Policy News

Better Oceans, Better Futures: Project Explores Indigenous Approaches to Ocean Stewardship

UOW, Aboriginal communities work towards a culturally sensitive, sustainable ocean governance model

For Aboriginal communities, the ocean has always been a sanctuary, their livelihood and a repository of spiritual knowing. For the Western world, it’s been mostly a commodity, which has resulted in massive resource depletion, habitat loss, water pollution and ocean warming.

But through a dialogue with Indigenous communities, we can draw inspiration for a different way of governing our oceans.

In the most recent round of Linkage Projects, the Australian Research Council (ARC) awarded the University of Wollongong (UOW) – working in partnership with the Illawarra Local Aboriginal Land Council, Djungga Aboriginal Corporation and Ocean Nexus – a grant of $418,601 for an exploration of Indigenous approaches towards ocean stewardship.

Dr Michelle Voyer from the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources & Security (ANCORS) is one of the research leaders.

“Our project, Better Oceans, Better Futures, has been born out of a shared desire to improve current systems of governance to be more culturally sensitive and sustainable,” Dr Voyer said.

“In particular, we are interested in improving the ways we account for and consider subjective, relational and cultural values of local communities.

“We want to reimagine the management of the oceans, using guidance from the Indigenous peoples and their heritage.”

Dr Voyer added that to create better ocean governance, we need more inclusive and holistic approaches towards diverse forms of knowledge.

Indigenous communities have long nurtured values such as custodianship, reciprocity and treating nature as kin, which can be hard to reconcile with conventional models.

Aboriginal practices are also grounded in place, which can be quite different from many existing forms of ocean management (species-based) that often focus on an issue or species in isolation.

“We’re not trying to ‘fit’ Indigenous knowledge into existing structures but rather reflect on how we can improve our models, based on the lessons from the original inhabitants of this country,” Dr Voyer said.

“We’re drawing inspiration from the way in which cultural burning has taken a much more central role in mainstream land management. We want to see similar types of reform for the ocean governance.”

Paul Knight, the CEO of Illawarra Local Aboriginal Land Council, welcomed this award with a lot of hope.

“In a way, this project feels a bit like Back to the Future. We’re resurrecting old Aboriginal ways of thinking about the world and pushing them into a modern context,” Knight said.

“Indigenous cultural belief structures are born out of the knowledge that everything is of equal agency – as humans, we have no more authority than trees or the ocean. We’re the custodians of the environment, and we have the responsibility to make sure it is protected.”


The ARC Linkage Program promotes national and international research partnerships between researchers and business, industry, community organisations and other publicly funded research agencies. By supporting the development of partnerships, it encourages the transfer of skills, knowledge and ideas as a basis for securing commercial and other benefits of research.

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