The Fishing Grounds

After sailing south from Pepela and into the Timor Sea, the captain decides the destination for fishing. This depends on the prevailing wind conditions. Fishing activity takes place in a number of different areas along the continental shelf both within and outside the MOU box area. The areas fished by the Bajo include the area known as bagian perusahan (oil rig area) to the east of Cartier Island. [7] In the MOU box area, fishermen operate in the vicinity of Ashmore Reef and Cartier Island, to the east and northeast around Scott Reef, in waters between Cartier Island and Browse Island, and along the edge of the continental shelf around Browse Island (see Map 5-1). Outside the MOU box, fishing is conducted along the Sahul Shelf in waters to the east of the eastern boundary and to the south of the southern boundary of the MOU box. Bajo boats also operate along the area called bagian timu (the eastern region), which refers to the northeastern part of the Timor Sea south of the Tanimbar Islands. [8] This is the area between the Provisional Fisheries Surveillance and Enforcement Line (PFSEL) and the deep waters south of Timor. Since the best fishing grounds are located outside of the permitted areas, some fishermen often deliberately access these parts of the AFZ, thereby risking the possibility of apprehension. In other cases, fishermen are not knowingly aware that they are outside the permitted areas. This is particularly the case when they may only be a few nautical miles outside the MOU box or south of the PFSEL.

Navigation Techniques

Bajo navigate by a system of dead reckoning with reference to familiar landmarks, navigation lights, and oil rigs. Sea features such as reefs, shoals and channels, the directions of currents, waves and swells, tide patterns, prevailing wind directions and the stars are all essential directional markers. Wind directions are named after a system of compass directions called mata sangai, the ‘points of origin of the winds’ (Ammarell 1995: 202). An example of a Bajo directional system is shown in Figure 7-1. The naming of wind directions corresponds to the main points on a magnetic compass (pedoman) which is now often used as an additional navigational aid. [9]

Figure 7-1: Sixteen-point Bajo wind compass.

Figure 7-1: Sixteen-point Bajo wind compass.

The Bajo sailors have an extensive knowledge of the navigational techniques required to reach destinations all over eastern Indonesia, as well as specific islands, reefs and fishing grounds in the northern Australian region. Since they are rarely out of sight of an island for more than a few days, positions can be checked by reference to landforms. For example, if fishing along the northern Sahul Shelf, a short sail in a northeasterly direction will bring a boat within sight of specific features along the southern coast of the island of Timor, and a crew member will then climb the mast to gain a better vantage point. The time taken to travel between a set of reference points is counted in days and nights.

As well as dead reckoning, the Bajo employ extensive sounding of the seabed to determine their position in relation to permitted areas and find a depth of water suitable for fishing. Fishermen have an extensive knowledge of the seabed in the MOU box area and the Timor Sea. Depth is regularly monitored with a lead line (nduga) made from a prism-shaped lead weight of 1–2 kg attached to a long length of nylon fishing line. Fishermen can also determine if they are in permitted or forbidden waters by checking the colour of the water. Men frequently said that if they find themselves in ‘white waters’ they know they are outside the permitted areas. However, despite this range of navigational aids and skills a perahu may sometimes get lost (jatuh haluan). Some carry charts or maps on board, but these are almost impossible to use with any reliability without modern navigational instruments. That is why the use of the magnetic compass is becoming more common on frequently sailed routes.

Fishing Methods

Before shark fishing commences the crew must first catch bait (umpang). The most efficient way to do this is to locate a suitable fishing ground (lana/tempat mencari) which is usually a reef. Bait is also caught using troll lines with lures while the perahu is under sail, or from a canoe in the open sea, either under paddle or sail. In this case, canoes are launched from the perahu and the crew may travel a few hundred metres or more away from the perahu trolling for fish. Bait can also be caught using handlines from the deck of the perahu, particularly if it is too rough to sail canoes. [10] The amount of bait required depends on the number of longline hooks to be baited and the size of baitfish caught, but is often around 70–200 fish. Bait can be kept longer by salting it.

