More Than Selling Seashells: The Unsung Role of Women in Fisheries

Most of the world’s aquaculture workforce is made up of women. Photo credit: ADB
Most of the world’s aquaculture workforce is made up of women. Photo credit: ADB

By Anna Oposa, Deborah Robertson, Zonibel Woods

Seventy percent of the aquaculture workforce worldwide is female, with women playing key roles in fishing, processing, and marketing. Yet they do not reap the full benefits of their efforts.

“She sells seashells by the seashore.” The tongue-twister we learned as children carries truth about the role of many women in fisheries around the world.  Social and cultural norms limit women’s participation in fisheries in many ways, from traditional roles as household managers and primary caregivers increasing the likelihood of women working closer to home and having less time for income-generating activities, to cultural taboos that prevent women from going out on boats or learning how to swim.

In coastal areas, women are often found catching fish and picking shellfish at low tide, or mending nets and processing and marketing catches, while men are out fishing in the open seas. Globally, 70% of the aquaculture workforce is actually female, playing key roles in fishing, processing, and marketing. In the Pacific alone, women account for 56% of annual small-scale catches, contributing $110 million in revenue.

Women fill many roles in fisheries. They are decision-makers, scientists, and community leaders. Research on gender and oceans is relatively new; there is limited gender-specific data on fishing activities.  Despite women’s significant labor and economic contribution, statistics focus on male dominated activities and not on processing and marketing, where most women in the fisheries sector work.

The paucity of sex-disaggregated data and lack of gender analysis of the role of women in the fisheries sector, as well as how “fishing” is generally narrowly defined, automatically removes women from the narrative. The absence of women results in a substantial “[under-estimation] of fishing pressure and an under-valuation of the economic and societal benefits that women in fisheries provide.”  By not counting women in the fisheries sector, the impact and potential and important contribution of a large proportion of the workforce is being ignored. Given estimates that by 2048 there will be no commercially exploitable fish stocks remaining in Asia and the Pacific, it is important that fisheries management decisions are based on information that reflects the role that women play in the sector.

The integration, value, and empowerment of women in fisheries and ocean resource management is not an option – no management scheme, law, or conservation program can reflect reality without women’s full and meaningful participation. But further than this, studies around the world show that there is a higher chance for conservation success when women are involved. Women not only raise concerns and issues that men may not see, but also play a vital role in increasing compliance to policies.

Recognizing women’s role in fisheries will be key to saving our oceans.

In Sri Lanka, more than 7,000 women across 1,500 poor coastal villages were trained to plant and protect mangrove saplings in areas where mangrove forests are highly threatened. In exchange for their work, the women become part of a community beneficiary organization and are given access to small loans at low interest to start their own businesses for alternative sustainable livelihoods. As a result, these women no longer cut down mangroves for firewood and in fact they report those who are caught doing so. Their skills have diversified, ranging from fishing to processing and marketing their products and establishing home-based edible gardens.

In 2014, the six countries of the Coral Triangle Region (Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste) launched the Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries, and Food Security (CTI-CFF) Women Leaders’ Forum to highlight the role of women leaders in protecting and sustaining the world’s epicenter of marine biodiversity. ADB supported a small-grants program to help community-based female conservation leaders in the initiative. Their work ranged from awareness-raising activities among fishermen, to mangrove rehabilitation and the protection of coral reefs and encouragement of local law enforcers to pursue cases against those who use dynamite fishing and other unsustainable fishing methods.

 Recognizing women’s role in fisheries will be key to saving our oceans from further environmental degradation. Marine biologist and explorer Dr. Sylvia Earle has said: “Fifty years into the future, it will be too late to do what is possible right now. We must all work together – women and men – to explore and care for the ocean as if our very lives depend on it, because they do.” So, what is possible right now?

  • Expanding our understanding on gender and fisheries by examining gender relationships, collecting sex-disaggregated data and identifying opportunities to address existing inequalities.
  • Ensuring that opportunities created by the momentum behind initiatives such as ADB’s recently launched Action Plan for Healthy Oceans provide women with access to services and resources, support their participation in decision making and strengthen their resilience to climate change. 
  • Valuing and promoting women’s contributions to fisheries and coastal management, by recognizing women’s knowledge, investing in labor-saving technologies for women, such as in processing and marketing, and training women in the sustainable management of coastal areas. 

Women’s movements around the world say that “the future is female.” The present -- and future -- of fisheries is female too.