Fisherwomen in Kerala, India, glean fish and crustaceans. Researchers estimate that, globally, nearly half of small-scale fishers are women. Photograph: Indian Council of Agricultural Research-Central Institute of Fisheries Technology, Cochin, Kerala.

Fisherwomen in Kerala, India, glean fish and crustaceans. Researchers estimate that, globally, nearly half of small-scale fishers are women. Photograph: Indian Council of Agricultural Research-Central Institute of Fisheries Technology, Cochin, Kerala.

Fisher or fisherman? What do you call a person who catches fish? When it comes to fishing, language has a gender bias, and not just in English. For hundreds of years, anglers at sea were known as fishermen. Even the modern gender-neutral alternative fisher actually predates fisherman as an Old English word with a masculine origin. These masculine-biased terms are not surprising. Catching fish, the first step in the enterprise of large-scale deep-sea commercial fisheries, is still predominantly performed by men. But women are often involved in the landing, processing, and marketing of fish, and fishing is more diverse than the exploits of big boats plying the deep sea. There is a lot of numerical uncertainty in determining what proportion of global fisheries workers are women, but extrapolating from available data, the WorldFish Center estimates roughly 50 percent. But quantifying women's contributions is tricky. In many places around the world, the role of women in fisheries has long been invisible, underestimated, or not enumerated at all. Now, researchers worldwide are beginning to shed light, making the invisible visible, with important implications for the validity of data informing fisheries science, management, policy, and food security.

Women are involved in all aspects of the fishing industry, including skinning, drying, curing, salting, processing, and marketing seafood. Shown here: (left) women working in a processing facility in Kerala, India, and (right) at a fish auction in the state of Tamil Nadu. Photograph: Indian Council of Agricultural Research-Central Institute of Fisheries Technology, Cochin, Kerala.

Women are involved in all aspects of the fishing industry, including skinning, drying, curing, salting, processing, and marketing seafood. Shown here: (left) women working in a processing facility in Kerala, India, and (right) at a fish auction in the state of Tamil Nadu. Photograph: Indian Council of Agricultural Research-Central Institute of Fisheries Technology, Cochin, Kerala.

Small-scale origins

Gender differences in the exploitation of seafood fascinate Danika Kleiber, now a postdoctoral researcher at Memorial University in Newfoundland and part of the Too Big to Ignore Project, which is focused on small-scale fisheries. Her interest in gender and fisheries is a longstanding one. As to how she got hooked, “The short, funny story is that my mother is a women's studies professor and my father is a fisheries biologist,” she says. “I was always interested in trying to bring my interests in feminism and biology together.”

During her doctoral work at the fisheries center at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Kleiber worked with Leila Harris and Amanda Vincent to explore the ecological relevance of gender differences in fishing practices. Their work highlighted the paucity of gender data in fisheries in general and the lack of quantitative data disaggregated by gender in particular. This information gap has important implications. “The exclusion of women and gender analysis from small-scale fisheries research results in an underestimation of human catch, and an underestimation of the diversity of animals and habitats targeted by fishers. Furthermore, it impedes a broader social–ecological understanding of fisheries that links human social systems to the marine environment,” wrote Kleiber and colleagues in their 2014 review in Fish and Fisheries.

Kleiber and coauthor Trevor Branch, at the University of Washington, also explored the fascinating insights that can be gained by looking at gender in language. In 2015, they published a paper in Fish and Fisheries entitled “Should we call them fishers or fishermen?” Taking a look at the scientific literature cataloged in the database ISI Web of Science, they examined 6135 papers going back 114 years to see how these gendered terms have changed over time. Globally, a rise in the use of “fishers” began in 1964, overtaking “fishermen” by 2014. Kleiber and Branch also studied words for “fisher,” “fisherman,” and “fisherwoman” in 75 languages. They found that in languages such as French, terms exist for fishers of both genders—pêcheur for masculine and pêcheuse for feminine. But in some other languages in which grammar is gendered, such as Greek and Greenlandic, they found no female equivalent for “fishermen” and were told that the term did not exist because “women from those cultures do not fish.”

