Cultural heritage and archaeology the key to offshore development

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  • Sea Country is a growing field for offshore developers, but many are finding it tricky to navigate evolving legal framework and government policy 
  • Millions of hectares of Sea Country connect Indigenous Australians to 65,000+ years of heritage and culture
  • Expert explains why working with Indigenous communities and taking a long-term view is key to succeeding in this sector.

Offshore project developers are best positioned to achieve their goals if they partner early with Traditional Owners, and seek archaeological expertise to prioritise cultural heritage in their planning across Aboriginal ‘Sea Country’ – millions of hectares surrounding Australia’s 34,000km coastline.

Extent Heritage, an RSK Group company, is one of Australia’s largest specialist heritage management and archaeological companies. Erica Walther, who is an archeologist, cultural heritage adviser, and Manager of the Sea Country Unit of Extent Heritage, said: “There are so many new facets to building infrastructure off our coastlines, and it’s challenging our existing laws because it hasn’t been done this way before. Developers who partner with Traditional Owners and equip their projects with archeological expertise are best placed to navigate project requirements as the legal framework and government policy continue to evolve.”

Australia’s Sea Country 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a 65,000-year-plus continuing connection to both land and Sea Country. What we know as Sea Country was not always submerged; for example, a land bridge connected Victoria and Tasmania until about 14,000 years ago, at which time the total land mass of Australia was over 2 million kilometres larger than it is today. This submerged land has special significance to Traditional Owners.

“It’s important for developers to understand First Nations heritage in their project areas,” said Erica. “There are substantial potential archaeological and educational benefits in exploring Sea Country to find out more about the landscapes and seascapes that have significance, and tie back into the Dreaming story.”

Aboriginal Dreaming Stories have been carried down over time about the flooding of Port Phillip Bay and Western Port Bay near Melbourne. It’s an intertwining of tangible and intangible history and culture.

The seabed as a test bed

These considerations of Sea Country, and the social licence that can be built through its appropriate management with Traditional Owners, are being tested in Victoria’s Gippsland area. It’s been earmarked for a 2.085GW offshore wind project[1], with the State Government expected to soon award a commercial licence for works to start.

Erica added: “But businesses need to have a long-range view to think about potential impacts to tangible and intangible cultural heritage, and the work they’ll need to be doing to understand and manage this over the next 10 plus years of their development cycle.”

She urged would-be offshore developers to follow best practice before putting their toe in the water. “Partner with Indigenous communities to appreciate their connections to Sea Country. Invite in expertise with rigorous methodology to identify what’s submerged so significant cultural heritage can be accommodated into your planning. All that is part of your due diligence for a feasibility licence from the Commonwealth Government and will set you on a path to gaining social license through what might now seem like no man’s land.”

About Extent Heritage, an RSK company:

For twenty years, Extent Heritage (www.extentheritage.com.au) has been a leader in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage management, completing over one thousand successful projects across Australia’s states and territories. Their reputation is built on professionalism, ethical conduct, and high standards, fostering enduring relationships with Traditional Owners, consent authorities, and developers. Collaborating closely with clients and stakeholders, Extent Heritage ensure heritage management outcomes that benefit all parties involved, balancing conservation needs with practical solutions. Their expertise spans strategic planning, compliance, impact assessments, management plans, archaeological surveys, community engagement, cultural mapping, and more, demonstrating commitment to preserving and honouring cultural heritage while promoting sustainable development.

About RSK

RSK (www.rskgroup.com) is a global leader in the delivery of sustainable solutions. Its family of more than 200 environmental, engineering, and technical services businesses and 12,000 employees works together to provide practical solutions to some of the greatest challenges societies have ever faced.

The company operates in most sectors of the economy, including many of those most critical to future global sustainability, such as water, energy, food and drink, infrastructure, urban development, mining, and waste. With its integrated offering across research and development, consultancy, and on-the-ground application, RSK can deliver a complete solution that is unrivalled in the market.

The company is certified to the ISO 9001, ISO 14001 and ISO 45001 international standards for quality, environmental management and health and safety management.

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