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Study values women’s long-overlooked contribution to fisheries at $5.6b per year

A bucket of fish at a market in Labuan Bajo, Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

  • A new study attempts to quantify the number of women involved in small-scale fishing around the world and their economic contribution to a sector where policies have tended to overlook them in favor of men.
  • In Indonesia alone, women catch fish valued at an estimated quarter of a billion dollars a year, yet their work often goes unpaid and is socially or culturally considered to be their domestic duty.
  • The lack of formal recognition and support for these women dissuades them from identifying themselves as fishers, creating a circular loop perpetuating the myth that women don’t fish.
  • The authors of the study say there needs to be more targeted efforts by governments, particularly the Indonesian government, to count how many women are actually involved in fishing.

Your mental image of a fisherman is probably just that: a man. But women around the world are also key players in the fishing industry, catching fish on the open water, gleaning invertebrates from the coastal mudflats and sandy tidal zones, and processing and cooking fish once it is back on shore. Their contributions to small-scale fisheries typically go unnoticed.

“The idea that ‘women don’t fish’ is just not the case in many countries,” said Sarah Harper, a scientist at the University of British Columbia’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries. She led a study, published last month in PLOS ONE, which estimated the global participation rates of women in small-scale fishing, as well as the amount and economic value of fish and invertebrates they catch. It found that women around the world bring in about 2.9 million metric tons of fish, worth nearly $5.6 billion, each year.

Harper and her research partners combed through country-level data to compile their estimates. Their findings highlight the unsung importance of women to Indonesian fisheries, in particular: women across the country catch 169,000 metric tons of fish annually, valued at $253 million (in real 2010 dollars). This puts Indonesia first among Southeast Asian countries and ahead of all but a handful in the world. The estimates suggest that women are key players in the industry, and could be an even greater force with institutional support from the government.

The scope of small-scale fishing is, in itself, difficult to quantify because it is unstructured and unmonitored. And women’s contributions go unnoticed. “A lot of the [fishing] activities that women are participating in are unpaid, and are often socially or culturally considered to be their domestic duties,” Harper said.

Susan Herawati, of the Indonesia-based Coalition for Fisheries Justice (KIARA), has run into the same challenges: “There is no data in Indonesia. It is supposed to be the mandate of the government.” Herawati is KIARA’s secretary-general, a key player in an organization that advocates for fishers across Indonesia, with a focus on gender equality.

Fresh fish at a market in Labuan Bajo, Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

KIARA estimates that fisherwomen earn 48% of their families’ incomes through production (the catching and gathering of fish and other marine organisms, which Harper’s study focused on), and post-production, including preparation and selling of fish products. By KIARA’s calculations, this entire value chain involves 3.9 million women. But “policymakers think that fisherfolk are always the men,” said Herawati, who noted that there are no specific projects or programs administered by the Indonesian government for women to access fishing gear or insurance.

The lack of formal recognition and support for these women dissuades them from identifying themselves as fishers, creating a circular loop perpetuating the myth that women don’t fish. “Most of the fisherwomen are really shy,” said Herawati, who wasn’t involved in the study. “They don’t think that becoming fisherwomen is a [point of] pride.” KIARA’s advocacy and its continual efforts to create a support network among Indonesia’s fisherwomen is slowly changing that. For example, it started a campaign to help 31 women in Central Java province change their occupations on their official Indonesian ID cards from housewife — the default — to fisher. That process alone took nine months. Now those women have access to the benefits and government assistance available to men who fish.

Unsurprisingly, Harper and her fellow researchers had difficulty pinning down the participation rate of women in Indonesian fisheries. They estimated it to be about 10%, but cautioned in their paper that this value was highly uncertain. Herawati says she thinks it is a reasonable estimate. But when asked about Harper’s finding that women catch $253 million worth of fish annually, Herawati laughed: “I do believe it could be more than that. The thing is, we don’t have the correct data.”

Better support of fisherwomen could also help protect the environment they depend on. One question Harper says she wishes she could have answered is about the differences between how men and women fish. “If I was able to get to the level of knowing which different species are caught by men and women, that would make a big difference” to the accuracy of the fishing estimates presented in the paper, she told me. That information would also strengthen species- and habitat-protection efforts by enabling conservation groups to engage the right stakeholders.

 

A fishing village on the small island of Papagaran Besar, in Indonesia’s East Nusa Tenggara province. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

In North Sumatra province, for example, where women work catching shellfish in the mangroves, they are also heavily involved in ecotourism and mangrove conservation efforts. In Herawati’s experience, women’s involvement in conservation is a common theme across Indonesia. And fisherwomen are perfectly poised to make a difference. “They have a close binding with the ecosystem,” she said, and “they know exactly if there is something wrong … with the sea.”

Both Harper and Herawati say they feel strongly that there needs to be more targeted efforts by governments, particularly the Indonesian government, to count how many women are actually involved in fishing. These new statistics are meant to start a conversation, not end it: “People have a certain comfort level in being given a number and reacting to it rather than just coming up with the estimate themselves,” Harper said.

Whatever the precise number of women involved in fishing and dollar value of their economic impact is, it is clear that women are already important players in Indonesia’s fishing industry — and, with the right institutional recognition and support, there is huge potential for their participation rates and productivity to grow.

Banner: A bucket of fish at the market in Labuan Bajo.

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