Last week we saw the headlines in Friday’s media “Cultural fishing a ‘front’ ” The article quoted the Director of the Abalone Council as saying the recent seizure of 3300 abalone proves cultural fishing is being used as a ‘front’ for commercial activities. “It just confirms they’re using their cultural fishing as a front to market huge quantities into the market” The "they're" reference above is to aboriginals. An Abalone Association of NSW spokesperson advised the local media that cultural catch was “being used as a guise for a complex criminal syndicate” Today we read in the online news feed: “The Department of Primary Industries (DPI) alleges a 59-year old man from Mogo near Batemans Bay delivered 439 abalone to the house, with many being under the legal size limit” To any reader this implies the Mogo man ‘delivered’ the abalone and that "many" of those "delivered" were under the legal size limit meaning that the Mogo man had many undersized abalone. What you have read are alternate facts - not the truth - alternate truth. OK, a couple of facts need to be mentioned first, to start with...the Mogo man has NOT been charged. The DPI stated in their media release that DPI officers and NSW Police were investigating the illegal trafficking of commercial quantities of abalone from the NSW South Coast to unlicensed Sydney-based abalone receivers and, following an extended and targeted surveillance a 59-year-old man from Mogo NSW, It will be alleged the man delivered a consignment of illicit abalone to a residence in Berala.
Shortly after leaving the house, the man’s vehicle was intercepted with the assistance of NSW Police where 439 abalone in the vehicle were seized along with documentation allegedly relating to abalone trafficking.
The man’s vehicle was seized and he was arrested and taken to Auburn Police Station.”
DPI fisheries investigators executed a search warrant on the house at Berala and seized 2870 alleged illegal abalone weighing approximately 300 kilograms.
Fisheries officers also located and seized 40 kilograms of shark fin. Investigations are continuing into this.
A 62-year-old man, who is also the owner of a Western Sydney seafood restaurant, will face a range of charges including trafficking in fish which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment,” Mr Tully said.
Fisheries officers also conducted a raid of the associated seafood restaurant in Western Sydney and seized a further quantity of abalone.
It will be alleged that 645 of the seized abalone were prohibited size. Both men are expected to face court in the near future .
So the above media release is the ducks guts – it is THE media release that the media have based their stories on.
So did the Mogo man sell the abalone? – NO – according to the DPI media release he had the abalone in his car after he left the house. Was he found with vast quantities of money – IT DOESN”T SAY So what about the comment from last Friday's paper “It just confirms they’re using their cultural fishing as a front to market huge quantities into the market” – in fact the DPI media release doesn’t ‘confirm’ this at all. All it confirms is that the man (no mention at all of being aboriginal) had abalone in his car. Are these (439) ‘huge quantities’? Compared to the half million abalone commercially fished every year this quantity couldn’t be called ‘huge’. DPI Fisheries Investigators, according to their media statement, then executed a search warrant on the house occupied by a 62-year-old man (was he aboriginal – WE DON”T KNOW), also the owner of a Western Sydney seafood restaurant, and seized 2870 alleged illegal abalone and seized 40 kilograms of shark fin, alleging that 645 of the 3300 seized abalone were prohibited size. So, the facts are: a 59 year old Mogo man was intercepted with 439 abalone. Were they prohibited size – IT DOESN’T SAY. Did the rest of the 3300 abalone come from aboriginal cultural fishing - IT DOESN’T SAY. Is there anything in the DPI media release that suggests a alleged sale of what will be strongly argued as cultural catch was “being used as a guise for a complex criminal syndicate” In these times of fake news, post-truth and alternate facts let’s peel away the bullshit and politics and have a close look at this issue which was last reported on by SBS in Catch of Cultures . Just before we start here are a few more facts. There were 670,000 aboriginals and Torres Strait islanders in Australia in 2011 representing 2.9% of the community. More than a third of Aboriginal Australians live among the most disadvantaged 10% of the population. And here is the most important fact. Less than 0.2% of Australians actually know an Australian Aboriginal and his family socially. When it comes time for drafting legislation there is always a “natural” bias shown towards anyone who effectively lobbies the government to serve their own best interests. That is the process of politics. When it came to drawing up the first Fisheries Act back at the dawn of Australian law the commercial fishing enterprises made sure they were well represented and they pushed as hard as they could to ensure they go the most from the resource. Were there Australian aboriginals at the table – no. That’s right, Aboriginals couldn’t even vote before 1967 and before that they were under the control of the NSW Aboriginal Protection Board that changed to the NSW Aborigines Welfare Board in 1939 until it was abolished in 1969. Before that vote, Aboriginal people weren't counted as people, they came under the Flora and Fauna Act. So up until 1969, at the least, Australian Aboriginals had no say in the making of laws, specifically in this instance, fishing laws. Australia is very keen to celebrate it’s early history – On the South Coast we had the first Europeans arrive with Bass, Hume, Berry, Hawdon, Mort and all the others in between however little if any history of the original owners of this