Hakai Magazine

Women shuck scallops in Mũi Né, Vietnam. Photo by David Noton Photography/Alamy Stock Photo

The Invisible Fishing Fleet

Women have a crucial—yet often overlooked—role in fisheries.

Authored by

by Ilima Loomis

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Nearly half of all fisheries workers worldwide are thought to be women, yet much of their work—and their catch—goes undocumented and unnoticed. That is the finding of a group of researchers who are studying the role of women in fisheries across five countries.

In Mexico, Peru, Senegal, South Africa, and Vietnam, women do much of the work processing and marketing the day’s catch, and collectively harvest thousands of tonnes of small fish and invertebrates, such as shellfish and sea cucumbers, from coastal waters. Yet when public and private agencies set out to measure the health and value of fisheries, they tend to focus exclusively on those who fish commercially at sea—men.

“Women might be going out and collecting shellfish, but because we prioritize industrial fisheries, it’s like, ‘Oh, they aren’t actually important, they’re just beachcombing,’” says Sarah Harper, a fisheries researcher at the University of British Columbia and lead author of the study. When scientists do measure what women are collecting, the catch is significant, she says.

The persistent oversight can have far-reaching consequences when it leads to policies that might, for example, protect male-dominated open-ocean fisheries while neglecting nearshore waters where so many women gather limpets, crabs, and other seafood, Harper says.

Another consequence is that fisheries management organizations set policies that largely exclude women, even though they are among the people most affected by those decisions.

Harper’s realization came when she and her colleagues were reviewing the existing data on women fishers in the five maritime countries. Harper says she wasn’t surprised to find huge gaps in the data: information on women’s work in the seafood industry is simply not collected in many parts of the world. She filled in some of those gaps, however, by looking for clues in less obvious places, such as health studies of medical issues in people working in seafood processing factories.

The available information suggests women have a significant stake in fisheries and seafood production.

In Senegal, for example, an estimated 90 percent of seafood processors are women. As many as 1,350 women are involved in gathering invertebrates at the shoreline, accounting for up to 10,000 tonnes of seafood each year, worth around US $30.5-million.

Beyond the economic value of the catch, the harvest is an important source of protein in a region with increasing food insecurity. And yet a shift from subsistence, artisanal fisheries in Senegal to more industrialized fishing for export comes at a significant cost to women, who often don’t have the same access to international markets as men.

Recognizing that women are being overlooked could lead to changes in how agencies focus aid, conservation, and fisheries policy, says Margot Stiles, a marine ecologist and chief of strategy for the ocean advocacy and conservation nonprofit Oceana.

Failing to look at fisheries diversity can lead to unintended policy outcomes, says Stiles, a coauthor of the study. “You may not get the results that you want for conservation,” she says, “or you may get the results you want, but inadvertently cause another problem.”

One thing Stiles noticed while working on the study was that though many conservation efforts target northwestern Mexico—a region that is highly visible to American tourists and California-based conservation groups and donors—it is the southern Mexican states of Oaxaca and Chiapas that have a higher proportion of women, children, and families dependent on subsistence fishing.

The study was enlightening to Stiles, as Oceana plans to open an office in Mexico later this year. “By doing this study we were able to see an area where we could contribute more, instead of competing with other conservation groups,” she says.

Economist and seafood market analyst Marie Christine Monfort, who was not involved in the research, says the paper confirms that the participation of women in fisheries is poorly measured, despite the strong evidence that women are integral to the fisheries economy.

The finding that women are excluded from fisheries management and decision-making opens a new area of research, she adds.

“Why their absence from the decisive political arena? What are the barriers? What can be done to improve the balance in responsibility?” Monfort asks.

This research needs to be shared widely, and followed up by actions that inspire positive changes, she adds.