Torres Strait

INTRODUCTION

The Torres Strait is a narrow passage connecting two large bodies of water - the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Named after the Spanish explorer Torres who sailed through the area in 1606, the term Torres Strait is used to refer to the water, reefs and more than 100 islands that lie between a short strip of the southern Papua New Guinea coastline and the north-eastern tip of Australia (Cape York Peninsula). The strait has been a major shipping route for more than a century and today provides passage to 6000 large ships annually. Passage through the strait is challenging mix of almost 3000 reefs, strong winds, complex tidal movement and shallow waters. Shipping traffic in the Torres Strait represents a significant threat to the Torres Strait marine environment and adjacent Great Barrier Reef Marine Park to the south. To increase safeguards, pilotage became compulsory throughout the Torres Strait in October 2006.
The area is also culturally complex. It is the home of Torres Strait Islanders, an indigenous minority within Australia, as well as an Australian Aboriginal group, a small number of resident Papua New Guineans, and non-indigenous Australians. There are 20 communities in the region accommodating roughly 8,000 people, including 6,000 Torres Strait Islanders. Torres Strait Islanders have a strong maritime focus and draw on their extensive knowledge of the region's marine geography and species behaviour to hunt, glean and line fish for marine foods. They target finfish, shells, dugong, marine turtle, octopus, crab, squid and crayfish for both subsistence purposes and ceremonial feasting. Islanders have one of the highest rates of seafood consumption in the world.
The Torres Strait is significant for its marine ecological diversity, prominent indigenous population and longstanding source of marine industry wealth.

MARINE INDUSTRIES

The Torres Strait has been a source of commercial extraction of marine resources since the 1860s beginning with the discovery of pearl shell and sea cucumber (trepang or beche-de-mer). Torres Strait Islanders have long been involved in marine industries and are currently engaged in key marine industries including the harvesting of tropical rock lobster, sea cucumber, trochus and finfish. Other commercial fisheries are dominated by the efforts of non-indigenous fishers including spanish mackerel, lobster, finfish, pearl shell and prawn. The prawn fishery is most productive with 1597 tonnes being extracted in 2003 (worth A$23.5 million) while the rock lobster fishery extracted 250 tonnes (tail weight) estimated to be worth around $14 million. Catch sharing arrangements among Australian fishers involved in the Torres Strait finfish and tropical rock lobster fisheries will change from 2007 as indigenous fishers and non-indigenous fishers move to a new 50-50 arrangement which will increase indigenous Torres Strait Islanders share in those industries. New marine industries are being investigated with the Australian Institute of Marine Science researching the feasibility of sponge aquaculture with the aim of creating a culturally appropriate industry for the region's indigenous communities. The market for sponges is worth US$40 million worldwide. This research has been facilitated by the non-profit Cooperative Research Centre for the Torres Strait that targets three core areas of research: harvested marine resources, biophysical processes, and marine systems management evaluations and risks with a focus on sustainable use for the benefit of stakeholders.

MARINE LIFE

The Torres Strait is made up of shallow warm waters in the west extending to deeper coral reefs in the east. These eastern reefs form the northern most section of the Great Barrier Reef province. Several species with a high conservation value are present in the Torres Strait and include seabirds, dugong and marine turtles. The region contains breeding sites for dugong, flatback turtles and the vulnerable hawksbill and green turtles. Current research includes James Cook University's 'Kaiwalagal marine turtle project' which uses satellite tracking to follow green turtle movement in the region. The extensive seagrass meadows that are a feature of the region serve both as a food source for dugongs but also act as nurseries for species of prawn, lobster and fish. These 'meadows' are particularly sensitive to changes in sediment movement. Early concerns about the possible impact of Papua New Guinea mining, particularly increased sediment flow and mine waste discharges on Torres Strait water quality resulted in a large scale investigation of baseline information about the marine environment. These issues are of ongoing concern as changes in the extent of seagrass stands could likely affect dugong populations and movement, and the habitats of juvenile rock lobsters who spend much of their early lives in the area. Mining is currently not permitted in the Torres Strait itself, but this situation is periodically reviewed and is next due for discussion in 2008.

GOVERNANCE

The Torres Strait is a complex administrative area with more than twenty government departments and agencies present in the region including defence, immigration and customs. The Torres Strait Treaty (1985), signed by the Australian and Papua New Guinea governments in 1978 and effective from 1984, establishes a key governance structure for the region. It clarified the seabed boundary between Papua New Guinea and Australia, delineated a Torres Strait Protected Zone for joint conservation, management and shared fisheries between the two countries, and allowed traditional inhabitants to continue to move freely across the international border for the purposes of engaging in traditional activities (e.g. trading), subject to quarantine restrictions. The Torres Strait Protected Zone Joint Authority manages the commercial, turtle and dugong fisheries in the region and consists of the federal and state fisheries ministers and the chairperson of the Torres Strait Regional Authority, an Australian government statutory authority made up of locally elected indigenous leaders. Licensing, research and day-to-day management is carried out by a commonwealth department (Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) and agency (Australian Fisheries Management Authority) and the Torres Strait Regional Authority. Recreational fisheries are managed at a state level by the Queensland Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries. Regional marine planning that fosters 'ecologically sustainable development' for the Torres Strait region is currently being progressed by the Australian government National Oceans Office. Torres Strait Islanders themselves also aspire to improve marine management and have recently taken over the implementation of a new Land and Sea Management Strategy. Working as members of a large indigenous initiative called the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance, Torres Strait Islanders have also developed a framework and plan of management for the sustainable harvesting of turtle and dugong.
Torres Strait Islanders are renowned for their role in a long running court case which culminated in a decision by the High Court of Australia in Mabo vs Queensland (No. 2) 1992, or simply 'Mabo' as it has come to be known that put to rest the patent fiction of terra nullius - Australia as a land belonging to no-one before the arrival of Europeans. This case resulted in the Native Title Act 1993 which provides the legal terms under which indigenous Australians may claim to have their 'rights and interests' in terrestrial and marine areas recognised, where they have maintained a 'continuous connection' to the areas in question. Under this act, Torres Strait Islanders have claimed proprietary rights to much of the land and sea in the Torres Strait.