A new institutional framework to promote genuine reef research partnerships with Traditional Owners

Ms Elizabeth Evans-Illidge1, Ms Traceylee Forester1, Dr Margaret Gooch2

1Australian Institute Of Marine Science, Townsvile, Australia, 2James Cook University, Smithfield, Australia


For millenia, Traditional Owners have held inherent rights, interests and knowledge of Australian reefs, but are yet to be considered equal partners in reef research.  Australia adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2009, obliging us to “consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples … in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them.”  However, there is a disconnect between this obligation and the statutory regulation of marine research because most laws already existed prior to 2009 and have not been updated. Nevertheless, there has been steady progress.  For example, 13% of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area is now subject to formal statutory arrangements with Traditional Owners (Dale et al 2019), and vast areas of Torres Strait sea country now lie within a Native Title sea claim (NNTT 2019).  Now there is an opportunity for the reef research community to establish sectoral and institutional standards and practices to proactively uphold the obligations to first nations peoples.  We present a research governance model now implemented at the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) to achieve genuine research partnerships with Traditional Owners.  It has evolved from Arnstein’s (1969) ladder of citizen participation in decision making into a tiered system that guides the level of engagement expected for different types of project; and provides a mechanism to characterize the strength of partnerships to set performance measures and monitor effectiveness and success. This caters for a wide spectrum of Indigenous involvement in marine research and is a model which could be applied more broadly.


Elizabeth (Libby) Evans-Illidge is a marine scientist from the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) who has worked on and around the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait for 35 years.  She is currently leads the Indigenous Partnerships team to establish genuine partnerships between AIMS researchers and Traditional Owners of sea country.  She is also the research director of  AIMS@JCU – a joint venture collaboration between AIMS and JCU.  Past research interests have included biodiscovery and chemical ecology of marine sponges, the potential of aquaculture development in Indigenous communities, marine monitoring with Indigenous rangers, and other science-Indigenous collaborations.  She enjoys learning from and working with Traditional Owners to find synergies amongst sea-country aspirations, knowledge, capacity, and science priorities. Libby deeply loves the reef, is mother to three young adults, and is motivated by the need for a brighter reef future for generations to come.