fisheries Development Strategy is currently under review and will be available 1 July 2016. The previous version is available below.

Indigenous Fisheries Development Strategy 2012–2014 PDF (1.2 MB)


Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have lived along the Australian coastline for over 40,000 years. In recognition of the historic cultural and spiritual connection Aboriginal people have with aquatic resources, a provision has been made under section 53 of the Fisheries Act 1988 that:

“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”

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a longstanding relationship with their land and sea country. Many of the marine and freshwater species are totemic for the Top End Aboriginal people and subsistence fishing continues to form an important part of their culture as well as a traditional source of protein.

Many NT coastal Aboriginal groups continue to practise customary management and education relating to the sea that has been passed on over generations through stories, dance, song, art and ceremony. This usually means that Aboriginal people will only fish and hunt within their own country and would seek permission before fishing someone else's country. These are only some of the customary management practices that Aboriginal people use to ensure the sustainability of their resources.

Get more information about customary fisheries management.

Customary fisheries management DOCX (64.5 KB)
Customary fisheries management PDF (117.5 KB)

Under section 183 of the Fisheries Act Regulations, 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.

There are restrictions, Aboriginal coastal licensees cannot:

  • hold a commercial fishing licence in conjunction with this licence
  • use any gear other than that specified on the licence
  • target certain managed species - that is, barramundi, king threadfin salmon, Spanish mackerel, trepang and mud crab
  • catch more than 5,000kg per year.

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

The Aboriginal coastal licence provides an opportunity for economic development and sustainable commercial activities in coastal Aboriginal communities and is seen as a way of introducing Aboriginal community members to the seafood industry at a low start-up cost.

Application for an Aboriginal coastal licence DOCX (60.3 KB)
Application for an Aboriginal coastal licence PDF (57.1 KB)

Coastal log book return PDF (680.6 KB)

The 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). 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 NT fisheries inspectors (class 1) will be appointed in May 2018. They will 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: 05 December 2016

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