The Flying Fishermen of Mandar


"After he East Monsoon, no one know where the flying fish goes!"

Mandar Province in Indonesia is a land-poor, ocean-rich region of fishermen, traders and weavers located on the hip of Sulawesi's southwest leg. Even in relatively prosperous villages only 10 to 15 percent of the inhabitants own land for subsistence gardens, where they grow cassava, bananas and chili peppers. The women produce some cash income in petty trading and by weaving silk sarongs which are traded throughout the archipelago. However, the Mandarese community has depended for centuries upon successful exploitation of the seas for subsistence.

Mandarese villages face the Strait of Makassar, which slashes through the irregular channel between Kalimantan and Sulawesi at depths ranging from 3,000 to 6,825 feet. The strait is a remarkably rich source of marine creatures including shrimp, giant prawns, skipjack tuna, shark, squid, sea-cucumber, abalone, sea tortoise and flying fish which Mandarese trap for subsistence and, recently, for cash-export.

During the West Monsoon, from December through March, men troll the strait for skipjack tuna. In response to a Chinese fondness for shark fins, Mandarese sail across the strait to Kalimantan, where they fish for shark. If the months-long shark catch is successful, both flesh and fins are sold in East Java to prosperous Chinese exporters.

Mandarese not only search the depths of the strait for fish. They also search its coasts, coves and, in the case of flying fish, its skies. South Sulawesi's coasts are punctuated with V-shaped double baffles that trap unsuspecting fish in rattan and reed mazes. In the calm waters of palm-fringed coves, Mandarese fishermen in small canoes perform the slow, ancient dance of setting, retrieving and examining the contents of a cost net. Miles from the Mandar coast, entire schools of fish attracted to fronds of waving banana leaves fastened to the underside of large bamboo rafts are caught when nets, suspended beneath the rafts, are hauled in.

Flying Fish (Cypselurus spp.)

The flying fish has been a staple of the Mandarese diet during the East Monsoon since the late eighteenth century. Not only have Mandarese developed ingenious methods for capturing flying fish, but this unusual fish has captured the Mandarese imagination. Mandarese fishermen believe flying fish are "extraordinary" because they fly; they travel in dense "flocks" or swarm like sparrows and bees; and they make a temporary, seasonal appearance during the East Monsoon.

On the open sea, flying fish are spoken to, shouted at, commanded and exhorted to enter traps. They are never called by their generic name, tui-tuing (flying fish) but are addressed as manurun, daeng or ma'radia, "spirit," "lord" or "raja" in a elaborate tradition of erotic marine oratory. "No one, not even the professors, knows where the flying fish goes at the end of the East Monsoon," said a Mandarese friend as we watched flying fish glide, skimming over the surface of the straits like silver missiles near Mamuju.

The Traditional Capture of Flying Fish

From April to September of each year, when the winds of the East Monsoon blow, about 6,000 Mandarese fishermen set off in swift-moving catamarans to capture flying fish in the Strait of Makassar. Until the early 1970s, Mandarese technology for capturing flying fish was based on buaro traps - barrel-shaped baskets made of slender lengths of split bamboo tied together with twine woven from sugar palm (induk) "hairs." At the entrance to each trap (at the circular top and bottom of the drum), a ring of bamboo stakes faces inward, their tapered tips pressing against each other. A vegetable fringe of freshly gathered sea-plants is attached. It is possible for flying fish to dart into the trap, pushing the stake tips apart momentarily. Once inside, however, it is impossible to exit. A crew of three or four men sails with each catamaran, called pangkur or sandeq. Two sets of six buaro are launched from the catamaran and set adrift on a long line flanking each side of the catamaran in special launching racks. When launched from the catamaran and set adrift, the buaro resemble floating drums with long dresses of green sea plants dangling into the waters below.

Sailing into the Makassar Strait, fishermen search for "black water," an indicator of considerable depth and, most importantly, the presence of flotsam and jetsam of seaweed and drifting wood. Mandarese fishermen know that during the early months of the East Monsoon schools of flying fish search for floating debris on which to deposit and fertilize their eggs. The buaro, launched and floating on the ocean surface, is a fabricated counterpart of naturally occurring seaweed and twig environments. Schools of flying fish are attracted to the flotillas of buaro as natural egg-depositing sites.

Before the buaro are launched, the captain of the boat recites silent prayers while the crew massages each buaro with a magically potent mixture of herbs, plants and oils. A bunch of bananas prized by the spirits is attached to the "mother" buaro. The crew gently lifts each buaro off the rack and over the side of the boat, until both sets of buaro, linked by lines of induk rope, begin to drift lazily away from the catamaran. When one line is tied securely, both boat and buaro drift with the current and sailors settle in for an unpredictable journey that may last weeks. Under the blazing equatorial sun, they await the arrival of flying fish.

