Life & Time of Sama-Bajau Fishers

Latest update December 18, 2018 Started on August 12, 2018

For the next year, I will be living and fishing with the Sama-Bajau sea peoples in the Banggai Archipelago, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia. These fishers are renowned for their traditionally nomadic lifestyles, living only in boats, and their incredible freediving abilities. However, the fishers I will be working with have been settled in stilt houses over the water for several generations now. How is this affecting their perception of time, which has historically, as with other nomadic groups, been present-focused? Is it now shifting to a future-oriented perspective as they become more permanently settled? How does their perception of time influence their fishing practices?

These are the questions I seek to answer during my time in the field to understand why marine conservation efforts in areas with Sama-Bajau fishers have had relatively little success and why use of destructive practices, like cyanide and dynamite, are still widely-used. These fishers are both subsistence, fishing for their own consumption and dietary needs, as well as small-scale, selling to local and international markets via the aquarium fish trade (e.g. blue tang, emperor angelfish, etc.) and live food fish (e.g. grouper and coral trout). Therefore, it is critical to understand their decision-making processes, daily motivations, and how they relate to their environment on a philosophical level in order to understand how marine conservation efforts that involve the Sama-Bajau might be more fair and effective moving forward.

August 12, 2018
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No (Wo)man is an Island (even in a country with 17,000!) – PART 3

After a brief (unexpected) hiatus at home, which was reenergizing and much needed, I am back at it in Indonesia.

And it’s time to finally share the last post introducing my awesome research partners. You’ve already met my faculty advisors and university partners in Indonesia, now it’s time to meet my boots-on-the-ground collaborators.

This is where [Yayasan LINI] ( and the numerous fishing families with whom I work play a starring role—comprising the cornerstone of this research effort.

Yayasan LINI is a homegrown Indonesian NGO founded and directed by Gayatri Reksodihardjo-Lilley. This woman is unstoppable. She has an enormous heart that strives to implement projects in which both people and the environment thrive. She also has an intuitive sense for creative approaches that work from the ground-up, developing grassroots ownership of projects in each place that LINI works. She also recently received a National Geographic Grant for a community-led project in Bone Baru, a village on the main island of Banggai, for cultivating the endemic Banggai Cardinalfish. I have had the honor of seeing her work in various capacities with the community here, and she is so good at what she does, earning the trust and respect of those with whom she interacts.

Saleh Lalu & Neny Triana are the dynamic husband and wife duo that hold down the fort for LINI’s work in Banggai. Saleh is good at all things hands-on—need to build a dock, create marker buoys to delineate a protected area, repair a boat? Saleh is your guy, and he is a well of resourcefulness and creativity. Neny is the soul of the operation and has the heart of a lioness. She does all the behind-the-scenes and, often, thankless work—cooking for big events (she is a great chef!), making visiting collaborators feel welcome at the homestay they run, and creating the Rumah Pintar (Smart House) for local kids to come learn about the marine environment and clean the beaches. Kia is their whip-smart daughter who keeps all of us on our toes and who loves to “mandi laut” (swim in the ocean)!

Surya & Cak Ismu, though based in Bali, spend months at a time in Banggai and are highly skilled at interfacing with the communities and various government agencies. They are masters at this, and part of what makes them so, is their open and honest approach, in addition to their genuine interest in fair and equitable conservation outcomes.

These are just the core group of LINI staff in Banggai—many more come and go and add their own set of skills to the mix—like Khalis, who helps scope new projects, and Nyka, who is an artist, and just painted LINI’s new boat in Banggai.

Finally, most important to this research are the fishers and fish traders themselves as well as their families. Many have been kind enough to invite me into their homes and offer their thoughts and perspectives with me, as well as a lot of coffee, fish, and some dancing! I will be sharing more in depth about many of these individuals and families in future posts as I report from the field, so I’ll leave it at that for now.

Photos: 1) The LINI crew out front of Mama Kia's house; 2) Khalis training local high school students how to conduct a Banggai Cardinalfish survey; 3) Surya doing a pre-water session to explain strategy and procedure for using a transect line; 4) Girl time Sulawesi-style with Ulfa, Neny, and Gayatri (director of LINI staff) using a local face mask made from rice and tumeric that helps keep the face nice and cool!

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No (Wo)man is an Island (even in a country with 17,000!) – PART 2

I just returned to Banggai Island from assisting an annual government tourism and Banggai Cardinalfish Survey in partnership with my Indonesian collaborators, so what perfect timing to introduce them to you!

