Their success is changing the perception of Aboriginal communities from “fish thieves” to leaders in regional development.
When I meet Rodney Scott Dillon in April, he is lounging on the front porch of his residence in Tasmania’s Lower Snug, overlooking the boats bobbing in Snug Bay at low tide. After decades of run-ins with law enforcement and going head-to-head with the Australian government, the 66-year-old Palawa elder—who traces his ancestry from northeast Tasmania—now has a seat at not one, but two tables. He is presiding over the Referendum Working Group, which aims to establish a permanent Indigenous voice in the Australian parliament. He’s also leading the first commercial fisheries program run by Australian Aboriginals.
“I lay dog-eyed for 10 years saying, ‘I’m not going to criticize the government at every chance that I get,’” Dillon says. “‘I’m just going to try and work with them.’”
Dillon successfully led a decade-long negotiation with the Tasmanian state government, backed up by a six-year study on Aboriginal leadership in fisheries management led by Emma Lee, an associate professor at Swinburne University and a descendant of the Trawlwulwuy people, one of the oldest Tasmanian Aboriginal clans. The government ultimately granted a three-year lease for 40 quota units of abalone (9 tons a year) to the Land and Sea Aboriginal Corporation of Tasmania. The agreement is the first of its kind, giving commercial fishing rights to the Aboriginal community, who up until then only had rights to fishing for sustenance and practicing their customary traditions.
Lee says the Tasmanian fishery agreement is also helping to change the perception of Aboriginal communities from “fish thieves” to leaders in regional development. By being a part of the AUD $136 million fishery that has so long excluded them, Lee says, Aboriginal communities hope to establish fisheries food tourism in Tasmania; to use cultural fisheries to reduce juvenile justice interventions for Aboriginals; and to turn commercial fisheries into social impact ventures.
“What 40 units gives us is the right to have a voice where we’ve never had it before … to have our custodianship recognized and legitimized within the existing industry,” Lee says. “I can sit here and say this isn’t enough, but this time last year, we didn’t have any of this.”
Aboriginal Leaders in Regional Development
This agreement is significant considering the history of Native Aboriginals and Torres Straits Islanders in Australia, particularly in Tasmania, where they were all wiped out by 1876 in a white colonial genocide. Aboriginal rights weren’t officially recognized until a 1967 referendum. The Native Title Act of 1993 (and an amendment in 1997) finally recognized Aboriginal communities as the traditional owners of the land and waters of what is now known as Australia. However, since the act has no legal force, First Nations people continue to be charged for alleged poaching and illegal hunting.
Tasmania isn’t the only state in Australia that has signed agreements with an Aboriginal corporation. In February 2021, South Australia entered into an agreement with the Narungga Nation Aboriginal Corporation, formalizing their rights for traditional fishing in the Yorke Peninsula. The deal followed a 2018 agreement to collaborate on the development of Guuranda (the Native name for Yorke Peninsula), starting with the shared management of Innes National Park.
Klynton Wanganeen, former CEO of the Narungga Nation Aboriginal Corporation, says the community is working to build relationships as they pursue their aspirations for commercial fishing.
“We really can’t have a treaty unless our rights are recognized, and our rights has to be to access our resources,” Wanganeen says.
The fishing agreements should provide much-needed relief and protection from prosecution for petty crimes, like poaching that Aboriginal youth are particularly vulnerable to, and for which they have been disproportionately incarcerated in detention centers.
The age of criminal responsibility was raised from 10 to 14 in 2022, thanks to Dillon’s campaigning. He spent much of his own childhood hiding from the cops in thick bushes to evade capture while he and his family were fishing abalone and crayfish or hunting mutton birds and other game. Although never jailed, Dillon was arrested several times. In court, the fiery activist has claimed fishing as a right under the Native Title Act of 1993 and as a custom under common law. However, in Rodney Scott Dillon v. Clive Davis, the court refused to recognize general practices under common law, demanding concrete evidence against customary traditions or practices, so Dillon has had to pay up to AUD $80,000 in fines and legal representation.