country is written and rarely do they get a mention in our selective “Australian history”. However, as we well know on the south coast there are middens that are thousands of years old that provide absolute evidence of ownership of land and, most importantly, of fishing as a primary means of survival. There is so much evidence in fact that it is grounds enough to show tactile evidence of continued occupation under native title. So let’s meet some of our local cultural fishermen and hear their side. Hopefully at the end of this article you will find that they are not “a complex criminal syndicate” nor are they the “Black Mafia” as they have been often referred to. "Ours is the oldest culture in the world and traditional fishing is the oldest practice in the world now we're not allowed to practice it without fear of being arrested" Andrew Nye In Andrew Nye, John Brierley and the other family heads here on the South Coast they hold hundreds of years of collective knowledge of the fisheries and resources we have at hand. For countless generations they and their forebears have fished this coastline without Laws and Acts and quotas and bag limits and what the new Australia of 1788 “claimed” was a land filled with bounty. Over time the aboriginals of the country were squeezed – on the South Coast they were squeezed into reservations with grand announcements by the government of their generous gift of lands at the same time they were building a Crown Land empire. Once the land was sorted out with laws along came the need to control the seas and with that we saw laws that benefited mates. In time it was agreed there was plunder to be had and there would be a need for laws and policies to ensure it remained in the control of the few – Yes, a plunder, not by aboriginals but by greedy New Australians who were writing all the rules to best suit their needs. And any sustainability they considered was only to ensure their livelihoods could be maintained. So, they introduced licences, then increased the fees, thereby reducing the amount of licences and those who could enter the industry. And they reduced the recreational fishing quotas to ensure a continued demand – Keynesian economic theory of supply and demand personified. Meanwhile the South East aboriginal clans were being further squeezed from their traditional fishing with removal of more and more beaches by National Parks and the introduction of vast tracts of Marine Parks that has resulted overall in the loss of access to approx. 90% of beaches previously fished. According to laws they had no party to they now were required to be commercial fishers and to be corralled to fewer and fewer bodies of overfished waters and forced to abide by “heavy handed” commercial fishing laws that paid total disregard to their culture. “They follow us and hide in the bushes, with binoculars and watch everything we do” "We txt them now before we go out telling them we are going cultural fishing" "They still follow us and watch... all the time watching. It must cost a fortune" An example of this heavy handedness by Fisheries officers is in the case of Craig Nye who was fined for fishing without a commercial licence.
On a perfect South Coast day ideal for putting out nets to catch a passing salmon school Craig had been standing on the headland spotting fish just his grandfather and grandfathers father did. He then came down to help pull in the nets.
“Then some Fisheries fellas arrive and say he’s assisting us without a fishing licence”. This next bit is of particular interest according to Wally Stewart ”They don’t charge you. They just say “come in for an interview”. Craig went in for an interview and just a few days out from the two year period where a fine can be officiated he was charged. “ “Now we advise all of our mob up and down the coast to not go to the interview and say ‘I am practicing my rights of cultural fishing’. Now genealogy details are provided as proof of aboriginality and since the NSW Aboriginal Fishing Rights Group began to provide support. No one has since been charged. Fishing has been part of the lives for coastal aboriginals six or more generations as recorded by spoken history. Locally they can trace with documentation community fishing in 1847 at Barlings Beach. In Michael Bennett’s Aboriginal History Vol 31 he writes, “As the 19th century proceeded, Aboriginal people increasingly sold fish to local white residents as another means to raise money.” "In six weeks time the mullet will start running. Traditionally the whole community including kids and aunties all came down and helped pull in the nets and divide the catch up between families. We can't do that anymore because anyone who touches the net without a licence is a criminal"
The Aboriginal Fishing Advisory Council, which advises the NSW minister for primary industries on Indigenous issues argues that a native title right to fish, even commercially, shouldn’t be regulated, and that the changes to the Act should commence without bag limits. Wally Stewart told The Beagle ” In 2009 the government passed an amendment to Section 21aa, of the Fisheries Act that allows for cultural fishing but that law hasn’t been enacted. Why not? If it was a law for anyone else it would have been passed. The government and Fisheries and the commercial fishing sector like it just as it is.” “We’re going to be asking Andrew Constance why it is taking so long to pass this amendment”
In answer to concerns put forward by bodies such as the Abalone Association of NSW about protecting the resource the Minister for Fisheries will be reminded that for centuries Aboriginals have managed stocks sustainably. The body defending native title rights have publicly stated that the fines are “very heavy handed” for fishermen “doing something they’re entitled to be doing, and getting done for taking a few more than what’s in accordance with the white man’s rules”.
