It’s a scene repeated at low tide in coastal and island nations around the world: women with plastic buckets and woven baskets fan out across the exposed seabed, scooping up small fish stranded by the retreating water, digging clams out of the muddy bottom and spearing octopuses camouflaged amongst the rocks and corals.
From the South Pacific to the Caribbean, these “gleaners” and other small-scale fisherwomen can be the bedrock of food security in the poorest communities, bringing home dependable, healthy protein when other sources fail. Their work nurtures their families and can dramatically impact conservation efforts — yet they have been all but ignored by researchers and policymakers.
Now, a small cadre of scientists is beginning to tally just how much food women are bringing home from the ocean — and the numbers can surprise even them. “I kept being told this doesn’t matter, women don’t matter, you’ll find nothing,” said Danika Kleiber, a postdoctoral fellow at Memorial University of Newfoundland, who studied subsistence fisherwomen in the Central Philippines. But she found that in fact, women were responsible for 25 percent of the haul in her research area.
In some cases, women actually catch more seafood than men. In 2013, Sarah Harper, a fisheries researcher at the University of British Colombia, looked at fisheries data and estimates from 16 South Pacific nations and found that on average, women in these countries landed 56 percent of all small-scale catches.
But for other low-income countries — and indeed, for many wealthy countries — there remains almost no information on how many women fish and how much they catch. Often, researchers observe that fishing appears to be an economically important activity for women in some regions, noting that octopus is a major source of income for Vezo women in Madagascar and that women make up a sizeable portion of the workforce in Laos’ inland fisheries. But scientists offer few hard numbers to quantify this.
According to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), women make up one in two seafood workers worldwide. As a general rule, women dominate post-harvest activities such as processing and marketing fish. For instance, according to a 2000 workshop report, 50 percent of the workforce in seafood packing plants on Mexico’s Yucatán coast is female. In 2000, a local fisheries organization found that women make up 84 percent of the workers in Vietnam’s processing factories.
Despite representing half the world’s seafood industry, women are profoundly absent from all levels of fisheries management, even in countries where they are otherwise well-represented in government. In Senegal, for instance, women make up 43 percent of parliamentary seats but only five percent of fisheries governance.
There are two blind spots that render these women invisible in fisheries workforce data and management. First, fisheries policy places a heavy, sometimes exclusive, focus on commercial activity. Vanishingly few women actively fish on this scale. Second, seafood extraction has been narrowly defined in terms of finfish — such as sardines, sharks or snapper — and the men who haul this kind of catch from the sea.
Household and childcare responsibilities keep women tethered to near-shore habitats like mudflats, mangroves, seagrass beds and reefs. So they usually target small, easily-caught invertebrates such as crabs and clams: a rule that researchers describe as “fish are for men, shells are for women.”
As a result of these two oversights, policymakers pour money and effort into education, laws and lines of credit aimed at finfish and fishermen — the assumption being that what boosts food security for men will automatically bolster it for women and children.
As Kleiber noted, this is usually the case. The money that men make from fishing pays for staples like rice, while the fish that women catch is eaten directly by the family or shared with neighbors and relatives.
But in certain communities, women bear the sole responsibility for their children’s nutrition. In a 2010 study of two poor coastal communities in Tanzania — where fishermen often had multiple wives and many children — the authors concluded that “very little, if any, of a ﬁsher’s income reaches his family.”
In a 2012 gender workshop in Senegal, women from coastal areas lamented the fact that they paid not only for their household’s food, but also for education, clothing, healthcare and building materials. And in some cases, they gave financial support to their husbands’ fishing businesses as well.
The authors of the Tanzania study noted that when an activity dominated by women became particularly profitable — such as seaweed farming or octopus hunting — men moved in, leading to greater competition and over-harvesting.
This pattern is repeated around the world. A 2011 report for the FAO found that women are often relegated to the least-valuable marine species and the lowest-paid post-harvest work. In family fisheries from Europe to Asia, essential but unpaid work such cleaning boats or mending nets often falls to women.
Shutting fisherwomen out of fisheries decision-making not only impacts family food security, it can also threaten conservation efforts. In Tuvalu, for instance, a lengthy effort in 2002 to reintroduce the valuable Trochus sea snail consulted, trained and employed only men. Unaware of the project’s existence, women promptly gathered a lot of the new snails for food.
According to Harper, marine resources cannot be managed sustainably without a scientific grasp of how both men and women use them. Fisheries, she argues, do not occur in a vacuum. A first step for addressing this, Harper said, is to mandate that research results be broken down by gender. Right now, she added, “we’re only managing for half the fisheries when we collect data.”
New efforts are underway to address the gender gaps in how small-scale and subsistence fisheries are studied and managed. In its voluntary sustainability guidelines for small-scale fisheries, the FAO now includes explicit language on gender equity. But as Kleiber noted, the major hurdle is to move from talk to action. “We have the policy,” she said. “We need to get it implemented.”