what is a bagan

What is a “Bagan”?

We see these fishing platforms everywhere in this part of the world, but what is a “bagan”? It was a while before we even knew what they were called (you may have heard us calling them ‘spider boats’ in our videos)! But we know a lot about them now, and have had a few conversations on board with the fishermen.

It was on the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia, where Jamie decided to document the “bagan” fishing process properly; it was his most challenging photography project to date.

what is a bagan

Bagan Platforms

Bagan fishing, involving the use of lights and nets arranged around a platform, is everywhere in Indonesia. While night-fishing with lights is an ancient practise, “bagans” are a relatively recent style of fishing. With the advent of high pressure paraffin lamps, and eventually electric lightbulbs, this method of fishing rapidly gained in popularity from the 1950s.

We see many types and sizes of bagans here, including formidable static structures that litter the Indonesian coastlines. But the one Jamie boarded is a long, thin wooden canoe-like boat with a shack and generator in the middle. Out-riggers run its full length on either side, suspended by two masts and a complex network of cables. They are not used for stabilising the boat, but for suspending the lights and nets.

what is a bagan

The boat is prone to heeling, making a walk around the wonky structure of thin, wooden planks a little on the dangerous side. One of the crew explained that he has fallen in the water twice over the years. Occasionally, if the net gets wrapped around the prop, he has to get into the water to free it.

Bagan Crews

Jamie met the boat owner, Mastar (probably not his name, rather his position as “master” of the boat) and Rull, who has been working with Mastar for over 15 years. They were joined by crew mates Agus and Samsun.

what is a bagan

One Night on a Bagan

Just before sundown they arrive at the bagan by skiff. The first thing Rull does is empty the bilges of water before weighing the boat’s anchor, a large piece of concrete which he hoists by hand.

Although the boat remains in the bay of Ijuk, it is moved around depending on where they feel there is the most fish activity that day. Bagan fishing is only done at night and during the dark moon phases, which means feverish work for a few days each month.

The fish they catch is ikan teri, a small anchovy that’s most often dried and a staple in SE Asia.

In the fading light, the four crew scamper around the outriggers and prepare the net. Throughout the night the net is operated twice, lowered first at 7pm and raised at 10pm, and then again between 2am and 4am. The load on bagan nets varies, but many bagans stick to waterways with limited horizontal flow.

what is a bagan

With the net lowered, the generator is cranked up and the flood lights switched on. By projecting a light onto the surface of the water, the fishermen start a natural food chain reaction. Plankton is attracted to the light, which attracts fish to eat the plankton, and so on. The light also attracts crabs and other critters.

Waiting for the Fish

Between hauls, the crew relax, eating a late dinner. The wooden shack provides the only cover and is less than two metres wide. It has to accommodate the cooking equipment, electricity for the lights and personal possessions. It also doubles up as a sleeping area.

When it’s not raining, the crew rotate from inside to outside, allowing them to chat on their phones, or just smoke and drink coffee. And while they let fishing nets get on with their job, the crew also do their own fishing.

what is a bagan

Hauling the Catch

Before each haul, they turn off the lights. There is no moon, remember, so the crew operate in complete darkness, punctuated only by Jamie’s camera flash, or in the case of the second haul, a glimpse of dawn.

The large net, measuring 9m by 9m, is hoisted by hand, with the crew taking it in turns to rotate the wooden roller.

what is a bagan

The weight of the catch is so big the entire bagan heels over to port, with the starboard outriggers coming clean out the water. They drop the full net onto the boat’s deck and watch the catch spill out. They spend the next hour sorting the catch by species, size and quality.

There are different grades of ikan teri, but the average price for a box is around Rp 500,000 (US$32). They expect to fill 50 boxes in a night. This may sound a lot, but remember that they can only fish on completely moonless nights

what is a bagan

When the Boat Comes In

Of course, bagan fishing is only part of the process. After the catch has been boxed up it has to be transported across the bay to Ijok’s small harbour. Here the women help take the boxes ashore, and handle the next part of the process. This is the labour-intensive, back-breaking work of laying the fish out on nets to dry in the sun.

what is a bagan


The fishing community of Ijuk consists of around 200 houses and is a typical Indonesian fishing village. The bagan fishing and drying activities can be seen all over Indonesia’s islands, from Sumatra to Sulawesi. The people here consume 40kg of fish per capita per year. It is one of the biggest fish-dependent nations in the world.

what is a bagan
Ijuk fishing village

If, as a tourist, you were to visit a fishing village like this during the day, you could be forgiven for thinking that women do all the work, while the men lie asleep at home or lounge about with friends. Remember, though, that many of the men have worked through the night, leaving women to take over duties in the daylight hours.

what is a bagan

The entire process of fishing is a community affair.

We loved our time here and made several friends. One thing you can be sure of in Indonesia is a friendly, smiley face.

We’ve said it before but it’s worth reiterating here, Indonesians are some of the most genuine and welcoming people you’ll find anywhere.

what is a bagan

Watch the full vlog here…

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