When schools of flying fish are sighted on the horizon, the crew begins to shout to them, respectfully requesting they come to the buaro, which they describe as a beautiful woman or, alternatively, as an ancestral drum. When the school appears, "they arrive like a black storm," as dense as a "flock of sparrows descending on ripening rice." If the fish are in close proximity to the traps, the crew shouts erotic poems believed to stimulate the deposition of the eggs, their fertilization and the fishes' entry into the buaro. Sailors exhort the fish to strike, hit and hump the sugar palm hairs, to ejaculate on the leaves of the "beautiful woman," and to pound their "ancestral drum". Sailors command the swarming fish, through metaphor, to copulate with and to enter the trap.

At dawn one of the crew members launches a small, robin's-egg-blue canoe and paddles out to check the traps. If a school has arrived during the night, swishing sounds indicate the presence of scores, it not hundreds, of flying fish inside each buaro. The heavy, fish-laden buaro are then hauled back to the boat and hundreds of silvery wet Cypselurus are salted and sun-dried on racks. Properly salted flying fish can last for two to three months.

The Market in Roe: Flying fish and the World System

For centuries, according to Mandarese chronicles and contemporary Mandarese scholars, flying fish were a primary component of the Mandarese diet during the East Monsoon. Salted and dried flying fish were also sold in local markets as well as more distant markets in Sulawesi and Kalimantan (formerly Borneo). The eggs deposited on the tresses and the sides of the traps were merely a savory byproduct of the search for flying fish. Flying fish roe was served as a local delicacy and was distributed freely among neighbors and villagers. As boats laden with silvery, salted flying fish returned to Mandarese shores, children would rush to the water's edge, ringing the boats and requesting any pale orange roe saved and sun-dried on the rigging.

In 1971, a Japanese market for flying fish roe radically affected the practices, trap design, economy and attitudes of Mandarese fishermen. It has also affected the population of flying fish in the Makassar Strait and the Flores Sea, where flying fish roe eagerly is sought by Mandarese. Buginese and Malassarese peoples of South Sukwesi.

In 1963, if flying fish eggs were not freely given to one's neighbors, they were sold for a nominal charge of 25 rupiah ($US 0.12) per liter. When the roe market was organized in 1971, the price immediately jumped to 1,000 rps. ($US 2.41) per kilo. By 1985, the price of a kilo of flying fish eggs had soared to more than 10,000 rupiah ($US 10.00) per kilo. In less than 13 years the price of Cypselurus roe had increased approximately 10,000 percent.

The effects of the abrupt appearance of a market in roe, including the possibility of breathtaking profits from what had been the by-product of subsistence, are complex. According to the Mandar Bureau of Fisheries, since the commercial egg market took shape, the yearly income of local fishermen has doubled or trebled. Before the market appeared, the maximum income for a flying fish crew member from his share of the sale of salted fish was approximately 20,000 to 30,000 rupiah ($US 63.00-95.00) per voyage. In 1985, a fisherman's share from a single, successful quest for eggs yielded approximately 3,000,000 rupiah ($US 3,000). One of the fishermen with whom I sailed estimated that his yearly cash income has increased by 100 percent since the egg market matured.

The profits realized by harvesting eggs, rather than fish, have clearly raised the standard of living in the Mandar region. According to fishermen, people buy gold, make pilgrimages to Mecca, build or improve their houses and pay their children's school fees, in that order. According to functionaries at a flying fish egg factory,

The influence of higher egg prices on sailors' lives is readily apparent: their house roofs used to be made of Nipa palm leaves, now they are made of galvanized tin. In the old days they used to eat cassava, now they consume rice. They used to go around on bicycles, now they use motorcycles. Sailors' children now go to universities. Fishermen have children with advanced degrees. Formerly they had one wife, now many have two!

One fisherman has been so successful that he travels, on a yearly basis, to Mecca. Those Muslims who have traveled to Mecca are known as Haji; this flying fisherman has become known as Puaji Talo, or the Egg Haji.

The economic effects of an international market in roe, however, are not entirely beneficial. Fifteen years ago the fishermen of Mandar were poor, subsistence-oriented mariners obtaining modest profits from the sale of flying fish in local markets. Now the same fishermen are linked inextricably to the uncertainties and rewards of a world economic system: their well-being is tied to fluctuations in the price of eggs in Japan, the prices set by roe export companies in Sulawesi and, finally, the prices offered by punggawa - middlemen who finance the cost of each voyage and purchase the eggs from their fishermen clients. If the price is not right, women store the roe for months, like speculators in precious metals playing the world market. Between 1973 and 1975, the price per kilo of dried flying fish roe was 15,000 rupiah ($US 4 THROUGH 8.00); in 1985 the price per kilo had declined to 10,500 ($US 10.50). In 1975, barely four years after the opening of the export roe market, flying fish roe had become South Sulawesi's second most valuable export commodity (the most valuable being shrimp, also exported principally to Japan).

