Project number: 2015-205
Project Status:
Budget expenditure: $300,000.00
Principal Investigator: Luke Smyth
Organisation: Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS)
Project start/end date: 30 Jun 2015 - 29 Aug 2017


The need for this project was identified at the National Forum (Cairns 2011) (see Principles 1,2,3,5,6,7,8,10 - FRDC 2010/401). While commercial and recreational fisher values are fairly well understood, Indigenous values remain elusive to the development of fishing management strategies and policies. Similarly, Indigenous engagement in contemporary fisheries remains limited. These gaps result from a paucity of documented information in a format accessible to fisheries managers, and a shortage of Indigenous leaders and practitioners seeking to engage in fisheries and fisheries management.

These challenges are recognised in national R&DE plans and by the national FRDC IRG in calls for research to facilitate greater Indigenous engagement in fisheries, as well as more effective inclusion of Indigenous livelihood values in fisheries planning. Livelihood values include social, cultural and economic components. Achieving the longer term national goal of a comprehensive assessment of Indigenous fishing effort and development of catch allocation models will require lead up investment in Indigenous capacity to engage, as well as in documenting Indigenous livelihood values in fishing.

Significant progress has been achieved in mapping Indigenous values and building Indigenous engagement in related areas of natural resource management - particularly in water planning and land and sea management. The Indigenous capacity and expertise from these endeavours are relevant to the challenge of improving engagement of Indigenous people and knowledge in contemporary fisheries. In short, this project brings together Indigenous and non-Indigenous expertise from successful Indigenous natural and cultural resource management endeavours to map Indigenous values of aquatic biological resources and build capacity for greater Indigenous participation in fisheries. Further changes to regulations regarding Indigenous access to fisheries have been foreshadowed in two of the jurisdictions during the timeframe of the study. As such the study may allow investigation of the impacts of these changes to Indigenous satisfaction with their level of engagement in fisheries management and fishing activity.


1. Identify cultural, social and economic values of Indigenous fishing at selected case study communities
2. Articulate connections between established Indigenous land and sea management regimes and Indigenous aspirations in fisheries
3. Support the recognition of Indigenous values and use of aquatic resources in fisheries management
4. Build Indigenous and non-Indigenous capacity for collaborative fisheries research and management

Final report

ISBN: 978-1-922-10273-7
Authors: Smyth L. Egan H. and Kennett R
Final Report • 2018-11-01 • 2.97 MB


This report contains the results of the largest research project into Indigenous fishing values to date, documenting how and why use and management of marine resources is valued by and benefits Indigenous peoples and communities in three very different parts of Australia. The Indigenous Reference Group (IRG) of the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation (FRDC) financed the Native Title Research Unit of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) to conduct this research, in collaboration with Aboriginal organisations based in three regions:
  • the Far West Coast Aboriginal Corporation RNTBC (Far West Coast SA),
  • the Crocodile Islands Rangers of the Milingimbi and Outstations Progress Resource Association (Northeast Arnhem Land, NT), and
  • the NSW Aboriginal Fishing Rights Group (South Coast NSW)

The research team interviewed 169 Aboriginal people from these three regions between October 2015 and July 2017, collecting qualitative data on the perceived cultural, social, economic and health significance and benefits of customary fishing practices (activities related to the use of fish and aquatic invertebrates). Data was also collected on perceived barriers to customary fishing practices and the aspirations people held for marine resource use and management in their communities’ futures.
The results show that for many Aboriginal peoples, customary fishing practices are of immense value and multi-faceted importance; being able or unable to access customary fisheries can have profound repercussions for the cultural, social, economic, physical and mental health of individuals, families and communities. Recognising and facilitating the values and aspirations of Aboriginal peoples in the management and use of their sea countries has the potential to generate substantial positive flow-on effects for overall health, wealth and wellbeing.

Around the world Indigenous peoples see aquatic resource use as part of their identities and crucial to their political, cultural and economic self-determination. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples continue to seek greater engagement in fisheries and fisheries management in order to meet their cultural and socio-economic needs and long term objectives.

Consistent with previous research, this project found that the Aboriginal people who were interviewed valued fishing and related practices greatly, and for a wide range of reasons. These varied both between and within regions, but general findings that were consistent across all three case study regions included:

  • Fishing is governed by widely recognised cultural laws and norms.
  • Fishing is one of the primary ways of living and practising culture, maintaining a connection with country and passing on cultural knowledge.
  • Sharing catch is a strong norm; often a small number of regular fishers provide for many people.
  • Sharing catch strengthens and maintains social ties within and between families and communities.
  • Sharing catch creates a social safety net that supports vulnerable members of the community.
  • Fishing is an important social and leisure activity.
  • Subsistence fishing and the trade and barter of catch increase discretionary incomes by substituting purchased goods.
  • Certain marine and coastal species are used medicinally.
  • Fishing improves diets, through regular access to healthy foods which are otherwise unavailable or unaffordable.
  • Fishing keeps people physically active.
  • Fishing helps people to relax and deal with stress.
  • Practising culture and providing for their families in this way gives people a sense of pride.
  • Fishing is part of people’s individual and cultural identities, and thus their sense of self-worth.

The converse of these extensive benefits is that restrictions and barriers to customary fishing practices can have far-reaching negative consequences for the health, wealth and wellbeing of Aboriginal people and communities. The nature and scale of the barriers and restrictions nominated by interviewees varied considerably between regions, but many stemmed from fisheries management and environmental protection legislation, regulations and enforcement decisions. These included regulations not properly accommodating the unique aspects of Aboriginal ways of fishing (leading in some cases to their effective criminalisation), unfair targeting and harassment of Aboriginal fishers by enforcement officers, inadequate respect for and understanding of the rights of native title holders, and apparent long term declines in local fish stocks attributed to overfishing by commercial operators.

Across all case study regions there was significant interest in greater Aboriginal involvement in commercial fishing, aquaculture and other on-water industries. Jobs created by these industries were seen as highly desirable, because in addition to an income source they potentially entailed working out on sea country, using and passing on cultural knowledge and skills, and reduced the need for people to move off country. Most existing opportunities in commercial fishing and aquaculture were said to be in practice inaccessible to most Aboriginal people. Existing Aboriginal-owned commercial ventures were highly regarded partially because many were seen as directly incorporating local non-economic values. This was also the case for many of the aspirational commercial ventures which interviewees proposed.

Aboriginal people interviewed in all case study regions strongly desired greater involvement in the management of local seas and fisheries. This included at the decision making level, and through more Aboriginal fisheries enforcement officers and Indigenous land and sea management rangers, the latter potentially with enforcement powers.

Additional research by or with Indigenous communities, particularly freshwater and Torres Strait Islander, to collate more detailed local fishing values sets and to add to and verify the broad baseline set established here, should be a priority. This would in turn allow research to quantify the total catch and effort of Indigenous fisheries and the estimated monetary value of both economic and non-economic fishing values. Better appreciation of the total value of Indigenous fisheries would inform negotiations over recognition and support for Indigenous fishing values and aspirations in management.

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