Another researcher whose interest in women in fisheries was stoked at UBC is Sarah Harper. There, at the UBC Sea Around Us project, she looked at marine-capture fisheries data from all over the world. Country by country, her team explored what was missing. “Sometimes, it would be entire fisheries or entire sectors that were missing,” says Harper. “Largely, it was the small-scale fisheries that were missing from the official data.”

In a 2013 article in Marine Policy, examining data for the South Pacific, her team estimated that women accounted for 56 percent of annual small-scale catches, with an economic impact of $363 million. But she also learned that shellfish harvesting by women was often not included in official data. “That's how I first got interested,” says Harper, who realized that the issue of gender was underresearched in the fisheries realm. It prompted her to transition from her background in natural sciences and marine biology to examining human interactions with the environment in a fisheries context. Now she is exploring gender and fisheries for her doctoral research at the UBC Fisheries Centre.

Focusing on small-scale fisheries issues and looking at marginalization of fishers all over the world, women stand out as a group that is particularly marginalized, explains Harper. “They haven't been well represented,” she says, “but they contribute quite largely in some cases to food security and in an economic sense as well.” The overlooking of women, she explains, is part of the bigger picture of overlooking small-scale fisheries.

Small-scale fisheries and gender issues are something economist Nikita Gopal knows well. Based in Cochin, in the state of Kerala in southwest India, she works on the socioeconomic aspects of fisheries communities as principal scientist at the Central Institute of Fisheries Technology. In India, she explains, fisheries are a dynamic and diversified sector. “We have a whole range of fisheries activities from small scale to industrial, and women have very specific roles in the sector.” Women typically do not go fishing in boats for various reasons, including a cultural taboo. “Some women aren't allowed to go [out in boats]” says Gopal. “But a lot of women are gleaning fish [the collection of shellfish in coast areas] or catching fish with their hands or using small gear in nearshore waters or inland water bodies,” she says. Nevertheless, once the offshore catch is landed, women are heavily involved in the skinning, drying, curing, salting, and marketing of the fish for commercial markets. Nearly 50 percent of Indian fisheries workers are estimated to be women.

Clam gleaning is the main livelihood for many rural women in Tunisia. The work is grueling, backbreaking, and low paying. Photograph: ©United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Tunisia.

Clam gleaning is the main livelihood for many rural women in Tunisia. The work is grueling, backbreaking, and low paying. Photograph: ©United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Tunisia.

In India, women's work in fisheries is often unpaid. “It's invisible work,” Gopal says. Although their contributions are difficult to quantify, the work that women do directly benefits their families. Sex-disaggregated data have been collected in just a few states and not at a national level.

In Kerala, Gopal is involved in a project examining black clam (Villorita cyprinoides) fisheries. Traditionally, women would dive for and hand pick these clams, but recently, men have taken over the harvesting, using scoop nets from small, motorized canoes. There are no government regulations for the fishery except the recommendation that juvenile clams should not be harvested. Male clam fishermen are organized in associations, with official state government licenses to fish. Women, in contrast, are not issued licenses and are officially denied the right to fish.

Women shuck and market the clam meat, but “there is extreme drudgery involved in shucking and sorting,” Gopal says. Because many families involved in the clam fishery work individually, Gopal is attempting to cluster women fishers into a common unit to pool resources, provide access to microcredit, and assist them with better shucking technology.

Small-scale fisheries and gender is also the expertise of Nicole Franz, at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Rome, Italy. “A gender divide in fisheries probably goes back to the nature of the activity,” says Franz. In small-scale fisheries, the boats are often wooden ones that may or may not have an engine. The work is physically demanding in terms of hauling in the nets and staying out all day or night. “The hours are also often not compatible with running a family, and in developing countries, there is often still a traditional division of labor in terms of family chores,” she says. But in small-scale fisheries, women are often involved in gleaning by walking along the shoreline, without a boat.

Often, this shellfish collection is undocumented, despite the ecological importance of nearshore areas as nursery grounds for invertebrates and fish that, when bigger, might be caught offshore. If data are collected, information about who is fishing and what is being caught often fails to capture gender at all. “The gender-disaggregated data that we have, in terms of who is catching, [are] very limited. Often, it doesn't exist. Some countries do collect this data. Others don't,” says Franz.