Similarly, in August 2021, 64-year-old Keith Nye, a Yuin Nation elder, was found to have frozen abalone catch way above the personal consumption quota that he had allegedly sold to restaurants sans a commercial license. A judge in New South Wales recognized Nye’s cultural connection to fishing and didn’t sentence him to prison, but the Walbunja man still had to pay AUD $4,500 in fines and serve 200 hours of community service.
When asked about the “lack of evidence regarding traditional laws and customs having a bearing on a right to take abalone” cited in the Supreme Court order, Dillon says, “We fucking live here. We’ve got middens. We’ve got quarry sites and ochre sites—that’s our evidence. That’s us.”
The Rightful Place in an Industry
Now, with the right to harvest abalone commercially, Dillon says the Aboriginal community aims to create jobs for Indigenous divers and chefs. This won’t be easy. Due to overfishing, abalone production has dropped from 300 tons per year in 2006 to less than 150 in 2021, according to government data. COVID-19, too, has brought down prices in China, its primary export market. But with aquacultural production and strategic marketing of abalone as a Tasmanian delicacy, both output and prices are set to increase.
“It took years of negotiating with the outgoing premier, who agreed that instead of exporting the abalone, we could draw tourists and visitors to Tasmania by serving it in local restaurants,” Dillon says.
But six months after the Tasmanian fisheries agreement, and three weeks since the harvest season opened, the program has only been able to employ two Indigenous divers (instead of the four they had hoped for). The divers are only pulling in 400 kilograms of abalone a day, which isn’t enough to distribute to local markets, since most of the Aboriginals’ catch has been exported to China. Still, they are using the proceeds from the sale of this abalone to buy more quota units. Dillon, for his part, is also trying to negotiate units and licenses for other resources, like crayfish and scallops.
Lee, who spent decades researching land and sea management, says quotas and licenses have become even more difficult to buy since international consortiums and hedge fund companies now own the largest shares.
“The rules and regulations around abalone are geared towards exports,” she says, “and I’m crazed by anxiety that international investors will overfish and kill off who we are in pursuit of profit.”
Ironically, the negotiations on increasing Aboriginal quotas are often stonewalled by concerns of environmental sustainability. Leaders like Lee call them “bullshit excuses,” considering the impact that export-driven overfishing has had on warming the Southern Oceanic waters in the past 40 years versus the footprint left behind by the Aboriginals in 60,000 years.
A Future That Recognizes Sovereignty
Generations since colonial occupation, a document called the “Uluru Statement from the Heart” has renewed hope for consolidated Aboriginal rights in Australia. Drafted by First Nations community stakeholders and leaders after a series of dialogues in 2017, the statement pushes for a voice to parliament, treaty, and truth. With the support of the new Labor Party Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and the appointment of Linda Burney—the first-ever Native woman as the Indigenous affairs minister—Aboriginal leaders feel the time is ripe for Aboriginal councils and corporations.
First Nations leaders like Dillon are advocating for parliamentary representation and historical reparations while also bringing their communities into the fisheries.
“Because we come from poverty, a lot of our people are welfare-dependent,” Dillon says, as he scrolls through his phone, eating mutton bird meat he’d cooked the day before. He opens a message from his son, who wrote that hunting for their own food in the bushes had helped him feel closer to their ancestors and culture. For Dillon, this wild game was once all they could afford, yet they were criminalized and treated like savages for it.
“But we don’t want to be,” Dillon says. “We just want part of the resources that [are] ours and [to] sell it as Native food.”
CORRECTION: This article was updated at 2:03 p.m. PT on Nov. 3, 2022, to correct Lee’s quote to read “fish thieves” instead of “fish people.” Read our corrections policy here.
Teaser photo credit: Abalone sashimi. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=655428