Once sufficient fish are caught to bait the hooks the perahu will sail to a suitable place to set the longlines by sounding the sea bottom. All hooks and snoods are lined up along a plank or along the top of a hatch and baited. Usually the lines and snoods with baited hooks are fed out while the perahu is under sail, but if there is no wind the boat has to be rowed. The setting of longlines takes up to an hour and is usually done in the afternoon. The lines are marked by buoys andattached to the perahu while it is anchored overnight. Once the lines are set the evening meal is prepared and the crew entertain themselves, sleep, and take turns on watch.

Just before dawn, the crew begin the arduous process of hauling in the longlines. This can take hours since no mechanical devices are used, and is even more difficult if there are strong winds or adverse currents. If the wind conditions are right a perahu can sail under a half-set jib sail while pulling in the longlines. It is not uncommon to lose a section of the longlines, or occasionally the entire set, during a fishing expedition if they get eaten by the fish. It is often difficult to recover the gear, particularly if it has been damaged some hours before the crew become aware of it, or if there is little or no wind by which to sail after the lines. That is why most perahu carry some extra fishing equipment with them.

Sharks caught using longlines are usually dead by the time the lines are hauled in. They are landed onto the deck of the perahu with the aid of gaffs or harpoons (iddi) and their fins are then cut off. The body is trimmed of excess meat and laid or hung out in the sun to dry. It takes about three days for the fins to dry and longer for the tails. The flesh from the body is either cut up into strips, salted, and hung up to dry, or else the carcass is dumped overboard. The catch may be highly variable: a crew might set longlines on ten occasions in the course of a month at sea but only make a total catch of six or seven sharks.

Many perahu still carry a few handlines and shark rattles. If the crew find themselves in shallow waters at any time during the expedition, or when there is little or no wind, handlines and shark rattles may be deployed for a few hours or a day or two, and sometimes at night. Usually the main sail is hoisted and the perahu drifts slowly when fishing with hand lines or while crew members shake the rattles over the side of the boat. This method of fishing is more dangerous than longlines since the sharks are alive when caught and must either be clubbed to death or killed with harpoons (with detachable iron heads) before the fins are removed.

The established use of longlines as the main gear has resulted in a preference for smaller perahu. Because longlines are anchored to the bottom of the sea with stones, the crew must pull the perahu towards the lines to pull them up. A bigger perahu is heavier and therefore more difficult to pull whereas a smaller perahu is lighter and faster. The use of motorised vessels is also advantageous since it is possible to motor slowly towards the lines while hauling them in. The speed with which longlines can be hauled in is itself an important factor in determining whether a boat is apprehended, because the time taken over this task could be the time between a reported sighting of illegal fishing activity by Coastwatch and the arrival of a patrol vessel to investigate the activity. Some Bajo remarked that the advantage of fishing with handlines while the perahu is slowly under sail is that they can immediately sail away if a surveillance aircraft flies overhead.

Fishing Rituals

Once the Bajo sailors are at sea, they regard sailing and fishing as sacred activities. This is because they have crossed into the domain of their ancestors and their fortunes depend on appropriate behaviour towards these beings. At this cosmological level, Australian ownership of marine resources in the AFZ is not recognised at all. Continued activity in waters now claimed by Australia is partly driven by a belief that the Bajo have a legitimate right to fish in the AFZ in waters controlled by their ancestors.

Shark fishing is complemented by the observance of taboos (pamali) and performance of prayers (usually accompanied by offerings. [11] It is taboo to throw anything such as food or ashes from the fire box directly into the water; the refuse material must be thrown over the deck of the perahu and later washed off with water. The Bajo also prohibit crew and passengers from spitting or cleaning their teeth directly into the sea, from urinating or defecating anywhere from the perahu but via the toilet box, and from combing their hair or using soap to wash the body or clothes while at sea. If these rules are not observed, strong winds or storms may arise. The results can be big waves, strong currents or no wind at all, and people may succumb to sickness or have no fishing success. When a crew member died after he returned from a fishing voyage with a sickness, it was thought he had failed to observe one of these taboos.