The lack of disaggregated data is, on the one hand, underplaying the role of women in fisheries activities. “They are just not visible,” says Franz. “By not having disaggregated data, there is this overall assumption that it's basically a male profession,” she says, which also has an impact in terms of policies and management.

In Tunisia, a middleman transports women from their homes to the sea (left). There, they cram into a small boat to reach the coastal clam beds (right). Photograph: ©United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Tunisia.

In Tunisia, a middleman transports women from their homes to the sea (left). There, they cram into a small boat to reach the coastal clam beds (right). Photograph: ©United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Tunisia.

Few policies in fisheries have explicitly addressed the lack of attention to gender. The FAO's Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries in the Context of Food Security and Poverty Eradication is one notable exception. Franz contributed to this consensus document (known as the “SSF Guidelines”), published in 2011, and is now involved in facilitating its implementation.

“What we often see is fish organizations getting involved in fisheries management… and we see that often, women are not involved in those organizations,” says Franz. In some cases, specific organizations for women have been created, but often, these focus on marketing or processing. It is important to also ensure that women are enabled to take part in the management and decisionmaking processes connected to the fisheries directly, she argues.

Franz's colleague Yvette Diei-Ouadi runs one project in which the FAO is doing just that. Based in the Fisheries and Aquaculture Policy and Economics Division at FAO's Rome office, Diei-Ouadi explains that in many parts of Africa, women play a key role in fisheries production. Though not a social scientist by training, over time, she has become passionate about the importance of women as valuable links in fisheries.

In some places, women are not just involved in postproduction but are also directly involved in harvesting. In Tunisia's Gulf of Gabes, known for its rich beds of carpet shells, razor clams, and other shellfish species, clam fishing is the main livelihood for many rural women. As one beach clam fisher, Saliha, describes, “Beach clam fishing is grueling. Every day, we walk long distances at low tide, bent over in a very uncomfortable position under a blazing sun, standing in mud or up to the knees in icy seawater.”

The harsh physical demands of the occupation are only one of its challenges. Women clam fishers are marginalized by a lack of training and exclusion from the market. “Intermediaries are getting [paid] two or three times more than the women” and exploit them by charging them an illegal fee to weigh the clams, explains Diei-Ouadi. Compounding the problem of low pay, clam fisheries are subject to periodic closures when water quality is poor. During closures, women are put “in a very difficult situation,” she says, “not having any other alternative livelihood.”

The Tunisian government created the Groupement de Développement et d'exploitation de la palourde (Group for the Development and Exploitation of Clams; GDP) to manage the clam fishery and focus the harvest on clams of legal size. Ostensibly, the interests of women had been taken into account, says Diei-Ouadi, but initially, there was no female representation in this group. “Can you imagine representing the women's interest and not [having] any women represented?” she says. So the FAO has been working since 2011 to empower these women, assisting them in the creation of a women's fisheries association to facilitate their involvement in managing the clam fishery.

At first, “women were distrustful and didn't feel confident to come forward,” says Diei-Ouadi. But the FAO sent a group of Tunisian women clam fishers to Morocco to meet with female fishers already involved in defending their livelihood. In Morocco, the Tunisian women learned group leadership skills from their Moroccan role models. “That was really instrumental in changing their willingness to be part of the GDP,” says Diei-Ouadi. Her hope for the future is that if these women are brought out of the poverty cycle, they can contribute to the sustainable use of the resources on which they depend.

Kame Westerman, now a gender adviser at Conservation International, describes a similar situation for fisheries in Madagascar, where she spent several years working on community-based fisheries management for the nonprofit organization Blue Ventures. In southwest Madagascar, women's livelihood had long depended on harvesting octopus, sea cucumbers, crab, and shells at low tides, when women could walk out on the reef flats. Then, around the mid-2000s, an exporter arrived. The octopus fishery quickly transformed from a subsistence harvest by women to a commercial enterprise leading to exponential demand, men entering the fishery, overfishing, and the need for closures managed by an assembly. This assembly, elected to represent 25 villages, was 90 to 95 percent men, who were making decisions that did not necessarily recognize the needs of women, Westerman explains, such as opening the fisheries at times of the month when tides were low enough to allow women access for shellfish gleaning.

