Far South Coast Indigenous fishermen have come out in support of a Mogo man allegedly involved in abalone trafficking to Sydney, claiming the catch was part of a joint haul from the Walbunja people.
Andrew Nye and John Brierley, of the NSW Aboriginal Fishing Rights group, said the 59-year-old had their full support after police and Department of Primary Industries (DPI) Fisheries officers seized more than 3300 abalone as part of a joint operation in late January.
- Click here to read the industry perspective: Cultural fishing a ‘front’ to cover up commercial poaching: Abalone Council
They pledged to fight the matter through the courts if charges were laid.
“If Fisheries want to book him, then so be it. We’ve got the solicitors and the barristers to fight the case and we will take this right through to the High Court,” Mr Nye said.
Mr Brierley said the abalone seized in the Western Sydney suburb of Berala was the accumulation of individual catches from Walbunja cultural fisherman, with individual quantities falling within the legal daily catch limits.
They call it black market, we call it survival because we take it and we sell it and we’re not doing drugs with it. These people are poor people.
“(DPI Fisheries) officers are making out it’s all his. That’s not all (his) abalone. It’s the Walbunja people’s product,” Mr Brierley told the Bay Post/Moruya Examiner.
”On average, (he) would only get three kilograms a week for the whole year. (He) is within individual regulations, so is everybody else within the whole system.
“It was all within the legal quota. They call it black market, we call it survival because we take it and we sell it and we’re not doing drugs with it. These people are poor people.”
The Bay Post/Moruya Examiner hoped to speak to the man understood to have been arrested in January in a joint interview with the fishermen, but he received legal advice not to speak to the media.
Police alleged the abalone was part of an illegal trafficking operation to unlicensed Sydney-based receivers.
Mr Brierley said the man at the centre of the DPI’s largest abalone seizure in more than two decades did not attempt to hide the activity from police.
“The original people of this area have put (him) in charge of transporting their goods (abalone) to give them some money to get out of poverty,” Mr Brierley said.
“They’ve got electricity bills… where do they get their make-up money to cover the bills and put food on the table for their children?
There should be nothing stopping him from using his culture to collect abalone and go and make some money off it to buy a car or a house.
“So (he) is not a criminal, he is a martyr for us – for the younger generation that has not got jobs – to make up for the shortfall of their money.”
Mr Nye said the man was within his right to access the resource and claimed the DPI’s regulation of cultural fishing was misconceived.
“(He) is entitled to do that. That is our resource. It has never been sold, never given up. There should be nothing stopping him from using his culture to collect abalone and go and make some money off it to buy a car or a house,” Mr Nye said.
“As an original owner of this country and a cultural fisherman, we should be entitled to go out there on any day and get whatever. We should not be dictated to by the DPI. They don’t pay our wages, we’ve got to make money. Our culture is commercial.”
With more than 600 of the seized abalone alleged to be of prohibited size, the Walbunja caretakers said the clan’s fishing practice was ecologically sustainable.
Mr Nye called for negotiations with DPI over abalone size limits and said it was longstanding cultural practice to leave behind breeding-age abalone and catch in-between sizes.
With the man at the centre of the operation yet to be charged, Mr Nye and Mr Brierley said the arrest was an “insult” to their community and culture.