Bajau Laut – Fishermen without Fish

Erik Abrahamsson is a Master’s student in Social Anthropology at Lund University, studying about Bajau Laut. His blog is

Edjie with the BagahakSuddenly, Edjie reached the surface with a big smile in his face. He had caught a grouper with his speargun – and it was still alive. “Bagahak!” said Edjie, “Itu ahalga ma Chinatown” (Translation: Grouper! This is expensive in Chinatown). Immediately, we canceled the fishing trip, docked at Magsaysay Park and ran into Chinatown.  Me, Edjie and his son Loglog, with wet clothes, no shoes and a living fish in our hands. After a while we entered a jewelry store and met a Chinese man with an amazed look. He brought a scale and weighted the grouper – more than two kilo. Edjie sold it for 320 pesos (8 USD). The day was saved!

My first encounter with Bajau Laut took place in the beginning of 2010 when I was studying about indigenous peoples at Lund University. My first intention was to go to Tawi Tawi but researchers advised me not to go there … so I continued to read about Bajau and found a blog were a man wrote about his encounters with Bajau in southern Mindanao.  I asked him if he could help me and he replied that Bajau are living only 200 meter from his house in Davao City.
“Isn’t it dangerous?”, I asked and looked at the map of Mindanao.
“No, not here”, he replied. “I will assist you.”

Superb divers

Bajau Laut Community in Davao City

A few weeks later I moved in to the Bajau community in Matina Aplaya hosted by one of the leader’s families.  From the beginning I was fascinated with their amazing diving and fishing skills. We used to go fishing daily: Me, the community leader Edjie and his “sehe’” Issau. They caught fish after fish – including groupers, octopuses and muray eels.
One day, I was contacted by Prof. Erika Schagatay at Mid-Sweden University who asked me to clock their dives in order to estimate their total under water working time during a typical fishing tour. I continued the study in the end of 2010 using Ultra Sensus Dive Recorders. The result was fascinating, it shows that Bajau are spending more than 50% of their total time in the water under the surface – no matter if they stay on the sea for one, two or three hours.
The study can be found here: Underwater working times in two groups of traditional apnea divers in Asia: the Ama and the Bajau
In the end of 2010 I returned for a new field work among the Sama-Bajau. During this journey I also visited Semporna, Malaysia and remote Bajau villages in Indonesia. Now, a new world was opening for me: the language Sinama.  What I had understood as a small dialect in Davao, proved to be a wide-spread language spoken in four countries. In Semporna it is the town’s everyday language.

Study on Fish Bombing

Presently in 2013, I am making a study on dynamite fishing in Semporna.  Fish bombing is an industry driven by international demands, diminishing resources and the migration policy of Malaysia. Risking deportation, many Bajau fishermen make a living from destructive fishing methods – feeling no connectivity to the land.
Most Bajau Laut, however, are not involved in any destructive fishing. They continue to fish with the spear, the net and the hook – even if many of the spearfishers have started to use compressors.

Unique Knowledge of the Sea

Bajau Laut have a unique knowledge of the sea – they know hundreds of species, they adapt to the ocean’s tides and can harvest reefs sustainable. In hundreds of years they have co-existed with the sea using fishing methods with little impact on the marine life.
Bajau Laut Fisherman Edjie and Issau out on the OceanUnfortunately, the Bajau’s lifestyle is threatened by declined fish populations, rising temperatures, bleached corals and even chemicals spreading in the seas. In Davao City the fishermen still go fishing every day, bringing nothing but their homemade spear-guns, wooden goggles and swimming feet. But at the same time as they hunt for fish on the sea bed fishing ships return to the Fish Port after a night at sea.
The catches for Bajau get smaller every day and it is a pity to see how the new water environment is affecting people like Edjie and Issau. One day they will be fishermen without fish.

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