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Indigenous knowledge of the marine ecosystem on Balobaloang
by Gene Ammarell

The Sabalana Archipelago, located between 100 and 150 miles SSW of Makassar, is made up of thirty-five small islands spread across two coral reefs. Together these reefs occupy an area, including their lagoons, of about 3600 sq. km., making Sabalana the second largest atoll in Indonesia and the 14th largest in the world. The various communities who occupy these islands rely upon combinations of fishing, inter-island shipping and trade, and the coconut cultivation for their livelihoods. The island of Greater Balobaloang, located at longitude 118d 52.5’ east and latitude 6d 36’ south, is populated by ethnic Bugis who make a living aboard trading ships and rely upon fish and coconuts for subsistence and additional income.

As might be expected, the Bugis villagers of Balobaloang have extensive knowledge of the marine ecosystem that surrounds them. Ammarell has written on their indigenous knowledge as they apply it to the complex art of navigation and piloting their trading ships over a wide area of eastern Indonesia (see below). Ammarell’s most recent studies have focused on indigenous and traditional knowledge of fishing across the surrounding Sabalana Archipelago.

Knowledge of the larger ecosystem which provides habitat for valued marine species includes the broad physical and biological features island, itself, the tidal zone surrounding the island, the shallow seas of the lagoon, and the outer border of the atoll where it drops off into the ocean depths. Features that villagers have identified to Ammarell when looking out to sea from above the beach include the following:

  • The vegetated border above the beach: biri kessi’ “edge of the sand” or “… sandy beach”
  • Beach: kessi’ “sandy beach”
  • Inner reef (reef flat): laisi
    • Reef flat covered with sea grasses: laisi’ pama; pama: sea grasses
    • Reef flat covered with live corals and chunks of dead corals: laisi’ batu: batu: hard corals
  • Rampart or reef crest at edge of and surrounding inner reef: gusung
  • Outer reef: biri batu “edge of hard corals”
  • Drop off: biri tubiri’ “edge of the depths”
  • Depths: tubiri’ “deep”
  • Lagoon: labangeng
  • Patches of corals beyond the reef crest:
    • under approximately ten meters deep on average: bayangeng “shadow, reflection”
    • over ten meters deep on average: taka “patch of corals; reef”

Since 1988, local fishermen have identified to Ammarell over two hundred and fifty species of fish plus a large number of shellfish, including mollusks, crustaceans (esp. lobster) and echinoderms (sea stars, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, etc.) and corals that live in and around the zones listed above. What is important to remember here is that across cultures and languages, people name things and organize things into categories based upon their own understandings about what is important to them and how the world works. Moreover, these names and categories change over time and, to some extent, vary between individuals.

The one man on Balobaloang, Pa’ Maji’, who still made a living solely by free diving for marine products (spear fishing and gather sea cucumbers and lobsters), had the most contact with and knowledge of corals of anyone on the island. Likewise, he had the most elaborate system of classifying them, placing each species in one of two major categories: batu (hard corals without spines) and karang (corals with spines, both hard and soft). Ethnically Makassar, he had moved to the island decades early to marry a local woman. Thus, the names he gave to corals were a mixture of Bugis and Makassar, terms commonly understood by other villagers because of the close relationships between the two cultures and languages. And while marine biologists have identified well over 200 species of corals in this area, Maji’, using his own system, identified over 50 types of coral, often combing several species into a single local category.

While corals are not a direct source of food for human consumption, it is common knowledge among the fishers of Balobaloang that corals provide food, shelter and breeding grounds for fishes and shellfish upon which humans depend for food. Moreover, it is essential that fishers know where to find particular species of fish and shellfish, both in particular types of ecological niches as well as in particular geographic locations across the reef. It is not surprising, therefore, to learn that in many cases common terminology is used to describe biological and physical features of the environment as well as fish and other marine life.

For example, wrasses (family Labridae) occur, although in decreasing numbers, in the Sabalanas and are valued both for local consumption and for sale in port markets. At least 26 species of wrasses are identified locally, divided into six varieties. Each variety is then distinguished by terms that describe their habitat. The variety representing the greatest number of species is known as péllo’ of which five varieties have been distinguished by those that are found in deep water (péllo’ waé minraleng; waé: water, minraleng: deep), sandy areas of the reef (péllo’ kessi’: kessi’: sand), in and around non-spiny hard corals (péllo’ batu), in and around spiny and soft corals (péllo’ karang), and in the narrow straits between islands (péllo’ selle’). For example, the carpet wrasse (Novaculichthys taeniurus), the magenta-streaked wrasse (Cirrhilabrus cyanopleura) and the dotted wrasse (Cirrhilabrus punctatus) all inhabit deep water and are known locally as péllo’ waé minraleng.

In addition to the general environments that various marine species inhabit, fishers can identify specific locations where certain species are most plentiful. Perhaps most important of these are the fifteen named taka “deep coral patches” and five named bayangeng “shallow coral patches” spread across the Sabalana Atoll where most fishing is carried out. The locations of each of these features is well known to those who make a living by fishing, as are the species of fish which are most likely to be found around each of them as well as the most favorable seasons and water conditions for fishing for each species.

For example, 35 species of the family Serranidea, or groupers, have been identified by local fishers who divide them into 20 named varieties. These are among the most valuable of the fish commonly caught across the atoll, and, if they can be kept alive and transported to port, they are exported to the major cities of Southeast and East Asia, commanding a high price in restaurants. Even dried, they bring a premium price in port cities. Thus, local fishers are particularly keen to catch these fish and, thus, have studied their habits. They are known to inhabit the crevasses between hard corals and to return to their places of birth to breed. They are also said to be lazy eaters during their mating season and, so, are rarely caught during that period. Importantly, there are specific taka that are known habitat for several of the most common varieties.

A second example includes several members of the family Scombridae or tunas and mackerels. The thirteen species are identified as belonging to seven named varieties by local fishers. While most of the fish caught are reef fish, growing numbers of these pelagic fish are being taken in the narrow channels between the islands when the tidal currents flow from ocean to reef, carrying the fish with them. These strong currents are dangerous for wind and paddle powered dugouts, so it wasn’t until the introduction of diesel-powered fishing boats that these locations could be fished. Again, individual fishers have learned the habits of these fish, taking seasonal wind and tidal patterns into account before deciding upon which particular locations to fish.

© 2011 Gene Ammarell

Also in this section:

The importance of a coral reef ecosystem
What is a coral?
Elements that influence a coral reef ecosystem
Threats to coral reef
Coral reef and global warming
Why do we try to protect the coral reef?
Indigenous knowledge of the marine ecosystem on Balobaloang

Destructive fishing practices
Dynamite fishing
Cyanide Fishing
Knowledge and practice of sustainable fishing on Balobaloang

Academic works and research on Balobaloang

Global fish trade and the environment


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