Subsistence and Commercial Activities. For many groups, although by no means all, fishing is the principal source of livelihood. In Sabah, where the Bajau comprise less than 20 percent of the population, they make up over two-thirds of the state's fishermen. However, except for the Bajau Laut, other communities are economically flexible, adopting farming where land is available, or taking up other occupations. In western Sabah, most Bajau settlements are located inland from the immediate coastline, chiefly along the lower rivers draining the western coastal plains. Here the majority practice farming, engage in trade, and rear water buffalo, cattle, and horses. In addition, some travel inland annually to join interior communities in rice harvesting in return for a share of the crop. For agricultural or partially agricultural groups, the main crops grown are rice, cassava, maize, bananas, and, as cash crops, copra and fruit. Fishing communities are characteristically located close to areas of coral reef, submerged terraces, bays, channels, or stretches of inshore water sheltered by fringing reefs, islands, or coastal headlands. The marine life exploited by Bajau fishermen is diverse, including over 200 species of fish, large varieties of shellfish, crustaceans, dolphins and other sea mammals, sea turtles (taken for their shell, eggs, and egg sacks), sea urchins, and edible algae. Fishing equipment includes driftnets, liftnets, spears, spearguns, handlines, longlines, traps, harpoons, explosives, lures, jigs, and poisons. Since the 1950s, major technological changes have included the introduction of manufactured nylon netting, explosives, and motorized fishing vessels. Fishing activity varies with tides, monsoonal and local winds, currents, migrations of pelagic fish, and the monthly lunar cycle. Most driftnetting is done on falling tides, with favored periods coinciding with the new, full, and "dark" or late-rising phases of the moon. During moonless nights, fishing is often done with lanterns, using spears and handlines. Catches include skates, cuttlefish, and squid. Ebb tides are important for gathering, diving for shellfish, and inshore and beach netting. In exposed areas, monsoon winds often require seasonal shifts in fishing grounds and occasional suspension of fishing during high seas. Today fishing is primarily for market sale. Most fish are preserved by salting or drying. In villages located close to urban areas, landings may also be sold directly to retail vendors or to local middlemen for export sale. In the Philippines the introduction of agar-agar aquaculture in the mid-1970s dramatically affected the local economy of southern Sulu. Together with secessionist conflict and rapid population growth, it has led to a massive influx of newcomers, mainly Tausug and Samal from central Sulu, who have tended to displace Bajau Laut populations from their traditional fishing grounds in the southern Sibutu and Tawitawi islands, forcing many to migrate as refugees into southeastern Sabah. Here their numbers are swelling an already burgeoning fishing population. As a result, the rich coral reefs of the region, which for centuries provided protein and local trading wealth, are under increasing threat of destruction.
Industrial Arts. Shore- and land-based groups tend to specialize in different lines of trade and craft production; some communities, for example, act as centers of boat building, pottery making, weaving, blacksmithing, or interisland trade and transport. Other specialized crafts include the manufacture of kajang mats and roofing; pandanus mats, sunhats, and food covers; shell bracelets, tortoise-shell combs and other ornaments, lime and salt making, and skilled carpentry and woodcarving.
Trade. Trade occupies a central place in the Bajau economy. Historically, the Bajau were highly valued by the traditional trading states of the region for their specialized seafaring skills. European accounts of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries attest to their local importance as suppliers of marine commodities, boat builders, seamen, and occasionally pirates and slave raiders. Bajau in western Sabah historically traded with inland Dusun communities, exchanging dried fish, salt, lime, shell ornaments, and other coastal products for rice, fruit, tobacco, and forest and agricultural goods. Out of this trade evolved a network of periodic markets, known as tamu, held at from five-to twenty-day intervals. Today, along both sides of the Philippine border, smuggling provides a lucrative living for those with the necessary capital and commercial connections.
Division of Labor. Both men and women participate in farm work. Smithing, boat building, and interisland trade are male occupations, while women weave and make and market pottery. Except for boat-nomadic groups, fishing is carried out by all-male crews, with women and children engaging in inshore gathering.
Land Tenure. Among boat-dwelling and other strongly maritime groups, fishing grounds are available for common exploitation. For the Bajau Laut, fishing areas typically overlap, making possible cooperation between families from neighboring moorage groups, particularly during large-scale fish drives. Among more settled fishermen, fish-trap and liftnet sites and artificially constructed fish corrals are subject to individual ownership; otherwise, as with other groups, fishing grounds are unowned. Historically, boat-nomadic communities were without land or other property ashore, except for small burial islands. Here the dead of several neighboring moorage groups were buried. In addition, community members were allowed access to sources of fresh water, usually a well or spring, and the use of the immediate shoreline (which provided certain supplies, such as bamboo for masts and poles), in return for their economic services as clients. Among shore- and land-based groups, virtually no form of corporate ownership exists, and houses and both residential and farm land are held and inherited under individual rights of tenure.