“They end up with fines they can’t pay, so they cut it out doing jail time – it’s ridiculous” “Even smaller fines can have an impact. If they aren’t paid, then driving licences can be seized and next thing you are done for driving without a licence, so you go to court, can’t pay the fine and take a gaol term. “
Many of the aboriginal fishers feel that the Abalone industry drives Fisheries. They believe that there is pressure put on agencies to limit the loss of “their resource” so the pressure is purely for financial gain. The Beagle was advised that in a case on the South Coast that went before the courts it was revealed that there were over 3000 emails regarding the matter sent between prosecuting agencies. Currently under the Native Title Act the law does not prohibit or restrict the native title holders from carrying fishing… (a) for the purpose of satisfying their personal, domestic or non-commercial communal needs Here in lies the problem: The number of abalone aboriginals are allowed to take for their cultural catch has increased from two to just 10 daily, however they can apply for a permit to take more for special ceremonies. In context commercial fishing for abalone began in the early 1960s (remember who wrote the laws) with annual catch rates of between 200 and 400 tonnes, peaking at 1,200 tonnes in 1971. By 1977 catches fell to around 300 tonnes due to overfishing (and not by aboriginals) . Something had to be done. A 1979 Parliamentary inquiry recommend that the abalone become a restricted entry fishery. Only 59 divers were granted access to the restricted fishery, well under the 100 divers in 1979. Keep this in mind – the average abalone is 350g (3 per kilo) – even a 130 tonne commercial quota set for NSW for 2016 represents 490,000 abalone allowed to be caught by licenced abalone fisherfolks every year. Yes, half a million abalone. It appears that, by comparison, the 439 abalone, caught by local aboriginal families and collectively and allegedly shipped to an alleged buyer is pretty small change. Remember; he hasn’t been charged.
We also need to keep in mind how lucrative the business of abalone can be. The licences once cost $2 are now worth up to $6 million each and are mostly kept within the families. It is pretty much a closed shop. At $100 a kilo retail and a daily haul of around 250kg (750 shells) a day’s work can yield $10,000 plus on the wholesale market, making it a very profitable industry.
However with high running costs, expensive boats and equipment, freezers, transport and limited opportunity to dive due to weather it is understandable that those in the industry want to protect what they have.
Now we return to the Aboriginal cultural fishers that use snorkel and goggles to catch abalone, a hand spear, hand line or hand made net for fishing. When the nets are pulled in the whole community helps. Now they are in fear that if anyone from the community even touches the net they will be prosecuted for illegal commercial fishing without a licence. Fisheries are pushing their point that the law doesn’t allow for commercial gain from cultural fishing but that is countered by aboriginal fishers who say that, with little other access to income the community needs to resort to selling what little they can to make a few dollars. “We are caught being controlled by rules that we never agreed to that totally disregard the fact that our traditional heritage is that of fishing which includes cultural fishing to feed our families and support our community. When the first Europeans came to this area who sold them fish? We did.“ Now we can’t sell what we catch unless we have a licence and the licences screw us down even more of where we can fish and what we can catch.” This is our country, this is our heritage and this is our livelihood.” “We have all the evidence we need that we have native title over the water. 40,000 years of middens is our evidence is all the evidence we need” “Why can’t Fisheries sit down with us and say OK, let’s draw a line in the sand and together we can build up an industry that supports the local Aboriginal community” “It doesn’t make sense that Fisheries employ one aboriginal. They say they consult but all we got was 3 lots of two hour meetings - 6 hours of one-sided rhetoric telling us what they were going to do across NSW” “That wasn’t consultation” “Some consultation would go a long way to fixing up our social issues. Our elders have all the knowledge and skills to pass on and the young ones want to learn and contribute. They love fishing, it is in their blood”. “But now they are too scared to go anywhere near the water in case the Police and Fisheries come down and harass them. Yes, they are harassed and it builds up a feeling of mistrust with Fisheries because they have the same uniforms as Police and they also wear batons on their belts” “In the Torres Strait the people own their fishing industry and their fishing rights are recognised and endorsed. Things could change for the East Coast Aboriginal community if Fisheries and Primary Industry sat down and talked with us.” "There is a case study that highlights specifically the health issues associated with coastal aboriginals not being able to practice their cultural practices. Diets are poor, iodine deficient and there is obesity attributed to low exercise."
"That could be turned around in one generation if only the authorities came out of the bushes, put aside their binoculars and came to the table to talk about a way forward. This will never happen when whoever pays the most gets the attention of the government and makes sure the law works for their benefit."
"Continued hard-handed regulation of traditional fishing is costly, damaging to local cultures and results in unnecessary convictions and imprisonment."
“It doesn’t make a lot of sense that they spend so much and put so much effort into prosecuting Aboriginal people” Why not put that money and effort into working with us instead. We aren’t going to go away and we aren’t giving in”.
Above: Wally Stewart, Andrew Nye and John Brierley
To remind those who might not have heard Kevin Rudd’s 2008 Prime Ministers Sorry Speech (in part). That today we honour the indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history. The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia's history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.
We apologise for the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.
For the future we take heart; resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent can now be written. A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, indigenous and non-indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.
A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed.
A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.