I took the “slow boat” (about 7-9 hours depending on conditions) back from Banggai Island to Luwuk, on mainland Central Sulawesi, to meet with Abigail Moore, who is a PhD student and lecturer at Universitas Hasanuddin (UNHAS) in Makassar, South Sulawesi. Abigail has lived in Indonesia for 20 (!) years, originally hailing from England and France, and she has a quick wit that kept the team full of laughter. She is an energizer bunny, often running on no sleep to juggle the many marine-related projects she has going simultaneously. The Banggai Cardinal Fish (BCF), which is a species that is endemic to (only found in) the Banggai Archipelago, has a powerful protector in Abigail, as she has devoted her life to better understanding its biology and behavior in order to ensure the species survives in the wild for generations to come. Her love for the fish stems from her love for the ocean, and she is an expert diver. During our time together visiting potential tourism and dive sites and collecting e-DNA samples for her research, she lit up whenever we were in the water. Her knowledge of the marine life in the region is extensive. During our time together, she trained a student from University of Tadulako (UNTAD) and me how to conduct the BCF surveys. The process involves laying out a 20 meter transect underwater with a measuring tape and then counting how many BCF you see 2.5 meters to the left and right of the line. It was pretty straightforward when there were less than 20 or 30 in a colony, but when we encountered upwards of 100-200, all happily scuttling about oblivious to our plight of getting an accurate count, it became quite challenging. By the end of our last survey, every time I closed my eyes I was seeing BCF swirling around my head.

Pak Samliok Ndobe, another of my institutional collaborators, and a close friend and mentor of Abigail’s, was the lead on organizing the logistics of the survey. He also coordinated with the folks from the Indonesian Ministry who joined us from Jakarta. He is a well-known marine ecologist and BCF aquaculture expert in the region as well as lecturer at UNTAD in Palu, which suffered a good deal of damage in the recent earthquake and tsunami. He is good-spirited with an infectious laugh, which is essential to have when traveling on a tight schedule with little sleep and complicated logistics. As Abigail noted when we visited a beautiful beach on Banggai Island, known as Oyama, the kid in him comes out when he’s in the sea. He literally spent nearly every minute of our day at Oyama in the water!

Both Pak Sam and Abigail also work with Professor Jamaluddin Jompa in various capacities, though he wasn’t able to join us on this year’s survey due to his intense schedule. Prof Jompa advised Pak Sam for his PhD, and is currently Abigail’s advisor. He is a very well-respected marine conservationist, who conducts marine ecology research, is currently the chair of the Centre of Excellence of Marine Resilience, and the Dean of the Post Graduate School at UNHAS. He has also been extensively involved in the establishment and implementation of the [Coral Triangle Initiative] ( as a member of Indonesia’s Scientific Advisory Group, so it’s no surprise he wasn’t able to join the survey. I was, however, lucky enough to share a cup of coffee with him in his office at UNHAS when I was in Makassar finalizing my visa. He impressed me with his dedication, not only to marine conservation, but also to elevating students from Eastern Indonesia and heading initiatives to give them more educational opportunities. From him I learned that students from Western Indonesia have historically had access to more resources and consequently overshadowed students from Eastern Indonesia, which he’s determined to change.

So that’s a quick introduction to my institutional collaborators here in Sulawesi. Each one has been immeasurably helpful as I navigated the visa process and developed my research plans.

Later, I will share the results of the survey once we’ve processed the data, but I can say that it was a successful effort! On the tourism side of things, the notes we’ve collected will be used to engage stakeholders in planning meetings to ensure that the government invests in proper infrastructure for safety and waste management and that development is done as sustainably as possible. The hope is that through these efforts, tourism can become a motivating force for protecting the bountiful marine life and extensive coral reef ecosystems in the region.

(Photos: the beautiful Oyama Beach, Abigail taking the water temperature of each experimental tank of BCF; chatting with Prof Jompa at UNHAS; the famous BCF on a reef in Banggai)

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No (Wo)man is an Island (even in a country with 17,000!) – PART 1

I have spent the past month with some wonderful people in Bone Baru, a beautiful coastal village on the main island of Banggai. I arrived right in the middle of “cingkeh” or clove harvesting season and learned how to “bacude” or separate the cloves from their stems to then be dried in the sun. The whole town smells delightful—like a giant, baking, oatmeal cookie. While here, I’m staying with a family who work with one of my collaborators, The Indonesian Nature Foundation, or in bahasa Indonesia, Yayasan Alam Indonesia Lestari, (LINI).

And this is where I begin to tell you about all the INCREDIBLE individuals and groups I have the pleasure of working with during this project. This research would not be possible without my collaborators, who are all thoughtful and accomplished individuals and who have been immeasurably helpful leading up to this field work. In fact, I work with so many great people that I need three posts to share them all with you!

So here we go, each post will highlight my awesome collaborators:

PART 1 – My advisors, committee members, and colleagues

PART 2 – My Indonesian university sponsors (UNHAS and UNTAD)

PART 3 – My field collaborators: an NGO, fish traders, and fishing families

First, my PhD program, the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER), is unique in that we are required to have two co-advisors from different disciplines rather than just one advisor. So I am lucky enough to work with two co-advisors, each with a different skill set. Going by alphabetical order of last name, I’ll begin with Dr. Nicole Ardoin. She is based in the School of Education and focuses on environmental education and learning in both formal and informal settings as well as how people form connections to place. She is who EVERYONE in E-IPER turns to better understand qualitative methods, though she’s also well versed in quantitative social science methods as well. Nicole is one of the most thoughtful people I have ever met and she does EVERYTHING!!! She is an incredible mom and community organizer in her neighborhood, a dedicated teacher and mentor, shepherd of our Social Ecology lab who fosters a rich community with endless collaborative events, and a careful and dedicated researcher. I can always count on her for detailed feedback, and she keeps me on my toes with being precise and clear in my thinking and language (no small task!).

