Image: NASA Johnson Space Center.

Two Indigenous groups share native title over Torres Strait islands Warral and Ului, the Federal Court says.

However, the court has also determined that another First Nations group – the Kaurareg people – does not.

The Badulgal, Mualgal and Kaurareg peoples had shared ownership of the uninhabited western Torres Strait islands following mediation by the Federal Court in 2015.

However, five Badulgal men objected when a formal shared ownership claim was finally authorised and filed with the Federal Court in 2020.

The Badulgal men claimed Warral and Ului belonged under traditional law and custom only to their group.

By July 2020, the Federal Court agreed to have a full trial regarding who holds native title for the islands.

“Everyone agreed that native title exists in Warral and Ului. So the main question for the trial was: which group or groups holds that native title?” Justice Debra Mortimer said in her judgment summary on Monday.

“All parties accept that the islands belong to one or more of these groups, and not to anyone else.

“Before colonisation who did these islands belong to, and under what system of traditional law and custom? That is the issue.”

After hearing the native title case over different periods and locations from October 2021 to October 2022, Justice Mortimer said it had not been proven that all three groups shared native title in the islands.

“The court also decided that the Kaurareg people do not have native title in Warral and Ului at all,” Justice Mortimer said.

The court found the evidence supporting Badulgal’s native title was “very strong”, while Mualgal’s claim was “not as strong but it was enough”.

“The Badulgal and Mualgal hold joint native title in Warral and Ului, in the same way they hold joint native title over neighbouring islands like Dadalai, Zurath and Tuin and the other islands near them,” Justice Mortimer said.

“The court also took account of the State of Queensland’s position that the evidence showed the islands traditionally belong to Badulgal and Mualgal.”

Overall there were 17 witnesses and four anthropologists who gave evidence at the native title case discussing history, customary law and traditions.

The case was regarding native title of the Warral and Ului islands themselves, not the surrounding seas or reefs, Justice Mortimer said.

“Some of the court’s findings may affect other claims that are not resolved yet, but here the court makes no decision about those other claims,” she said.

“The court understands that its decision will be welcomed by some and not by others.”

While uninhabited, the Warral and Ului islands and their surrounding reefs and waters were well known to the western Torres Strait for their good seasonal resources, the court heard.

Warral was also a popular stop-off point for people travelling through the area, Justice Mortimer said.

Native title claims in the region were first made in March 2002.

The next steps towards finalising native title determination for the islands would be held at a hearing in about a month’s time, Justice Mortimer said.