In 2011, women in Tunisia established a clam fisheries management association to represent their interests. Photograph: ©United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Tunisia.

In 2011, women in Tunisia established a clam fisheries management association to represent their interests. Photograph: ©United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Tunisia.

In Java, women work in a facility picking meat from blue swimming crabs (Portunus pelagicus). Photograph: Michael Abbey, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In Java, women work in a facility picking meat from blue swimming crabs (Portunus pelagicus). Photograph: Michael Abbey, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In seeking solutions, Westerman held focus groups with men and women and discovered that men were open to women's being part of their assembly decisionmaking. Women expressed various challenges to their participation, including being too busy, not feeling comfortable speaking out in front of men, and not having access to transportation or childcare. Although Westerman left in 2012, the focus groups and work by her colleagues stimulated important discussion and outreach. This year's election of a new assembly has seen increased participation by youth and women.

“The conservation community is a bit behind in looking at gender issues,” compared to the development and health communities, says Westerman. But gender issues are important and applicable for all of conservation. “Men and women use resources very differently, not just in fisheries,” she says.

Thousands of kilometers east, in the tropical waters of Indonesia, is another well-studied invertebrate fishery. There, the blue swimming crab fishery is the focus of research by Michael Abbey, lead for the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Fisheries’ Asia-Pacific Capacity Building Program. Along with colleagues Sri Redjeki and Abdul Ghofar (both at Faculty of Fisheries & Marine Sciences Diponegoro University in Java, Indonesia), a wife–husband team who are faculty at the University of Diponegoro in Central Java, Abbey is part of a team looking to empower stakeholders to institutionalize good fisheries management.

The blue swimming crab (Portunus pelagicus) is the third-largest fishery for Indonesia, with an export value of $360 million, its meat mostly sold to the United States. Mainly captured by small-scale fishers, often without motors or even boats, the term “small-scale” belies a livelihood that involves over 100,000 people. Crabs are caught using modern gill nets, collapsible traps, or sometimes-illegal shallow bottom trawls. Men do the catching, and women do the processing and picking of the meat. But open access leaves the fishery vulnerable to overharvesting, and blue swimming crabs are already in serious decline, threatening the livelihood of communities that “really don't fish anything else,” says Abbey.

So NOAA's role has been to empower and help Indonesia institutionalize basic fisheries management principles, “and that great partnership couldn't have happened without our partnership with Abdul Ghofar and Sri Redjeki, both involved in fisheries research since the 1960s,” says Abbey. Ghofar interacts with leaders in the Indonesian central government. Redjeki has been setting up community-management bodies and mentoring students at the university who later return to their home communities as sustainable fisheries experts. With Redjeki as role model and mentor, the proportion of female students in the fisheries faculty has risen steadily. “We used to have 1:1.5,” says Ghofar, “Now we have 1:4 [males to females].”

In the blue swimming crab fishery itself, women also play an important role. So recent collaborative workshops aimed to include not just “people with titles like the local head of the fisheries coop or the local imam,” says Abbey. Instead, they asked over 100 people in four focal communities to nominate community leaders in conservation. Then, they took the three top vote getters for men and women and involved them in workshop-based decisions on blue swimming crab management. “In the past, women have just followed their husbands and just processed the crabs and fish,” says Redjeki, with Ghofar translating from Javan. “Now they have more opportunities to empower their own livelihood and [well-being].”

