NSW government must stop pursuing indigenous fishermen if it is serious about closing the gap

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There is a contradiction between the NSW government’s plan to bridge the divide and its persecution of the indigenous people of the NSW south coast who want to maintain their saltwater culture.

The government needs to rethink what it is doing if it is to achieve the Close the Gap results it wants to see there.

In the early years of colonization, the Aborigines played a crucial role in establishing the fishing industries on the south coast of New South Wales, but are now almost entirely excluded.

After colonization, the Aborigines continued to fish as a source of food, with some bartering and small-scale trade, called “cultural-commercial fishing”. The aborigines of the south coast are proud of their saltwater culture, but tired of being branded as “poachers” who plunder the ocean.

Meeting the objectives

The NSW government signed the 2020 National Accord to close the gap, which includes goals for ‘strong, sustained and thriving’ cultures and languages, and for indigenous adults and youth are no longer overrepresented in the criminal justice system. Other targets focus on health and increasing employment and economic participation.

However, indigenous peoples are over-represented among those imprisoned or convicted in NSW for abalone fishing offenses. Rather than supporting a thriving culture, continuing to prosecute South Coast Indigenous people will not reduce Indigenous incarceration, help their jobs, or improve their health.

Many people have been accused of abalone diving here, including Aboriginal grandfather Kevin Mason.

Once aboriginal people have been convicted of a criminal offense, their chances of getting a job collapse. And while fishing provides people with healthy nutrition and exercise, pursuing them for this act is more stressful. This is not conducive to a long healthy life.

Exclusion and poverty

There are high rates of poverty and unemployment among aboriginal people on the south coast; the counties of Eurobodalla and Bega bear witness to this. Poor academic performance and long-standing racism are the factors.

Harvested seafood has been a part of the diet of indigenous peoples of the south coast since before colonization. The sea has always been their supermarket, as a study by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) recognized:

As a saltwater people, all the knowledge and practices related to marine foods are central to their culture and part of what makes it unique. This means that fishing and picking other seafood is one of the main ways people practice their culture. It’s also about getting out into the countryside and feeling connected to the country and ancestors by fishing and gathering as they did.

The ability of older people to take young people out fishing and diving is essential in order to pass on their knowledge of the marine environment. The AIATSIS study also found:

[…]taking children fishing is necessary for their cultural education. Through fishing, they gain cultural knowledge about the local flora and fauna, different fishing techniques and practices, knowledge of their country and the right places to get different species – as well as the stories of those places. They also learn the cultural laws that govern fishing.

Additionally, no review of Aboriginal cultural fishing or any fishing in NSW has identified this practice as having a negative impact on marine resources. As such, it is not clear why this persecution persists.

This cannot be about protecting fish stocks, as most Total Allowable Catch (TAC) assessments for the NSW coast, designed to manage stocks at sustainable levels, do not even collect no data on catches of indigenous peoples.

While some illegal abalone fishing is recognized in the abalone TAC, overall the abalone fishery in the state remains sustainable.

As AIATSIS has found:

Many participants felt that cultural fishermen were unnecessarily over-regulated. To them it seemed hypocritical for fishing [NSW] to focus on the compliance of the small number of cultural fishermen, and for them to be qualified as threats to the marine environment, when their total catch is insignificant compared to that of commercial fisheries.



Read more: To enable healing, there is a more effective way to close the employment gap in remote Australia


Caught in a dead end

The NSW government says its vision is for the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders to determine their own future. A clear message from the Aboriginal people of NSW is that sustaining their culture is central to their vision for the future.

Ironically, the aboriginal people of the south coast are being asked to prove that they continue to practice this fishing culture in the assessment of their current aboriginal title claim.

While the Commonwealth government’s Native Title Act requires them to demonstrate the maintenance of their cultural practices to gain their Indigenous property rights, the state government pursues them and criminalizes them if they do so. It is a no-win situation.

The NSW government must end the harassment and prosecution of indigenous peoples for maintaining their cultural practices if the state is serious about closing the gap in incarceration, health and employment for indigenous communities.


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