39. Intertidal Zone

This podcast by Nikunu Yunupingu and Richard Trudgen explores the decision of the High Court of Australia in 2008 to grant traditional owners exclusive native title rights to the intertidal zone in the NT  – known as the ‘Blue Mud Bay’ case.

Nikunu says he has heard of the decision but asks what it means, how it affects Yolngu and their estates, and what the phrase ‘intertidal zone’ actually means. Richard explains that, even 10 years after the decision, most Yolngu have little knowledge of the ruling and what it means for them, even though they are one of the main stakeholders.

Richard begins by explaining the meaning of the English term “Intertidal Zone”, including the words ‘high tide’ and ‘low tide’. He points out that he learnt many new Yolngu Matha words when discussing this subject with Yolngu colleagues, which explains why even established Yolngu interpreters are still struggling with this very important concept and subject.

He then discusses the High Court ruling, which dictated that the water lying over Aboriginal land should not be treated differently from the land itself, and ownership of Aboriginal land adjoining marine waters in the Northern Territory generally extends to the low tide level. This means that as people need to obtain permission from traditional owners or the appropriate land council to go on to Aboriginal land, the Court made it clear that such permission is also required to enter water overlying that land.

He also explains how the case affects Yolngu people, saying that the judgement affected ALL Aboriginal lands under schedule one of the NT Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1976.

Nikunu says the staff at the NLC changes all the time and questions if the ruling still stands, and if it does then why do Balanda keep returning and asking for permission to fish in Yolngu waters. Together he and Richard work through the federal law as well as temporary permit system for recreational fishers issued by the Northern Lands Council (NLC), which has been operating for 10 years, and how this might look in the future.

They discuss how important it is for Yolngu to understand this information so they can make informed decisions about how they want to manage their estates based on strong culture, song lines, and Yolngu law which tells estate owners their rights and authority over these marine resources. Understanding the court decision and the impacts on the intertidal zone will also mean Yolngu will be able to communicate and negotiate effectively with the NLC, in order to protect their rights.


There are 4 Stories in this podcast. Please see time stamps below:

  • Explaining the Intertidal Zone- 00:00
  • How does Blue Mud Bay legal decision effect all Yolngu coastal lands? – 8:45
  • Does the Intertidal Zone law still stand? – 16:52
  • Where does the NLC fit into the Intertidal Zone issue? 28:43