In many countries, ‘open access’ arrangements are the status quo, providing all fishers within a defined jurisdiction (e.g., national) the same rights to access fisheries resources. This free-for-all approach results in increasing numbers of fishers competing for finite resources. Unsurprisingly, this puts strain on fish stocks and can dramatically impact ecosystem health.

Conversely, Rights-based Fisheries Management (RBFM) approaches intend to overcome these challenges by granting access to resources to those with recognised rights (for example, based on fishers’ place of domicile, their ethnicity or traditional practices) and promoting stewardship of those resources by the rights holder. This approach is deemed compatible with the Arafura and Timor Seas (ATS) region, where remote areas have limited access and are inhabited mainly by local communities who rely heavily on coastal and marine resources. 

The ATSEA-2 Project aims to promote RBFM practices for the ATS, acknowledging local communities’ authority to manage and use their coastal and marine resources. To do so, ATSEA-2 has developed a strategy to scale up RBFM in the ATS and encourage customary groups to participate in fisheries management by recognising and adopting local customary practices (Fox et al., 2021). 

One example of such practices can be found in Aru, Indonesia. Here,customary laws known as sasi involve placing temporary prohibitions on the harvesting of marine resources, imposed voluntarily by the community themselves. Elsewhere, in the South Fly District of Papua New Guinea, similar approaches are being implemented via the Treaty Villages initiative; and in Viqueque, Timor-Leste, through tara bandu. Each of these measures, imposed by and for the local community, are designed to support the prudent and sustainable management of marine resources. 

Building capacity through regional exchange in Darwin, Australia

David Ciaravalo, CEO of AFANT (Amateur Fishing Association – NT Recreational Fishing Peak Body) shared a presentation on
recreational fishing

From 20-23 June 2023, the ATSEA-2 Project organised a regional exchange on RBFM in Darwin, Australia. Presented in collaboration with Melbourne-based Fishwell Consulting, the event was attended by 15 participants from Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste. The main objective of the exchange was to enhance participants’ understanding of the Australian fisheries context, particularly in regards to the ongoing implementation of RBFM. It provided a platform for participants to discuss lessons learned and challenges faced in managing both commercial and artisanal/community-based fisheries. Furthermore, the exchange aimed to identify opportunities for adapting and replicating best practices and lessons learned from Australia in other areas of the ATS region.

The exchange covered a range of activities, including presentations, discussions and field visits, which ensured a comprehensive learning experience for the participants. A total of eight speakers – representing esteemed Australian agencies such as Marine Parks, Northern Territory (NT) Seafood Council, Aboriginal Sea Company, Amateur Fishing Association of the NT (AFANT), Charles Darwin University, NT Fisheries and the Australian Fisheries Management Authority – engaged with the participants. These speakers provided valuable insights into Australia’s management of commercial, recreational and aboriginal/community-based fisheries. Through these presentations, participants gained a deeper understanding of how Australia effectively balances the various facets of fisheries. The exchange facilitated a dynamic exchange of knowledge and expertise, enabling fruitful discussions on the various strategies employed by Australia to achieve sustainable fisheries management.

“During the Regional Exchange I developed my knowledge of RBFM in the Arafura and Timor Seas,” explained Siti Amania Raydesyana from the MMAF. “We share the same ocean, so the characteristics of the problems in each country are very similar,” she added. Siti went on to underscore the importance of working together to resolve existing issues affecting ocean sustainability. As she explains, “big things can always be achieved by starting with a small step.” 

Recognising Indigenous rights to natural resources

Steps to recognise Aboriginal rights have recently been taken by the Australian government, specifically in the Northern Territory (NT). As explained by Dr Ian Knuckey of Fishwell Consulting, the NT is at the forefront of this movement, recognising that Aboriginal people hold ownership over 85% of the coastline up to the intertidal zone. This has significant implications for commercial fishers, who not only require fishing licenses but also need permission from the Traditional Owners (TOs). This also applies to recreational fishing – a major industry and source of income for the territory. 

Dr Rachel Groom shares information related to the Barra Project

In line with this approach, Dr Rachel Groom from Charles Darwin University (CDU) shared insights into how the Barra Project has attempted to incorporate Aboriginal perspectives into the fishery management review processes of NT barramundi fisheries, which supply the territory’s main commodity. Barramundi fisheries are socially, culturally and economically important; to manage them effectively, the Barramundi Fishery Management Advisory Committee (BFMAC) has been established. 

CDU has been working to connect NT Fisheries and the Northern Land Council by bringing more voices from the TOs to the BFMAC. In addition, there has been an initiative to ensure TOs can reap economic benefits from fisheries through Aboriginal Coastal Licenses (ACL), whereby TOs can operate in closed areas with no competition from commercial fishers, provided they submit a business plan. The ACL quota is 5,000 tonnes/year/license. 

Practical experience, valuable insights

Dr Ian Knuckey demonstrates the quality of red snapper caught

During the RBFM exchange, participants had the opportunity to visit Darwin Aquaculture Centre and Duck Pond – the local name for the Frances Bay Mooring Basin. At the aquaculture centre, they learned how the centre not only focuses on research into barramundi, jewfish, black-lipped oysters and other important commodities, but also how results of this research are used to support Aboriginal mariculture (black-lipped oysters) and restocking programs (barramundi). 

At the Duck Pond, participants saw various types of fishing vessels utilising different fishing gear (e.g., trawls and traps) and observed the offloading of tropical snapper before they were sent out to the largest cities of Australia, such as Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. In addition to traps, the use of trawls in the tropical snapper fishery is permitted in designated spaces, with only a few licenses and after a strict environmental risk assessment – as explained at the exchange by Ms. Melanie Brenton from NT Fisheries. 

The RBFM exchange in Darwin provided participants with valuable insights into how Australia strives to manage its fisheries while also recognising the rights of Aboriginal people. It emphasised the importance of acknowledging the rights of local communities, fostering community ownership and delivering greater economic benefits at the grassroots level. Although much work remains to be done in the ATS region, significant progress has already been made towards recognising and implementing RBFM practices.

Kiram Parr is a South Fly Fisheries Officer in PNG who found the exchange to be very informative, particularly in terms of how the NT Government are able to manage their fisheries resources with Indigenous rights incorporated into fisheries-based management. He had a number of valuable takeaways from the event: “I look forward to working with my communities, merging key things I noted during the workshop into my activity plan and working closely with the ATSEA-2 Project; I truly appreciate (this opportunity) and thank you very much.”

By Casandra Tania