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Aborigines control NT coast

Published: 6:02AM Thursday July 31, 2008 Source: AAP

The Australian High Court has ruled Aborigines control more than 80% of the Northern Territory coast, ending a 30-year battle for indigenous rights to the sea.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called for calm following the landmark ruling, which has massive implications for Aboriginal people, governments and the fishing industry.

It means traditional owners - from the East Alligator River in the Van Diemen Gulf to the Roper River in the Limmen Bight - have the power to exclude fishermen from the inter-tidal zone.

They will control where and when commercial and recreational fishing is carried out but not catch sizes or limits.

"It is a landmark victory for traditional owners and we have waited for over 30 years for our sea rights to be legally
recognised," said Northern Land Council (NLC) chairman Wali Wunungmurra.

The High Court upheld by five to two a ruling that had found Aborigines from Blue Mud Bay, in northeast Arnhem Land, had freehold title not only over the seabed to the low water mark, but also the waters above it.

The decision gives indigenous people unprecedented control over the territory's billion dollar fishing industry, with the
introduction of permits a likely result.

Wunungmurra has also flagged that specific areas of the coast will be set aside for recreational fishing.

"I think we now have got to negotiate on a lot of things that we disagree on," he said as the NLC announced a 12-month amnesty while a final agreement between stakeholders is reached.

Rudd said the outcome should be "fair and sensible" and balance the rights of all parties.

"I think the key way through this is common sense," he said.

The Country Liberals last year said the Howard government, if re-elected, would overturn the ruling that favoured the traditional owners.

But Rudd refused to be drawn on whether he would consider intervening, saying only that the Attorney-General's Department was considering the decision.

"We are encouraged by the positive and constructive attitude which has been demonstrated thus far by organisations such as the Northern Land Council," he said.

NT Chief Minister Paul Henderson - who faces an election on August 9 - said the decision presented "challenges and
opportunities".

"There are no losers in this," he said. "There is good will on all sides".

Meanwhile, Wunungmurra agreed the ruling could result in similar bids in other states.

"It could mean that," he said on the issue of indigenous rights to the sea, first raised by traditional owners at the 1973 Woodward Royal Commission.

Professor Jon Altman, from the Centre for Aboriginal Policy Research, said any further action was "something that would need to be legally tested".

"I think morally other Aboriginal people would now be able to argue that if these sorts of rights are being provided to
Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory they should be extended elsewhere," he said.

"Indigenous people hold all the power and the levers in these negotiations and that's what's fundamentally different and that's the significance of this case."

Outside the court, traditional owner Djamawa Marawili said it was a victory for all Aborigines.

"We've had rights since 2,000 years ago, today it has been given to us in the eyes of all Australians," he said.

"For all the fishermen and people who fish I think it will be a good opportunity for them to come and really talk closely and plan for the future in the right manner."

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