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The Bajau Laut, the last nomads of the sea

The Bajau Laut traditionally live at sea, subsisting on the bountiful offer of the Coral Triangle’s waters. James Morgan’s photographs of these people and their dying way of life.

The Bajau Laut are an indigenous group that lives in and around the seas of the Coral Triangle, an area between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines that is considered the epicentre of global marine biodiversity. Traditionally, the Bajau Laut live as “sea nomads”, on boats called lepa lepa, coming to land only to bury the dead and build new boats. They are known for their fishing skills using nets and lines, as well as free diving up to dozens of metres underwater. James Morgan photographed these seafaring people for the WWF, which is involved in the protection of the oceans that are their home through the Coral Triangle Programme.

Over the last decades the lifestyle of the Bajau Laut has changed radically. Only few members of the ethnic group continue to live travelling the ocean as many have moved to land, also encouraged by their governments, or in stilt houses over the sea. Boat making as a craft is being lost as mass-produced vessels replace lepa lepas. Traditional fishing techniques are also under threat, in particular by the increase in destructive methods such as blast fishing with homemade fertiliser bombs, and the use of the highly toxic potassium cyanide. These have a much higher yield and thus  better satisfy the unsustainably high demand for fish to be exported.

 

Such practices represent physical hazards for the fishing people themselves and are disastrous for the health of the marine ecosystems of the Coral Triangle, known as the “Amazon of the seas” for its unique biodiversity. The area of 6 million km2 is home to 120 million people, as well as 76% of the world’s coral species – accounting for the highest coral diversity in the world. It also sustains the utmost diversity in coral reef fish: 37% of the world’s species live here, 8% of which are endemic. In these waters you can find six out of the seven species of marine turtles that exist globally.

 

Destructive fishing techniques are driven by the increasing demand for live reef fish especially in Hong Kong and mainland China. It is estimated that this industry is worth US $1 billion. In the Coral Triangle, up to 50% of reef fish are captured before they have had the opportunity to reproduce, thus decimating fish populations. The live fish trade severely compromises the biodiversity of these waters, as well as the livelihood of their inhabitants in the long term.

More interventions are needed to encourage sustainable live fishing so that the Bajau Laut may access sources of income that work in synergy with their environment. As guardians of an ancient knowledge and intimate understanding of the oceans that are their home, they are the key to safeguarding the Coral Triangle’s waters. Bajau cosmology, in fact, is a syncretism between animism and Islam in which the ocean is considered a complete, living entity. As such, all its component parts – fish, reefs, currents, tides – are housed by spirits. The modern appetite for fish is crushing the diversity and vitality of these spirits as well as the indigenous way of life of the “last nomads of the sea”.

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