Last of the Sea Nomads

James Morgan

2010 - 2013

Destructive fishing techniques are common practice amongst the coastal populations of the Coral Triangle. The favoured methods are homemade fertiliser bombs and potassium cyanide, which have not only decimated reefs in the largest and most diverse marine bio-region in the world but have destroyed countless human lives as well.

Of all these communities, the Bajau Laut have perhaps suffered the most. The Bajau Laut are some of the last true marine nomads. An ethnic group of Malay origin, they have for centuries lived out their lives almost entirely at sea, plying a tract of ocean between Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia. In the last few decades, many have been forced to settle permanently on land, but a dwindling number still call the ocean home, living on long boats known as lepa lepa. Traditionally, they fish with nets and lines and are expert free divers, going to improbable depths in search of pearls and sea cucumbers or to hunt with handmade spear guns.

But these traditional techniques have been largely replaced by cyanide and dynamite fishing, practices that are being driven predominantly by the live fish trade – an industry whose global worth is estimated at US $1 billion. The trade’s epicentre is Hong Kong, while Indonesia supplies most of the fish, accounting for nearly 50% of all imports. Target species are grouper and Napoleon wrasse, reef species that are key to the preservation of coral ecosystems.

Traditional Bajau cosmology – a syncretism of animism and Islam – reveals a complex relationship with the ocean, which for them is a multifarious and living entity. There are spirits in currents and tides, in coral reefs and mangroves. My point of interest is the potential for dovetailing the Bajau’s uniquely intimate understanding of the ocean with wider marine conservation strategies in order to facilitate them in conserving, rather than, destroying their culture and the spectacular marine environments they have called home for centuries.

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  • The coral triangle is a vast tract of ocean, some 6 million sq km, that encompasses Indonesia, Malaysia, Timor-Leste, Papua New Guinea, Philippines and the Solomon Islands. The area is a veritable Amazon of the oceans, said to contain some 75% of the world's coral species and home to thousands upon thousands of species of whales, sharks, turtles, tuna and other reef fish, many of which are critically endangered. West Papua, Indonesia.

  • The grouper are transported to a holding facility in Bali, where they are kept in live fish tanks and wait to be flown to Hong Kong and mainland China.

  • Whilst few young Bajau are now born on boats, the ocean is still very much their playground. And whilst they are getting conflicted messages from their communities, who simultaneously refrain from spitting in the ocean and continue to dynamite its reefs, I still believe they could play a crucial role in the development of western marine conservation practices. Here Enal plays with his pet shark. Wangi Wangi, Indonesia.

  • For the children that are born in Torosiaje, it may be several years before they set foot on dry land. The stilt village has a junior school but older children commute to the mainland. Sulawesi, Indonesia.

  • Pak Usrin demonstrates how to make a fertiliser bomb. He assures me, however, that he stopped bombing reefs back in 2005. Today he gets paid through Reef Check Indonesia to protect his local coral environment. Wakatobi, Indonesia.

  • Moen Lanke wrenching clams from the reef with a tyre iron. He holds his breath for long minutes underwater while the work is done. Sulawesi, Indonesia.

  • Compressor diving, often in conjunction with cyanide fishing, remains a common practice amongst the Bajau Laut despite being unsustainable, illegal and highly dangerous. Young Bajau men, and often children, will routinely dive to depths of sixty metres with air pumped down to them through a hose pipe and a regulator - with no knowledge of the dangers inherent in diving to such depths they often ascend far to quickly resulting in nitrogen build up and the bends. Compressor diving is one of the main causes of unnatural death amongst the Bajau communities I have visited.

  • Ibu Ani looks on as her son, Ramdan, forages the reef for clams. Since Ani's husband died of the bends whilst compressor and cyanide diving, she has relied on her son to support her during the months they spend at sea together. Sulawesi, Indonesia.

  • Jatmin surfacing with an octopus. The spearguns the Bajau often carry are handy for rooting the creatures from the holes in which they hide. Sulawesi, Indonesia.

  • Jatmin, an octopus specialist, carries his freshly speared catch back to his boat in the shallow waters off the coast of Sulawesi, Indonesia.

  • If the fish have been caught using cyanide they are also injected with tetracycline in order to reduce the mortality rate. The antibiotic can stay in a fish's system for up to a week. Wakatobi, Indonesia.

  • After travelling thousands of miles, the red spotted grouper eventually ends up on a plate in Hong Kong's renowned Jumbo restaurant where at just under a pound it sells for 1000 HK dollars (130 USD). It may well have been caught using destructive and dangerous fishing practices, at the moment there is no way for restaurateurs or consumers to really know where the fish is coming from and, more importantly, how it's been caught. Hong Kong.

  • Moen Lanke, seconds after freediving for clams with a tyre iron. The weight of the iron holds him down on the ocean floor allowing him to run along the reefs. In order to get around the problem of equalising (a technique used by scuba divers to balance the pressure of the inner and outer ear at depth) it is common practice amongst Bajau people to intentionally burst their ear drums at an early age. Sulawesi, Indonesia.

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