Next, is my co-advisor, Dr. Larry Crowder, who is based in the School of Biology and located at Hopkins Marine Lab in Monterey (about 1.5 hours from Stanford’s main campus). He is a world-renowned marine ecologist, and the most endlessly supportive and cheerful person to have on one’s team! He is always pushing me to keep thinking big and out-of-the-box, while at the same time helping me break those ambitious ideas into tangible steps and making sure I’m approaching my research and career goals holistically. He’s also a trailblazer in the world of biophysical research, constantly reminding marine ecologists and biologists about the importance of understanding the social realm, especially when it comes to furthering effective marine conservation.

I also work closely with Dr. Bill Durham, who is another esteemed mentor, professor, researcher, teacher, and talented naturalist (think the American version of David Attenborough). He is on my committee and has a joint appointment in Anthropology and Human Biology, though is now officially emeritus (had a blast celebrating at his retirement party earlier this summer!). Bill was the first to introduce me to the incredible field of Environmental Anthropology. Somehow, it had escaped me during both my undergraduate and masters programs—I didn’t realize what I was missing until I took Bill’s course, Anthropology of Environmental Conservation, my first quarter at Stanford. I was also lucky enough to co-TA a course for Bill on protected area management that traveled with a group of Stanford alumni and undergraduate students to Patagonia in South America—a formative experience in many ways.

After Bill’s course, I wanted more schooling in anthropological field methods and theory, and found Dr. Tanya Luhrmann, who was teaching a course on ethnography. She is a world-renowned psychological anthropologist, who has worked on a wide range of topics, many of which involve studying communities who hear voices—whether they be devotee’s hearing God speak, or mental health patients hearing the devil. She’s also worked with witches in Europe and is currently spearheading a large cross-cultural project on “theory of mind”—how cultures and communities think about and “know” what other people are thinking about (how’s that for a brain twister?). She’s been critical to helping me delve into the world of cultural anthropology and theory building around perception of time.

Finally, given how many commitments my mentors have, my fellow students at Stanford have played a key role in supporting this project to date. They have been a constant source of support, a sounding board that’s always ready to workshop ideas and provide feedback, people to have fun with, to have endless debates about every aspect of living a thoughtful life, and to celebrate life’s events with (my cohort alone has already celebrated two engagements, one wedding, and a baby!).

So, thanks to this fine collection of folks, I’ve been able to build a foundation, or launching pad, if you will, from which to leap into this current project knowing I’ll have support as I inevitably stumble along the way.

(Photos: Clove season in full-swing in Bone Baru; the pier in Bone Baru; underwater life of Bone Baru reefs; fellow students goofing around at our annual E-IPER retreat)

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Hi Shannon
I just came across your blog now and have found it fascinating to read. Your experience of visas struck a particular chord of course! Looking down the entries, the profile of your academic work is fascinating. I very much hope you succeed in your objectives - you have a great team of supervisors and I am sure that every day is full of new insights. Your focus on Bajau perceptions of time is really interesting and it's something that has great significance, particularly in the light of 'delayed benefits' and our other assumptions of the benefits of conservation. I'm not sure if you've read Bruno Bottignolo's book 'Celebrations with the Sun' but it's well worth digging out. There's a description of Bajau perceptions of time as living 'in a permanent present....Time does not find a real extension in the future, not even in the vision of a genealogical succession. The children constituting a lineage are not seen as existing in a future temporal extension, but in a present that is not yet realised' (p28). I found this particularly useful and it may help your work in some way. Look forward to more posts! Best wishes Julian

Hi Julian,
It is so nice to hear from you! Your findings with the Bajau in Wakatobi have played a large roll in shaping my thesis work, especially the focus on time perceptions. I had not come across Bruno Bottignolo's book, so thank you for the recommendation. I will definitely be reading it soon! I will be sure to stay in touch as the work continues to evolve. Thank you again for the note! Best, Shannon

The Epic Visa Marathon

Now I share with you my biggest adventure with this project to date—obtaining the research permit and visa! It’s a harrowing process to which I know many of my fellow researchers (and others living and working abroad) can relate. I want to provide a practical guide for anyone looking to tackle the process so it can hopefully save a few of you some time and grief!

I began this process in early September 2017, and completed it just now (by mid-September 2018). So it took over a year, and my experience was fairly streamlined, all things considered. First, I had to get together numerous documents, many of which required coordinating with partners in Indonesia.

