The NSW government has been condemned for its targeting of Aboriginal fishers following
revelations that its unjust actions, which have led to massive over-representation of First Peoples in criminal penalties, coincides with giving an increased take to commercial operators.
A coalition of concerned leaders and interest groups has called for an immediate moratorium on prosecutions after learning of a strong bias against Aboriginal fishers in NSW crime data and the recent decision to increase the commercial take.
Aboriginal people make up 4 per cent of people living on the South Coast, but they account for 80 per cent of jail terms for fisheries offences since 2009.
The ongoing prosecution of Aboriginal fishers comes as the Department of Primary Industries (DPI) has issued an order allowing industry to harvest the unused part of its 2020-21 abalone quota in the period 1 August to 30 November this year, contrary to its claims that enforcement actions are necessary to protect the sustainability of the species.
The industry is already authorised to harvest 100 tonnes a year.
Wally Stewart a Yuin nation elder from Narooma NSW, questioned whether any environmental and resource studies were undertaken to ensure this increase in take is sustainable. “How can they lock our Aboriginal People up on the basis it might impact the stock to take 10 kilograms on one hand, and then allow the industry to harvest an extra 50 tonnes?
“It is outrageous to deprive our community of their cultural practice, while allowing licensed
commercial fishers to double their profit.”
Walbunja man John Junior Carriage faces a jail sentence at Batemans Bay court or a five-year ban from fishing after being apprehended with two small bags of abalone weighing 9.67 kilograms that he harvested while free diving in December 2017.
Mr Carriage, who will be sentenced on Thursday, was found guilty of the charges against him after the Magistrate said his actions “potentially impacted the marine environment”.
The imposition of a complete five-year ban as proposed by the Crown Solicitor’s Office denies Mr Carriage his right to feed himself and his family. This is a fundamental human right, protected by section 211 of the Native Title Act 1993.
The government is also prosecuting 74-year-old great-grandfather Kevin Mason, a Yuin nation elder, after he was aggressively apprehended by NSW fisheries officers at Narooma with a small bag of abalone in 2018.
The footage of his arrest, recently screened on ABC television, left many Australians shocked and appalled.
This is the third time in five years he has been prosecuted, the two previous prosecutions were withdrawn, and one charge was recently withdrawn.
Danny Chapman, a Walbunga man and immediate past Chair of the Aboriginal Fishing Advisory Committee said: “To put our people to all of the expense and stress of a native title defence to criminal prosecution is unacceptable abuse of NSW Government power over our South Coast Aboriginal People.
“To do it three times in such a short space of time feels like they are trying to wipe out our cultural practices. Kevin Mason is feeding his family, our community and ensuring our cultural camps are sustainable.”
At the very same time, the government is running prosecutions against Aboriginal fishers, with one likely to be sentenced to jail this week.
Tony McAvoy SC, a Wirdi man and Australia’s first Indigenous senior counsel, said the large
number of charges against Aboriginal people is a “a form of racial discrimination”, with Aboriginal fishers “subject to harassment, arrest, seizure of their property at a rate different to the rest of the population because of their Aboriginality and the failure of the NSW Government to uphold and protect native title rights.
“This amounts to a denial of the right to life because it is taking away food sources. These rights are protected in binding United Nations human rights treaties to which the Australian Government is a signatory.”
Ngarra Murray, Wamba Wamba and Yorta Yorta woman and manager of Oxfam Australia’s First People’s Program, said the government’s racially biased enforcement was occurring while there was a complete absence of any program to engage Aboriginal people in the sustainable management of their marine resources.
“Oxfam has now worked with the South Coast communities for four years and we’re yet to see government seriously engage with these marginalised peoples,” Ms Murray said. “The current prosecutions are a denial of their human rights and the cases should be withdrawn.”
Greens MP David Shoebridge said: “It’s outrageous that Aboriginal people are being criminalised for taking resources that belong to them, while commercial players are exploiting Aboriginal waters on an industrial scale.”
Nature Conservation Council Chief Executive Chris Gambian said: “The conservation movement in NSW recognises that sustainable gathering as part of the cultural practices of First Nations Peoples should be supported.
“We do not believe the threats to nature that protected areas seek to mitigate include the
legitimate right of First Peoples to continue living in harmony with nature as they have at least 65,000 years.”
NSW Council for Civil Liberties President Pauline Wright said: "It's clear that there is systemic racism when Aboriginal people, who make up only 4% of the population, account for 80% of jail terms for fisheries offences. If the aim was truly to protect the marine environment, they wouldn't be allowing commercial fishing to expand at the same time as prosecuting Aboriginal fishers."