“Can you lift it any higher, Jay?”
Jay was struggling to lift a very large ray out of the water so that I could take a picture. It was very beautiful, very heavy, and very dead. A wife and husband spearfishing team had come back with the GPS they had obligingly taken out with them, and my research assistants Jay and Aileen were there to measure the catch. As part of my research, I’ve been weighing and cataloguing the catches of local small-scale fishers to determine what they catch, who catches what, and what they eat versus what they sell. It’s part of a larger project that looks at gender roles in small-scale fisheries and their impact on food security and conservation.
One look at the ray and we all knew the 4000g electronic weighing scale, which usually does a fantastic job on small shells of all descriptions, would be woefully insufficient for this behemoth catch. Jay had first estimated the ray at 50 kg. When we finally did manage to weigh the fish, it was 37 kg and change. At 65 pesos a kilo this catch was still worth just under 2500 pesos — about US $55-60.
The fishers’ excitement about their catch was understated yet discernable. There was a brouhaha trying to find a big enough scale, and people were gathering around to take a look. One small boy even climbed on the ray’s back. I sat in the corner while the fisher woman recounted the story of pulling the ray into the boat.
The animal was what is known around here as a jackpot catch. Although 2500 may not seem like much, the other catches we measured in this community ranged in worth from 16-350 pesos ($0.40–$8).
I find the concept of ‘jackpot’ to be an interesting one, especially when it comes to fishing practices. I talked to my colleague Bernie about this after the ray had been measured and sold, and confirmed something that had been floating around in my brain: there is no jackpot in gleaning, only in offshore fishing.
Most studies detailing how people decide what fishing methods to use outline the risks and rewards, and like many things in life there is a tendency for those two things to be positively correlated, and (surprise, surprise) it also often plays into the gendering of particular fishing methods.
Dr. Rebecca Bleige Bird’s new research from fishing communities in Torres Strait, between Papua New Guinea and Australia, highlights this point. She discovered that offshore fishing was riskier, both in terms of the possibility of drowning and the chances of catching nothing, but people, mostly men, were drawn to it because there was always the chance of a big catch. And with a big catch comes big prestige.
On the other hand, Bleige Bird found that gleaning — which is done primarily by women and children and involves collecting shells, sea cucumber, octopus, and sometimes fish as they walk the shoreline — is the choice of people who need first and foremost to get food on the table. When food is scarce, you can’t take the risks associated with chasing the big catch.
Blige Bird detailed how, in Torres Strait, women are expected to put food on the table every day, and that leads them to choose gleaning. In my own research, we ask women why they don’t fish off shore in boat, and the answers we get usually mention the physical risks —drowning, exposure to the elements, seasickness, and so on.
As with most gendered activities (that is, activities that are associated with men or women but not both) there is a tension between expectations (men fish, women glean) and reality (men also glean, women also fish). It is this tension between the gender ideal and actual practice that I think presents the possibility of understanding how social change might occur.
So to recap I’ve somehow managed to connect a 37 kg spotted ray with social change and gender equality. I wonder what I’d do if someone caught one of these.