Items to Wrangle

  • Proposal Abstract
  • Research Proposal
  • Current Curriculum Vitae
  • Complete Equipment List
  • Letter of Request to do Research
  • Three Letters of Recommendation
  • Passport Photo with Red Background (weird, I know!)
  • Proof of Funding (which included a Funding Report & Bank Statement)
  • MOU between Stanford and University of Hasanuddin (UNHAS—my Counterpart based in Makassar, South Sulawesi)
  • Curriculum Vitae of Sponsoring Professor from UNHAS
  • Letter of Support from UNHAS

Initially when I began the process, I got lost in a maze of ministry websites. Each pointed to the other saying I needed some key item from the other ministry before I could apply in their system--it was an endless loop that made me dizzy trying to navigate. I followed the procedure as I understood it and heard nothing back for several weeks. Finally, feeling like my pre-application (of sorts) was lost in the bureaucratic ether, I took a colleague’s recommendation to hire an agent.


I had the best experience with the one I used—LAHUKA! They help secure permits and visas for research, film projects, and other expeditions. They assisted with every step of the process: 1) coordinating with Indonesia’s Ministry of Technology Research and Higher Education Republic of Indonesia a.k.a RISTEK to help push my application through the review process and get it approved; 2) communicating with the Indonesian Embassy in Singapore to issue the visa; 3) picking me up in Jakarta to take me to the RISTEK offices and procure all of the official letters, ID cards, etc.; and 4) mailing necessary letters to the local government and police at my field site). They did all of this for only $150 USD (which was in addition to all of the government fees listed below). A steal if you ask me!

The Play-by-Play

I did this after I had hired LAHUKA to help, because they informed me that one of the “required” items listed on the site (which was a letter of support from the local embassy I thought I had to get before I applied to RISTEK), was not actually required—ahhh, of course?!?)

  • Established connection with university partner (Sept 2017)

An NGO contact helped facilitate this step (more on my collaborators in a later post, because they’re phenomenal and deserve a whole post of their own!)

  • Drafted MOU

This took a while and a lot of back-and-forth, as my university supplied a template that didn’t align with past ones UNHAS had used, so we went through several iterations and then had to obtain all the necessary signatures from advisors and deans at both schools.

  • Obtained Official Letter of Support from UNHAS

This also took a while due to several iterations and obtaining signatures.

  • Applied for numerous grants

Currently the project is primarily and generously funded by an Early Career Grant from Nat Geo and my PhD program at Stanford. I’m also still waiting on the outcome of several other sources (the funding process also took much longer than I expected--over two years!)

  • Collected/drafted rest of items in the list above

  • Submitted application on RISTEK (June 2nd, 2018)

  • Waited to hear from RISTEK on status of Application

  • Heard about approval (July 20th, 2018)

  • Waited for Visa to be issued to Singapore Embassy (Aug 22nd, 2018)

I could have picked it up at any Indonesian embassy outside of Indonesia, but I had already booked my ticket from SFO to Bali, so asked them to issue the visa to the Singapore Embassy.

  • Spent a week picking up visa in Singapore

I flew to Singapore after my on-arrival visa expired (30 days). I flew to Singapore not knowing when I might be able to pick up the visa ($160 SGD = $117 USD) but got lucky. The day after I arrived, RISTEK sent me a letter saying it was ready!

  • Spent a week finalizing visa in Jakarta

After getting the visa stamped in my passport, I then had to fly to Jakarta and spend several days getting approval from various ministries to “activate” the visa. The main office was RISTEK (1,600,000 IDR = $108 USD)

  • Registered with Immigration in Makassar

Next, I had to bring my letters to the Immigration Office in Makassar, where UNHAS is based, to retrieve my KITAS (limited stay research permit), which will let me stay in the country for 12 months (2,055,000 IDR = $138 USD)

  • Final Step (for now)

When I arrive to Banggai Island, I must check-in with the local authorities (police, governor, immigration, fisheries office, etc.), and then do the same with the village chief at my field site. I don’t think I have to pay anymore fees though.

Pheewww! I’m tired all over again reliving this in text. Hope it’s been helpful, and if you ever find yourself going through the process, please feel free to reach out with any questions!

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We are the Sea

From the minute I met Susilo, a middleman who trades in aquarium fish, and the fishers with whom he works, I knew I had stumbled across kindred spirits. They are people profoundly connected to the sea—emotionally, spiritually, and physically, as I feel, but also depending on it to survive. I’ve not personally experienced such direct dependence on the sea (though it indeed sustains us all), and after this serendipitous meeting, I have felt drawn to better understanding these fishers dynamic relationship with their waters.

