Plans for a new marine park on the northern Australian coast have hit a nerve, sparking tense discussions over who has the right to fish where on the Kimberley coast.
- The proposed marine park is the first in WA to be co-designed by Aboriginal traditional owners
- Tensions are already emerging over who will be allowed to fish at popular spots
- Draft plans are open for public comment until May, with plans to be finalised by the end of 2021
The 660,000 hectare park is planned for the Buccaneer Archipelago and Dampier Peninsula, which take in some of the most stunning stretches of Western Australia’s northern coast.
Under draft plans put out for public comment, recreational fishing would be banned or restricted in 40 per cent of the park.
The back and forth over who has access to prime fishing spots has exposed an ideological gulf in northern communities about the increasing influence Aboriginal native title holders have over access and land management.
Liberal candidate Geoff Haerewa has slammed the marine park plans in the lead-up to the mid-March state election, writing on his Facebook page that the Labor Government’s approach was “elitist, divisive, and un-Australian”.
He said his criticism was aimed at the Government’s handling of the process, not directed at the Aboriginal traditional owners who co-designed the maps.
“There should be an equal amount of time put across all stakeholders.
“I support the plan itself, but I don’t support the way the plan came about with minimal consultation that was not inclusive.”
‘This should not be about race’
It is the first time the WA Government has invited Aboriginal native title holders to co-design a marine park from the outset, rather than be treated as one of many stakeholders who give input during consultation.
Francis Woolagoodja is the chairman of Dambeemangarddee, which is one of three Aboriginal groups that will jointly manage the marine park.
He described Mr Haerewa’s comments as disappointing, especially given the Liberal candidate represents many Aboriginal people as a local shire president.
“This is not about race, and it would be better if we don’t get to the point of people making these comments on Facebook.
“Traditional owners are pretty decent people, we don’t like to talk like that around race and colour, because it’s not the world we live in up here in the Kimberley.”
Mr Woolagoodja said the aim of the five-month consultation and public comment period was to reach an arrangement that everyone was happy with.
“This is all up for discussion, and the traditional owners are open to that,” he said.
“Obviously people get scared of what they don’t know.
“So for us, we need to find a way to start the discussion and explain why we want to have these zones.”
Public urged to get involved
It is a shift in influence that has proved jarring for some locals, who have been accustomed to fishing where they want and when they want, despite native title determinations transferring management rights to local Aboriginal groups.
The ideological divide about land and marine access was exposed at a recent Broome Fishing Club meeting held to discuss the marine park, where a representative of the group Recfishwest told the crowd “it’s a whole new world we live in, and we’re not all feeling that comfortable about it”.
In a follow-up newsletter, the organisation described people as feeling “overwhelmed and confused” by the proposals.
The Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions has moved to reassure locals that the fishing zones are still up for negotiation, and their views will be listened to.
Kimberley Regional Manager Craig Olejnik said information sessions would be held in mid-March to explain the changes.
“We’ll collate the feedback, see what’s being said, and then work with the traditional owners to review what the zones look like and where they are.”
The issue is ‘what has been left’
Recfishwest Chief Executive Andrew Rowland said they would be doing what they could to have the restrictions watered down.
“Some will say that 60 per cent of the marine park remains open for general use, but the key is what areas have been left and what areas have been locked off,” he said.
Mr Rowland said the onus was on those pushing for the marine park to explain why the reduction in fishing was needed.
“I think there’s a solid principle here — and it doesn’t really matter if it’s this marine park or anywhere — that if people are to be excluded from accessing fishing in some areas that they’re currently allowed to, then there needs to be some information provided to people about why they’re excluded going forward.”
‘Why we fought for native title’
The marine park has been prioritised by the McGowan Government due to increasing visitor numbers in the area.
The number of people travelling to the Dampier Peninsula is expected to increase by as much as 40 per cent in coming years, following the $65 million sealing of the main access road.
Many of the 1,000 Aboriginal residents of the picturesque peninsula had mixed feelings about the sealing, and it is understood the marine park was, in part, an effort to appease those groups by giving them more control over public access.
Somewhat lost in the public discussion so far is the excitement local Aboriginal people feel about seeing their native title rights put into practice.
Janella Isaacs, who lives at a bush community on the Dampier Peninsula, was involved in the marine park planning on behalf of the Mayala Traditional Owners.
“People talk about ‘connection to country’, and it is real and it is strong, and people need to recognise that.
“But we do want to hear from the public and open the dialogue and say, ‘This is how we think it should work, and what are your views?’.”
The Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions has said it hopes to have the marine park plans finalised by the end of the year.