Shark fishing is a ‘social interaction’ (Zerner 1994: 27) between people and spirits. The practice of propitiating the spirits prior to fishing activity has persisted through the substitution of longlines for rattles and handlines. Before the crew begin shark fishing operations, the captain or the punggawa recites a prayer and makes a simple offering of betel nut and leaves, lime and tobacco, to the mbo madilao. This only has to be done once during a shark fishing expedition at the first fishing location. The prayer is intended to praise the ancestors and ‘to show respect’ to those who live in the sea. In the words of Si Mudir, it is ‘to ask permission from mbo madilao if we can take fish and to give us good fortune’ and ‘to be kept away from danger, like big waves, or strong wind’.

In the past our ancestors gave offerings to the sea. This is the custom [adat]. We also do this. We still do this now. We lower offerings first and ask the ancestors for this and that, to give us fish and good fortune. Then we can start fishing. We must. Whatever region we go to we have to inform the ancestors because they are not fixed at any one place. Because it is not us who have possession of the sea. It’s the same if we want to ask for water or rice or wood, we have to ask the person who owns it before we can take it. It’s the same with our ancestors that live in the sea (Si Mudir, Mola Selatan).

If we do not ask for permission from the guardians in the sea to take products usually they will hide the sea products, sometimes under a rock, or under the sand, under seaweed or sometimes the sea will become hazy or clouded or strong winds and big waves will come. But if we politely ask the sea guardians, we can have everything and also we will not have difficulties harvesting products from the sea because we have already asked permission (Si Kariman, Mola Selatan).

Additional consequences of failure to seek this form of approval are explained as follows:

If Bajo have an accident at sea or misfortune or sickness [sore stomach or vomiting] they must ask forgiveness from the people who live in the sea who have taboo. If you want to ask for forgiveness we must say ‘we ask for forgiveness because we already took your riches [marine products] and especially because we did not have permission to do so first because we are only stupid people and don’t know anything’ (Si Kariman, Mola Selatan).

If we get the consequences of taboo, we must apologise to mbo madilao in order that we are safe from danger, from the consequences of taboo. When we have given them food, mbo madilao will go away, and the condition of the sea will be safe and the consequences of the taboo gone (Si Dudda, Mola Selatan).

Fishing success is said to be also dependent on the correct construction and use of fishing gear.

Before we begin fishing with a shark rattle we must say a prayer first to the ancestors, and ask to be given good fortune so we can aim to return home quickly. Then we dip the end of the shark rattle in the water three times. Once this is done then we can begin fishing (Si Mudir, Mola Selatan).

Each person operating a shark rattle must also wear a hat. If there are no hats available they must tie a sarong or shirt around their head. In the words of Si Mudir, ‘it is taboo to not wear a hat, if we don’t wear a hat, the fish will not appear, or if they appear, the fish will not eat the bait’.




[7] This is near to the Skua rig, known as perusahan merah (oil rig with red flame) and the Jabiru and Challis rigs, known as perusahan putih dua buah di atas (two oil rigs with white flames above).

[8] Generally speaking, Pepela fishermen do not sail as far east as the Bajo but confine their fishing activities to the MOU box, the area around the southern and eastern boundaries of the box, and around the oil rigs.

[9] It is not known how long the Bajo have carried magnetic compasses aboard their boats, but Ammarell (1995: 202) says that the Bugis have been familiar with this device since European contact.

[10] The staple diet at sea is rice and fish so Bajo are nearly always handlining. When good eating fish are absent crew may eat left over bait or shark meat.

[11] The villagers of Pepela also recognise the strength of Bajo adherence to adat prohibitions and rules.