Finding Dory

I first met Susilo and the Sama-Bajau fishers during a previous National Geographic project, Reef to Aquarium, in which my team and I traced the tropical fish trade from the reefs of the Philippines and Indonesia (from where 86% of the fish are caught) to hobbyists’ homes in the US. We met exporters, middlemen, fishers, importers and hobbyists in both countries, but were having difficulty finding fishers catching the blue tang, our primary species of interest due to the release of Finding Dory in summer of 2016. Conservationists were worried the movie would spike sales in blue tang, which was only recently bred in captivity and is still primarily wild caught. The jury is still out on whether the movie affected sales, but this concern was the impetus for our foray into the world of ornamental fishers, traders and collectors. We had to get quite far afield from Bali, the biggest aquarium fish export hub in Indonesia, to finally track down blue tang and the fishers who collect them. This pursuit is what first brought me to Sulawesi and led me to Susilo and several communities of Sama-Bajau fishers.

You may have heard of these sea-dwelling peoples in the news last April, when a team of scientists published an article in Science on their incredible breath-holding abilities and how it may have been helped by a genetic mutation that led to enlarged spleens, the organ that produces red blood cells. The news went viral and put the Sama-Bajau in the media spotlight. However, at my field site, fishers now mostly use compressors and hookah lines to dive, so they can breathe compressed air underwater. No matter what our romantic notions may be about these people depending only on their bodies and physical strength to provide for their families, a fisher can always stay longer underwater when breathing compressed air--even with the impressive stats reported in the article of 13-minute breathholds at depths of 60m/200ft! To date, I have not encountered a fisher in the Banggai Archipelago who has this capacity to freedive, though I'm hoping to meet a few during my time in the field. The ones who still primarily freedive do so because they don’t have the capital for such advanced equipment as a compressor.

Finding my Lungs

For my research, I plan to freedive with the fishers to observe their fishing behavior while they are on hookah. Two years ago I tried to hop on a hookah line and share the compressor with a fisher, when it busted a leak while we were underwater. I was suddenly straining to breathe and had to come up quickly from 12m/40ft. Luckily, we weren't too deep at the time, but that experience convinced me that I didn't want to have to rely on hookah. It also reminded me that these fishers put themselves in danger daily simply doing their job and many suffer and sometimes die from decompression related injuries. So, while I was waiting for my visa to be issued (though it had already been approved a month earlier--stay tuned for an upcoming post on the epic visa relay!), I headed to Nusa Penida, a small island off Bali’s southeast side, to do some training with Freedive Nusa.

I had snorkeled and casually freedived my entire life but never had any formal training. I was blown away by how much I learned: from the proper stretching and breathing techniques, to honing a calm mindset, and positioning my body correctly. Before my 10-days of training I had a record breath hold of 30 secs and had only gone to about 18m/60ft. By the end of the training I could hold my breath for 4 and a half minutes on land and dive to 33m/108 ft, and the best part was it felt GOOD! I now feel so much calmer when I descend to depth and have better learned my abilities and limits. I highly recommend this training for anyone who likes spending time in the ocean! And if you're in Bali, definitely check out Freedive Nusa—they have a very experienced crew, who are great teachers!

Not only can I dive more safely, but I am more proficient using my camera and underwater housing now that I am doing proper breath-ups before diving down to work on a subject. This training will help me better document the fishing behaviors of the Sama-Bajau, as well as be more comfortable and capable of observing the fishers as they work, all of which will strengthen the project and produce better quality research.

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The Art of Now: Hunter-gatherer theory of time and Bajau Fishing Behavior

There’s some academic-speak in here BUT don't be afraid! I wanted to share why this project is important and how it is situated in past research. So here we go, complete with references in case you want to dig deeper!

--> You can also skip to the key points. Just jump to Project Goals <--

Background on Hunter-Gatherers

Hunter-gatherer theory argues that traditionally nomadic peoples live in a ‘permanent present’ (Bird-David, 1992) and abide by an ‘assumption of abundance’ (Bird-David, 1992; Sahlins, 1968), but how does this perception of time and abundance shift as historically sea-going communities settle? Visiting the stilt home of a Sama-Bajau fisher in the Banggai Archipelago, one finds the Sama-Bajau storing live fish and turtles in net pens under the floorboards as well as large quantities of dried fish on the decks. The fishers can sell these stored goods when they need extra income. Over time, does the emergent reality of stockpiling resources fundamentally shift nomadic fishers’ perception of time and abundance, or do the fishers remain in a permanent present long after settling?

This question is of pressing importance as these fishers increasingly depend on dwindling marine resources (United Nations, 2010); concurrently, marine conservation efforts in Southeast Asia have had a low success rate to date (Kamil, Hailu, Rogers, & Pandit, 2017). The Bajau of Eastern Indonesia live in a part of Southeast Asia known as the “Coral Triangle,” so-named for housing more coral and fish species than anywhere else on earth (Burke, Reytar, Spalding, & Perry, 2012). Within this region, conservation institutions often cite indigenous fishers’ use of “destructive” or “unsustainable” fishing practices, including cyanide and dynamite, as posing a direct threat to healthy reefs (Burke et al., 2012; Clifton, Unsworth, & Smith, 2010). Yet, the Bajau also constitute a portion of the one billion people across the globe who depend on fish as a significant source of income (ICRAN, 2002) as well as protein and micronutrients (Quaas, Hoffman, Kamin, Kleemann, & Schacht, 2016).

