Traditional Owners of the Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority acknowledges the continuing Sea Country management and custodianship of the Great Barrier Reef by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Traditional Owners whose rich cultures, heritage values, enduring connections and shared efforts protect the Reef for future generations.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples   have been linked with the Reef since time immemorial. Prior to sea level rise and the Reef forming over 7000 years ago, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples lived on what is now the seafloor, and cultural knowledge of this time’s practices and sites still remains. After the Reef formed, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples cared for their Sea Country through interweaving their culture and spirituality with sustainable use of its resources.

Image of Yuku Baja Muliku Sea Rangers on country.

Yuku Baja Muliku Sea Rangers actively manage their Sea Country.

Despite historical events of dispossession and displacement, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people maintain connection to their land and Sea Country. Those of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent who have spiritual or cultural affiliations with a site or area in the Marine Park — or are holders of native title with that site or area, and are entitled to undertake activities under custom or tradition — are termed Traditional Owners.

There are some 70 Aboriginal Traditional Owner groups with authority for Sea Country management in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Torres Strait Island Traditional Owner groups are also connected to the Reef and hold cultural knowledge of their traditional use of the Great Barrier Reef region more broadly. Three groups are directly connected to Raine Island.

The Authority recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have connection to areas of the Reef that extend beyond the official Marine Park boundary, including into Torres Strait waters. The eastern reefs of the Torres Strait form the intact northern extension of the Great Barrier Reef, and are increasingly recognised for their potential refugia value as well as their significant cultural value to Traditional Owners of these islands and surrounding sea estates.

European settlement led to a multitude of users and pressures on the Reef, and a major disruption to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ custodianship capacity.

At the same time as the Reef experienced new pressures, loss of land and Sea Country rights, dislocation, disease, dispersion and disadvantage disrupted the capacity of people to perform and pass on their cultural responsibilities and care for their Sea Country.

Despite this recent history, many Traditional Owners remain connected to their Sea Country and strong in their culture[1].  A vast, rich array of components with heritage value still exists and is actively maintained by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Many people work tirelessly through their communities and various Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations to maintain the remaining heritage values of the Reef, managing Sea Country, recording oral tradition and expressing living culture. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are increasingly re-asserting their role in managing their country through active engagement in on-country management and policy and planning programs, including the Traditional Use of Marine Resource Agreement program with the Authority.

“…we’ve had a long, long, long association with the Reef. It is one of the seven wonders of the world but we also have a common culture and obligation to it.[2]

(Traditional Owner from Mamu country, 2012)

[1]Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority 2014, Great Barrier Reef Region Strategic Assessment 2014, Commonwealth of Australia, and Markwell 2017, Results of Traditional Owner Initial Engagement Analysis Report, internal report, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

[2]Barry, G. 2012a, Transcript of an interview with a Traditional Owner from Mamu Country, in Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority 2014, Great Barrier Reef Region Strategic Assessment 2014, Commonwealth of Australia, at section 7.24