Technological Innovation and Cultural Change

The appearance of astonishingly high prices for Cypselurus roe also set off a silent explosion in technological innovation. With the incentive of unprecedented profits, Mandarese fishermen initiated a series of changes in buaro design. Two new designs, the palassa'-lassa' and the epe-epe, each a modified version of the buaro, are forms developed specifically to gather flying fish roe. Currently, Mandarese are experimenting with a modified buaro design that can perimenting with a modified buaro design that can trap flying fish and greater quantities of eggs.

Predictably, as the devices to obtain roe have proliferated, the oratorical arts of flying fish calling have waned. The primary purpose of the erotic rhetoric was to stimulate the fish to enter the traps. Once the focus of the hunt shifted to roe procurement, entry of the fish into the traps - and its stimulation and control through magical calls - was no longer necessary.

Environmental Consequences of a Market in Roe

Since 1970 fishermen not only have augmented subsistence technology with recently fashioned roe-collection devices oriented toward the world market, they also have deployed an ancient device, the gill net, to capture schools of egg-bearing female fish. The use of the gill net alone, or in combination with buaro or other devices, may have serious environmental consequences: the reduction of the flying fish population below levels necessary to maintain stocks.

Two systems of gill net use are practiced: one using gill nets in combination with buaro and palassa'-lassa' and one using gill nets alone. In the former, egg hunters launch a set of buaro and wait until the school arrives to deposit the eggs. Then, the entire school of male and egg-bearing female fish is surrounded quickly and captured with gill nets. According to fisheries experts, the fish drown and the eggs are retained. In the latter method, men sail, looking for naturally occurring flotsam. If the fish arrive, they capture the entire school, including egg-bearing females, in the gill nets.

Local fisheries officials assert that the use of gill nets is reducing the flying fish population below acceptable levels. A gill net captures many thousands of the fish, far more than those obtained with the buaro. Use of the gill net apparently prevents fish fry from hatching and growing and therefore obstructs the reproduction of the species.

As evidence of the population decline, fisheries officials points to the dramatic decrease in the gross catch of flying fish after 1980, about 1,200 tons of flying fish were caught annually in Mandar. However, since 1981 the yearly tonnage has not exceeded 566 tons. While the number of local Mandarese fishermen engaged in catching flying fish has increased modestly from 4,500 in 1969 to 5,700 in 1984, the number of gill net users rose from 247 in 1969 to a peak of 1,700 in 1976 and has remained constant through 1985. Buaro users rose from 126 in 1969 to approximately 2,500 in 1979, a level sustained through 1985.

From a short-term perspective, the new practices and devices are fast and efficient. A typical buaro voyage lasts from 12 days to one and a half months. On such a voyage, a crew of three to four men, using 12 buaro, may obtain one ton of flying fish. Gill net users who deploy as many as 30 sets of nets typically return with two tons of flying fish after a journey of five to seven days. Local fisheries officials express their conclusion succinctly: "It's ruining the environment!".

Environmental Conservation: Redesigning a Relationship

Overfishing and intensive collection of Cypselurus roe have resulted in a serious reduction of flying fish populations in the Strait of Makassar, and possibly the Flores Sea. Continued use of devices focused on roe collection probably will reduce stocks of flying fish below acceptable levels for reproduction. Net profits may result in net destruction of an extraordinary fish.

In myth and metaphor, in flying fish traps and tropes, Mandarese fishermen evince imagination. They imagined a trap, the buaro, whose physical features embodied observed relationships between flying fish reproductive behaviors and their oceanic environment. The buaro was effective precisely because it was based on accurate, empirical understandings of ecological relationships. They added an acoustical aesthetic to their ecological understandings by inventing an erotic rhetoric, a salty mariners' oratory believed to lure unpredictable flying fish into their traps. Profits incited further invention. When astonishing prices for roe were offered in the 1970s, Mandarese fishermen and children designed a host of effective devices to procure Cypselurus eggs. Unforeseeably, some of their recent inventions an practices have been devastatingly effective. Economic growth threatens the destruction of the very species that has helped sustain Mandarese society. Mandarese fishermen may now be compelled to reconstruct the relationship between their society - its techniques, practices and values - and their marine environment, the Strait of Makassar. Although the sight of a school of flying fish gliding above the strait seizes the imagination as a figure of freedom and mobility, the reproductive behaviors of Cypselurus are as fixed as its fast-beating fins: socketed in ecological history, anatomical structure and environmental conditions. It is the imagination of the Mandarese which can roam still further, consciously reconstructing man's material and metaphoric relationship to the seas.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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