Within the Coral Triangle over 300 million people live in the region, and geographers estimate that over 150 million people use its marine resources (Hoegh-Guldberg et al., 2009). This paradox places fishers in a position to directly depend on the ocean for survival while also influencing its degradation (Nightingale, 2013; White, 1996). My preliminary ethnographic work with Bajau fishers in the Banggai Archipelago leads me to believe that some Bajau fishers continue to use harmful fishing practices related, in part, to their present-oriented perception of time and abundance. I plan to further examine and test this hypothesis through the proposed research endeavor. I began considering this connection while informally interviewing aquarium fishers; when I asked them about how they envisioned their lives in the future, my questions fell flat and elicited confused expressions. Such responses suggested lack of contemplation of an abstract future.

The Sama-Bajau People

These Banggai Archipelago fishers represent a sub-group of traditionally nomadic peoples in Southeast Asia, collectively known as the Sama-Bajau, who inhabit parts of Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia. This group has distinct and understudied epistemologies, ontologies, and phenomenologies, which have historically converged to produce a cyclical, present-oriented perception of time (Clifton & Majors, 2012) and reciprocal perceptions of abundance (Pauwelussen & Verschoor, 2017). In addition to increased sedentarization, however, which may shift those perceptions, fishers in this region are increasingly encountering Western neoliberal institutions, especially since the 2008 formalization of the Coral Triangle Initiative, which is a multilateral, six-country partnership (Clifton et al., 2010).

These Coral Triangle countries, including supporting non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and government agencies that work with the intention of sustainably managing Coral-Triangle marine resources, often approach time as a forward-moving locomotive. They also often measure success of conservation and development programs as a linear progression (Clifton & Majors, 2012), which can be exclusionary (Igoe & Brockington, 2007), for example, when implementing marine protected areas (MPAs). The IUCN describes MPAs as “any area of intertidal or subtidal terrain, together with its overlying waters and associated flora, fauna, historical and cultural features, which has been reserved by legislation or other effective means to protect part or all of the enclosed environment” (Kelleher & Recchia, 1998).

Given this cultural, ecological, political, and institutional context, my proposed study will further examine the cyclical and present-oriented view of time that Sama-Bajau fishers hold (Clifton & Majors, 2012), how sedentarization and western influence may be changing those views, and how time perception affects the Sama-Bajau’s daily fishing practices. By examining the fishing behavior of these historically nomadic sea-dwellers, my proposed research will add to extant literature that explores changes in land-based hunter-gatherer communities as they become more sedentary (see Bender,1978) as well as seek to understand if and how time perception may perpetuate use of destructive practices.

Research Questions

To examine these themes, my research asks: How do traditionally nomadic, but now increasingly settled, fishing communities in the Banggai Archipelago conceptualize time, and how does their time perception influence fishing practices? Examining fisher time perception serves to expand our understanding of the phenomenology of time as well as how this lived experience of time actualizes in observed behaviors. Further, I will explore these themes by asking the following sub-questions: SQ1: How does a traditionally nomadic fishing community think about the past, present, and future now that they have been settled for several decades?; SQ2: Do fishers’ perception of time (i.e., being more present- versus future-minded) influence their fishing decisions, and, if so, how?; SQ3: In addition to time perception, what contextual factors influence a fisher’s day-to-day decision making? Finally, SQ4: Which, if any, factors are consistently associated with a fisher who is more future-minded, a characteristic often associated with a Northern/Western assumption of scarcity?

Field Site Context

I will address these questions in research sites in villages in the Banggai Archipelago, which stretches from the Gulf of Tolo, in the Banda Sea, to the Molucca Sea in Eastern Indonesia. I will work with several subsistence-fishing communities where local livelihoods consist of harvesting food fish as well as ornamental fish for the global marine aquarium trade. Before the consolidation of the Indonesian state, the Bajau traditionally existed in nomadic communities with nuclear families traveling together in small units of five or six boats (Hoogervorst, 2012). In recent decades, however, market pressures, and in some cases government mandates, have coerced the Bajau to settle in permanent residences along the coast (Hoogervorst, 2012). In my field site, this sedentarization occurred enough generations past that memories of boat-dwelling are distant even for the eldest. Yet, for these Bajau, traveling by boat—frequently, for long distances, and for many consecutive days to fish and trade—remains a critical part of their interconnected lives.

This project will further examine how those factors may affect Bajau perception of time and abundance, which has ramifications for conservation efforts now being asserted, including a new marine protected area slated to encompass a significant portion of the Banggai Archipelago. The MPA, being pursued by a collaborative of national and international government and NGO actors, is intended to contribute to marine conservation in the region by incorporating core no-take zones, tourism zones, and research zones. During my preliminary fieldwork, I learned that fishers in the area have little-to-no knowledge of the proposed MPA; this lack of local knowledge of the MPA plans is likely to pose significant challenges with implementation and management of the protected area at several key stages (Bennett et al., 2017).

