daly river fish station© The Pew Charitable Trusts

Find out more about the Top End’s extraordinary coasts and lifestyle, Indigenous Rangers, amazing desert country, and the success of Fish River Station.

Top End sea life

The waters of the Top End and the Gulf of Carpentaria are rich in tropical marine life and support the vibrant outdoors way of life in the Northern Territory. The shallow warm waters of the Timor Sea, stretching from the border with Western Australia across to Queensland’s Cape York in the east, are among the last thriving tropical marine systems remaining on the planet.

Indigenous sea ranger groups are active throughout the region. Drawing on traditional knowledge, contemporary science, and their increasing legal rights, Traditional Owners and rangers visit sacred sites, track sea life, report illegal fishing and remove ‘ghost nets’ (discarded fishing nets) while maintaining and renewing cultural connections to their sea country.

The waters west of Darwin provide a haven for threatened sea turtles, which feed around submerged reefs and nest on nearby beaches. East of Darwin, underwater pinnacles off the Coburg Peninsula rise dramatically from the sea floor, attracting and supporting light-loving marine life.

On the edge of the continental shelf rise, cooler, deeper ocean waters provide feeding grounds for whale sharks and predatory fish. Closer to shore, these islands dotting the Arnhem shelf are fringed by colourful reefs and clear waters, creating a refuge for large fish such as snapper, emperor and grouper.

Farther east, in the Gulf of Carpentaria, sea grass meadows off Groote Eylandt and Limmen Bight are a hot spot for vulnerable dugong and rare snubfin dolphins. The soft sea floor of the central Gulf is home to an abundance of heart urchins, which cycle nutrients through the interconnected food web.

The monsoonal rivers flowing into the southern Gulf remain largely free from dams and large-scale water extraction, making the region unique around the world. Free-flowing wild rivers bring a flood of nutrients and fresh water each wet season, supporting high levels of phytoplankton, sea plants that produce the oxygen we breathe.


Less than 3 per cent of the Northern Territory’s waters are protected from threats such as industrial drilling and destructive commercial fishing methods. Pew supports the Environment Centre NT and the Australian Marine Conservation Society in safeguarding the extraordinary marine life through establishing a sensible balance of marine parks.

We congratulate the NT Government for maintaining a moratorium on seabed mining. Significant concerns exist about the impact of mining the soft, sandy seabeds along the NT coast. The sea grass beds supporting dugong and other species would be irrevocably damaged by seabed mining.

Properly managed marine parks give these waters the best chance of remaining healthy and sustaining natural populations of sea life. As is the case with national parks on land, there are different types of marine parks. Carefully situated sanctuary areas provide the highest level of protection.

Eastern Arnhem Land

Pew has supported the land management work of the Warddeken and Djelk Rangers on the spectacular Arnhem Land Plateau and the adjacent fertile coastal plain and coast. These ranger groups manage the Warddeken and Djelk Indigenous Protected Areas through shared management agreements with the Commonwealth Government.

Pew provided support for the establishment of the Karrkad-Kandji Trust, which furnishes necessary resources to manage the protected areas.

The Warddeken IPA covers 13,950 square kilometres of spectacular stone and gorge country on the western Arnhem Land Plateau. The Djelk IPA covers over 6732 square kilometres of the Arnhem Coast and Arnhem Plateau bioregions.

See the fire management work of rangers:

Ten Deserts

Australia’s desert country is among the healthiest and most ecologically intact arid landscapes remaining on Earth, containing 10 deserts:

  1. Great Victoria Desert
  2. Great Sandy Desert
  3. Tanami Desert
  4. Simpson Desert
  5. Gibson Desert
  6. Little Sandy Desert
  7. Strzelecki Desert
  8. Sturt Stony Desert
  9. Tirari Desert
  10. Pedirka Desert

Together, these deserts cover 1,371,000 square kilometres (529,000 square miles), or 18 per cent of the Australian mainland, but only 3 per cent of the population lives in the desert regions.

Rainfall here is unpredictable. For example, Alice Springs reports an average of 270 mm a year, but seven out of 10 years fall below this average.  It’s a land of droughts and flooding rains. A diversity of habitats can be found in the centre of Australia: ranges and gorges, woodlands, desert rivers, sand country and salt lakes. Soils are ancient and infertile. Nitrogen and phosphorus levels on average are less than half that found in the world’s other arid regions.

Fire is critical to the health of Australia’s deserts. Traditional patch, or mosaic, burning by Indigenous people has worked to create space for desirable ephemeral plants, favour the survival of medium-sized mammals, recycle nutrients and prevent larger, destructive wildfires.

Across the deserts, non-native animals have wreaked havoc. Introduced rabbits, cattle, horses and camels have out-competed native herbivores for food, pushing their numbers to critically low levels and making them vulnerable to predation by feral cats and foxes. Australia has some of the highest diversity of unique species in the world but also the planet’s worst rate of extinctions: 50 per cent of all mammal species that have become extinct worldwide over the past 200 years have been Australian.

Indigenous people make up about 20 per cent of the population in Australia’s desert country and are the majority landowners, with the native title rights of Traditional Owners recognised in law over much of the land. Indigenous people of diverse language groups reside in as many as 1300 discrete communities that are widely distributed across their traditional lands.

There are hundreds of pastoral enterprises in the inland, occupying about 58 per cent of semi-arid and arid areas.  These enterprises have contributed significantly to the economy, but many are under increasing pressure from changed terms of trade and distance from markets. As one of the major land uses in the rangelands, pastoralism has a significant role to play in natural resource management.


Pew is an active member of the Ten Deserts initiative, which works to build collaborative partnerships across state and territory borders to protect the natural and cultural values in the inland parts of Australia’s Outback and advocate for a vibrant desert future.

We are working to build the capacity of Traditional Owners and other land managers to manage desert country in a healthy and sustainable manner and to increase the public’s awareness of the value of Australia’s desert country.

Pew aims to achieve landscape-scale management of critical ecological threats through cross-border and cross-tenure approaches and contribute to regional climate adaptation and the growing movement towards connecting conservation across Australia.

Learn more about life in Australia’s deserts.

Fish River Station—completed 2011

Fish River Station was purchased through a partnership among Pew, The Nature Conservancy and the Indigenous Land Corporation, an Australian Government statutory authority with over 15 years’ experience delivering large-scale land management projects.

The purchase has established a landmark 180,000-hectare (444,790-acre) conservation model, creating jobs for Indigenous people in the remote Top End. Management of this nationally significant conservation property is guided by a comprehensive plan and an Indigenous Advisory Group representative of four Traditional Owner Groups: Labarganyan, Wagiman, Malak Malak and Kamu.

Fish River Station is now part of Australia’s National Reserve System. Located about 150 kilometres south of Darwin, the property stretches along the wildlife-rich Daly River, with its fresh- and salt-water crocodiles, and includes billabongs fringed by savanna woodland and pockets of rainforest rising to spectacular ranges. Fish River Station is also a stronghold for the pig-nosed turtle, an important cultural icon as well as a food source for local people.

Fish River is Australia’s first controlled savanna burning project to be approved under the Commonwealth Government’s Carbon Farming Initiative.