Silent Waters: Bagan Platforms and Night Fishing in Indonesia

Wooden structures hug the Indonesian coastline. What is their importance?

For those familiar with Indonesia’s coastlines, the bagan is a ubiquitous sight. These distinctive cuboid or triangular fishing structures, introduced in the 1950s by Sulawesi’s Makassarese and Bugis people, line the waters and only come alive at night to harvest the shoals of fish that swim in the deep during the day.

The ocean holds symbolic importance across the archipelago and inspires much devotion. The rites of petik laut, for instance, see Madura’s fisherfolk make offerings to the sea goddess Nyai Loro Kidul to appease her temper and uphold the safety of all those who make a living on, of and around the water. 

Bagan Indonesia
A bagan tancap

Such esoteric practices are manifold and indicate the profound reverence ocean goers attach to an element that provides food, employment and income; so too does the bagan testify to the water’s integral contribution to life in Indonesia. The platforms can remain on the sea for days or even months throughout the fishing season.

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Bagan platforms, illustrated here by the bagan tancap, or stationary lift net, have an outwardly inscrutable appearance, comprising an anjang-anjang shack and system of nets fastened to a rectangular frame made of bamboo or wood. A deck from which a roller lowers and raises the nets to gather in the catch completes the structure.

Bagan Indonesia
Come the fishing season, bagan structures dot Indonesia’s coast

At sunset during the dark phases of the moon, the lights rest a metre or so above the water’s surface to attract fish: when enough appear, the fisherfolk reduce the illumination and raise the net via a hoist. And thus does the process repeat, from the day’s end to the day’s break, with the fruits of this labour left to dry on a pontoon.

The bagan is a secretive instrument, characterised by an apparent stillness that belies the industry within its confines. And when the night falls, and the lamps illuminate the structures with flickering new dimensions, the platforms seem to take on another form, as though guarding the coastline like a garrison of watchful sentinels.


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