Project Goals

  • Understand how Bajau community members (not just fishers) perceive and relate to the concepts of past, present, and future (through photos—more on this later!)
  • Establish any variation in fisher perception of time
  • Determine species and number of individuals fishers are harvesting and their day-to-day fishing motivations
  • Determine any patterns of time perception and fishing behavior within and across Bajau communities
  • Identify key characteristics that correlate with a more future-oriented perception of time
  • Share findings with local institutions to inform ongoing MPA processes in the region

Big Picture Goal

To better understand how fishers relate to their resources so that conservation efforts can be more nuanced, context-specific, aligned with fisher values, and effective!

Key Takeaway

Researchers have worked in various capacities with Sama-Bajau and other sea-dwelling communities in past studies, but this will be one of the first studies to examine fishers’ perception of time and how it affects fishing behavior.


Bender, B. (1978). Gatherer-Hunter to Farmer: A Social Perspective. World Archaeology, 10(2), 204–222.

Bennett, N. J., Teh, L., Ota, Y., Christie, P., Ayers, A., Day, J. C., … Satterfield, T. (2017). An appeal for a code of conduct for marine conservation. Marine Policy, 81(July), 411–418.

Bird-David, N. (1992). Beyond “The Original Affluent Society.” Current Anthropology, 33(1), 25–35.

Burke, L., Reytar, K., Spalding, M., & Perry, A. (2012). Reefs at Risk: Revisited in the Coral Triangle.

Clifton, J., & Majors, C. (2012). Culture, Conservation, and Conflict: Perspectives on Marine Protection Among the Bajau of Southeast Asia. Society & Natural Resources: An International Journal, 25(7), 716–725.

Clifton, J., Unsworth, R. R. K., & Smith, D. J. (2010). Marine Research and Conservation in the Coral Triangle, The Wakatobi National Park, 244.

Hoegh-Guldberg, O., Hoegh-Guldberg, H., Veron, J. E. N., Green, A., Gomez, E. D., Lough, J., … Oliver, J. (2009). THE CORAL TRIANGLE AND CLIMATE CHANGE: Ecosystems, people and societies at risk.

Hoogervorst, T. G. (2012). Ethnicity and aquatic lifestyles: exploring Southeast Asia’s past and present seascapes. Water History, 4(3), 245–265.

ICRAN (2002). People and Reefs: a partnership for prosperity. International Coral Reef Action Network (4).

Igoe, J., & Brockington, D. (2007). Neoliberal Conservation A Brief Introduction. Conservation and Society, 5(4), 432–449.

Kamil, K. A., Hailu, A., Rogers, A., & Pandit, R. (2017). Ocean & Coastal Management An assessment of marine protected areas as a marine management strategy in Southeast Asia: A literature review. Ocean and Coastal Management, 145, 72–81.

Kelleher, G., & Recchia, C. (1998). Editorial—lessons from marine protected areas around the world. Parks, 8(2), 1-4.

Nightingale, A. (2013). Fishing for nature: The politics of subjectivity and emotion in Scottish inshore fisheries management. Environment and Planning A, 45(10), 2362–2378.

Pauwelussen, A., & Verschoor, G. M. (2017). Amphibious Encounters: Coral and People in Conservation Outreach in Indonesia. Engaging Science, Technology, and Society, 3, 292.

Quaas, M., Hoffman, J., Kamin, K., Kleemann, L., & Schacht, K. (2016). Fishing for Proteins.

Sahlins, M. (1968). The original affluent society. Limited wants, unlimited means: A reader on hunter-gatherer economics and the environment, 5-41.

United Nations. (2010). Resumed Review Conference on the Agreement Relating to the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish.

White, R. (1996). ‘Are you an environmentalist or do you work for a living?’ Work and nature, in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature Ed. W Cronon (W W Norton, New York) pp 171‒185.

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Packing the Gear

(a.k.a my least favorite part of an expedition!)

Packing for a year of one's life is a daunting proposition, especially when that year requires a lot of gear that must be schlepped across the globe on numerous planes, cars, and boats. It gets more complicated, because while I am dependent on a whole host of electronic gadgets to conduct my research, there is no reliable electricity in the field to keep these gadgets alive. There is also no cell service for communication. This means I have to be self-sufficient (i.e. bring a mountain of stuff with me).

It took me about two years to accumulate this gear, and I purchased the majority of it through generous equipment funds from one of my PhD co-advisors, Dr. Larry Crowder, as well as some of it through my National Geographic Early Career Grant (thank you NG!)