Sri Redjeki (on left), of the University of Diponegoro in Central Java, assists blue swimming crab pickers in completing a survey as part of an effort to improve fisheries management. Photograph: Michael Abbey, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Sri Redjeki (on left), of the University of Diponegoro in Central Java, assists blue swimming crab pickers in completing a survey as part of an effort to improve fisheries management. Photograph: Michael Abbey, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Getting organized

One organization that has sprung up specifically to address the data gaps and issues faced by women in fisheries is Gender in Aquaculture and Fisheries (GAF). Supported by the Asian Fisheries Society, the group held its sixth global symposium—Engendering Security in Fisheries in Aquaculture—in August 2016, in Bangkok, Thailand. Although officially retired from research, Meryl Williams has been a leading force in establishing and planning these workshops. Women in fisheries is “still, unfortunately, a very small field,” says Williams, “but this [symposium] was our biggest ever,” noting that it was a substantial component of the host conference, the Eleventh Asian Fisheries and Aquaculture Forum. The Asian Fisheries Society, one of the host organizations for the meeting, is the first professional fisheries or aquaculture society to have created a gender section.

Further reading.

Branch TA, Kleiber D. 2015. Should we call them fishers or fishermen? Fish and Fisheries. doi:10.1111/faf.12130

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). 2015. Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries in the Context of Food Security and Poverty Eradication. FAO. (18 November 2016; www.fao.org/3/a-i4356e.pdf)

Gender in Aquaculture and Fisheries for the Asian Fisheries Society. (18 November 2016; https://genderaquafish.org)

Harper S, Zeller D, Hauzer M, Pauly D, Sumaila UR. 2012. Women and fisheries: Contribution to food security and local economies. Marine Policy 39: 56–63. doi:10.1016/j.marpol.2012.10.018

Kleiber D, Harris LM, Vincent ACJ. 2015. Gender and small-scale fisheries: A case for counting women and beyond. Fish and Fisheries 16: 547–562. doi:10.1111/faf.12075.

Williams has been interested in women in fisheries since the mid-1970s as one of the first female scientists with the Queensland Fisheries Services, where she worked with fisheries statistics. At that time, she “semi-jokingly” tried to work out how many women's fishing licenses there were. “The answer [informally] was 4 out of 1700,” she says, noting that the data were not well recorded. Fast-forward to the 1990s, and Williams began working in international fisheries development, becoming the director general of WorldFish, a position she held from 1994 to 2004.

In Mozambique, women are involved in many aspects of the crab fishery, including selling the catch at market, as is shown here in Montanha. Photograph: Alexis Rife, Environmental Defense Fund.

In Mozambique, women are involved in many aspects of the crab fishery, including selling the catch at market, as is shown here in Montanha. Photograph: Alexis Rife, Environmental Defense Fund.

Asked why it is important to understand the gender dimensions of fisheries, Williams explains that women make enormous contributions to fisheries and aquaculture supply chains that are almost unrecognized. “For anyone that is invisible, their interests, their needs, their opportunities are not addressed,” she says. For fisheries, but not yet for aquaculture, the only comprehensive but very rough estimate that has been made suggests that women make up nearly 50 percent of the total workforce. “How can you ignore half the workforce?” she asks.

Williams is frustrated by the lack of progress in the decades since she became aware of women's near invisibility in fisheries. But she is also optimistic about the future. The field has begun to attract more research, although a lack of funding means these research activities are often sideline projects of those engaged in more traditional fisheries work. As for policy advancements, Williams notes that the FAO's Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, which came out in 1995, did not address women or gender in any way. Nor, she says, did any of the related technical instruments and guidelines that followed. Nevertheless, Williams is heartened that gender was addressed in the FAO SSF Guidelines, with their implementation the subject of discussion at the 2016 Bangkok GAF meeting.

The world of women in fisheries is changing, and in places such as Ireland, Iceland, France, and Spain, it is not just small-scale fisheries in which women are involved. Although there are global patterns of women mainly gleaning and men mainly engaged in capture fisheries, researchers are revealing that women's involvement in fisheries is dynamic and diverse over space and time. By overlooking women's exploitation of marine resources, scientists, conservationists, and fisheries managers may significantly underestimate the total human pressure on marine ecosystems, say Kleiber and her team. But the implications of ignoring women's contribution to fisheries go beyond numbers and biodiversity to the well-being of human communities, too. Assuming that women do fish rather than assuming that they do not may engender a richer knowledge, enhanced food security, and a sustainable future for an entire planet dependent upon the sea.