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Northern Territory: report on court hearing of the first sea claim around Croker Island, lodged under the Native Title Act.

MONICA ATTARD: Well, the Federal Court today began a hearing on a remote Aboriginal community off the Arnhem Land coast into the first sea claim lodged under the Native Title Act. An area of about 1,600 square kilometres surrounding Croker Island north-east of Darwin is being claimed by six groups of Aboriginal people. The court was told today that the relationship between local Aboriginal people and the sea is one of life and death. Paul Cullen, who flew into Croker Island for the beginning of the hearing, prepared this report.

PAUL CULLEN: If there are any doubts as to the role the sea plays in life in the Croker Island area, then some of the parties involved in the hearing found out today. It was the choppy conditions off the coast that were at least partly responsible for a three-and-a- half hour delay in the start to proceedings. The yacht which had brought the Northern Territory and Commonwealth Government lawyers from Darwin had anchored on the far side of the island overnight and hadn't set out early enough, amid rising winds and worsening sea conditions, to arrive in the tiny community at Minjilang in time for the 9.30 start.

When the hearing finally got under way, three-and-a-half hours behind schedule, under a shade cloth outside the local council offices, once again the wind freshened, at times drowning out the opening address of the lawyer representing the Aboriginal claimants, Ross Howie, while the sky darkened and some nervous officials were no doubt contemplating the prospects of a rain-adjourned court session. But it wasn't to be, and Mr Howie was able to explain that Aboriginal people want some say over the use of sea resources. He said local indigenous people have always been intimately associated with the sea and focus their daily activities on the water and its resources. And he quoted from a 1983 letter from local Aboriginal people summing up their relationship with the sea.

ROSS HOWIE: 'We Aboriginal people believe that all human beings go together with the land and sea. If we have land and no sea, we will die. If we have sea and no land, we will die. If we have land and sea, people will live free.' And that will be one of the thrusts of the evidence that the witnesses will seek to give to Your Honour, how closely and intimately their lives are tied up with the sea.

PAUL CULLEN: The key witness in detailing that will be the senior traditional owner involved in the claim, Mary Yarmirr, who before today's hearing gave some reasons for pursuing the matter.

MARY YARMIRR: I'm concerned every day of my life. I see a lot of things that disturb my sea country, such as the trawlers, the boats, the pollution that drift onto our shores, the nets that are caught in the reefs - those are the concerns that I believe will not help my people in the near future.

PAUL CULLEN: But any suggestion the activities of the fishing industry are harming the area involved in the claim is vehemently denied by the Northern Territory Fishing Industry Council, which is opposing the claim. The council's Nigel Scullion says the evidence supports this position.

PAUL SCULLION: There is clearly no environmental degradation from trawling and there is absolutely no information to indicate that our stocks and our access to these areas are anything but sustainable. This is demonstrated clearly in September last year where an independent stock assessment expert, a guy by the name of Dr Karl (?) Edmonds, came to the Northern Territory, had a look at all our processes and how we've gone about finding out exactly what the state of our stocks were and the levels of effort, and he decided, not only it got the thumbs up, but he has declared that it is simply the best fisheries management regime in the world.

MONICA ATTARD: Nigel Scullion of the Northern Territory Fishing Industry Council; the reporter, Paul Cullen.