To give you a sense, here's a partial list of the gear:

Tech Equipment

  • 1 Goal Zero Sherpa Solar Recharging Kit
  • 1 Garmin GPSMAP 78sc Waterproof Marine GPS and Chartplotter
  • 1 Iridium 9575 Extreme Satellite Phone
  • 1 ACR 2884 AquaLink View Personal Locating Beacon with GPS
  • 1 Coastal Automatic Inflatable Life Jacket-Royal Blue/Dark Gray (2S, 2M, 2L)
  • 1 Standard Compass

Photo Equipment

  • 2 Canon 5D Mark IV bodies + 6 lenses
  • 1 Gitzo Tripod
  • 1 iPhone X + selfie-stick (a trusty go-to!)
  • 1 Nauticam Underwater Housing + two ports + strobes
  • 30 Nikon COOLPIX Waterproof Digital Camera with GPS (for Photovoice)

Freedive Equipment

  • 1 Pair Mares Razor Pro Fins
  • 1 Low volume mask and snorkel
  • 1 Roxy Wetsuit 3:2 mm
  • 1 Suunto Dive Watch
  • 1 Weight Belt (Luckily, freediving requires much less gear than scuba!)

Other Research Gear

  • 10 Field Journals
  • 1 Macbook Pro Laptop
  • 3 External Hard Drives
  • 10 Books (both in-the-flesh and e-books)
  • 40 Rite-in-the-Rain Notebooks (for fisher catch data)

Plus all the other essentials: toiletries, first aid kit, clothing, shoes, mosquito net, towels, reef-friendly sunscreen, etc.

In a later post, I will be sure to highlight some standout items from among this gear list in case you're interested in mounting a similar type of expedition!

Expedition Background

This expedition has been several years in the making as part of my PhD in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources at Stanford University. I first encountered the Sama-Bajau fishers in the Banggai Archipelago through a Nat Geo Collaborative Grant documenting the global aquarium fish trade with a team of other Young Explorers (check out to meet the team and follow Dory's journey from the sea to a hobbyist's home in Colorado). I became interested in why some of these fishers still use cyanide, while others have transitioned to more sustainable practices, which led to my current PhD thesis and questions. This project is now supported by generous funding through E-IPER as well as an Early Career Grant from National Geographic.

There are several components to this expedition:

Putting Cameras in the Hands of the Community

During the first 6 months of the project, l will work with the fishing community on Toropot Island, one of the Sama-Bajau villages and my primary field site, to implement a participatory method known as Photovoice. For this part of the project, 30-50 residents will have cameras in-hand to document their lives. They will be guided by three prompts, each prompt representing a different photovoice session. The prompts include: 1) photograph things that represent the past to you; 2) photograph things that represent the present to you; and 3) photograph things that represent the future to you. At the end of each round, each lasting two months, I will conduct informal interviews in small groups of 2 or 3 community members to discuss why participants created the images they choose to share for each prompt. In this way, the discussion of the images becomes as important as the images themselves. Participants could make the same picture for each prompt, for example, but have very different reasons for doing so that are elicited as the image is discussed, revealing further insights about their experience of time.

Daily "Participant Observation" on Fishing Trips

Participant observation is a fancy anthropology term for joining the people with whom you're working and being a keen observer and detailed note-taker. In my case, this means going out on fishing trips with the same 20-30 fishers to observe their fishing practices, most often, freediving with them while they are breathing from a hookah line attached to a compressor

Collecting Fish Catch Data

I will also be training the same 20-30 fishers to record their daily motivations and catch data in Rite-in-the-Rain notebooks over the course of the year. This data will be used to better characterize the fishery and understand what and how much each fisher is catching, as well as what methods they are using.

Informal Interviews with Fishers

I will also be asking the same 20-30 fishers questions that can help reveal their perception of time and abundance. For example: How do you decide how many fish you will catch each day?; Do you always catch as many as you can?; Does the ocean provide an endless source of fish?; For the fish you eat, do you eat it all right away?; If not, why not and what techniques do you use to save the fish for later?; Do you save money or spend it right away?; If you save money, how much do you save and for how long?; and If you don’t save money, why not?; Do you ever think about the grandchildren you might have in the future?; If so, what do you think about them?; etc.

Structured Surveys

Finally, I will then use responses from these informal interviews to further refine the questions to make sure they make sense to the fishers and are tailored to their specific context. These questions will form the basis of a more formal survey that I will implement with a larger population of fishers in the Banggai Archipelago across five islands to see if there are any characteristics or factors associated with fishers who have a more future-oriented lens. For example, do fishers who have lived in one place their whole lives think about the future more, or perhaps fishers who have had contact with NGO's?

This is the plan as of now, but field work is always full of surprises! I aim to be flexible and nimble to adapt to the reality of the fishers' context as I get to know them and their environment better over the course of the year.

Thank you so much for joining me on this journey!

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This is an exciting project, Shannon. Looking forward to following along!

Thanks, David!

A real challenging one!!Now I find myself wandering over more than 7 months back affairs. What is the current product of long drawn strategy. Shall be glad to know of the achievement thus far. Appriciate your vision. Thanks.

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