Behold, my map. Each of those red dots represents data on women participating in fishing. It’s a work in progress, but I think it’s already pretty darn fascinating. The data comes from a variety of sources, and for the purposes of this map at least I’m not that picky. Government statistics, ethnographies, personal communications, grey lit, peer-reviewed lit, books — everything! I’ve found papers on everything from inland river fishers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to shell-gatherers in Papua New Guinea, to salmon fishers in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. Some references are rather dated (a 1930 ethnographic study of Samoa is the current reigning champion), and some represent places where women used to fish, but no longer do so (such as the Greenland communities Dahl researched in the late 90’s).
I don’t pick favorites, but I have to say, I love government statistics. Finding a 1998 report from Mexico that broke down fishing participation by gender made my day (with special thanks to my friend Lindsay for translating the table for me). European Commission reports (2002), you also have my respect. Even if you did leave out the shell-gathers, you had the grace to admit it.
However, mostly what I find is purely descriptive data. From short one-line descriptions such as “women are known to glean in the shallows,” to rich ethnographies detailing the diversity of fishing methods used, I enjoy these even as I find them somewhat frustrating. Yes, I want meaningful cultural context, but I also want numbers! That’s the thing about policymakers, it’s not enough to know that women fish. They want details like, How many women fish? How much do they catch, what type of species do they catch and are they catching too much? For that perfect mix of quantitative and qualitative data I’ve had the best luck with human ecology, nutrition, and other interdisciplinary studies.
My global review has also inspired me to make a list of all the words for “gleaning.” Gleaning is the type of fishing I’m most interested in, because it’s the least studied, and the one most often practiced by women. It is the practice of gathering shells, sea cucumber, octopus, and sometimes even fish from coastal shallows. Here are some of the other words for it: groping, gathering, collecting, plucking, harvesting or hunting. Or if you prefer a more international flair, try panginhas (Cebuano), or fangota or alaala (Tongan). I was particularly struck by this sentence by Carrier in 1982 used to describe gleaning in Papua New Guinea: “It has no name, but if you ask a Ponam he will say mat which means ‘reef’ and covers all sorts of gathering, plucking and harvesting of sea creatures, usually by women and always during the day” [emphasis mine]. Poor no-name gleaning.
The thing I like best about this map is the fact that it tends to promote its own growth. Over the last six months I’ve given lots of talks, and this map always features in the introduction. It’s a quick and dirty way to demonstrate that women’s fishing is not a geographically isolated event, it’s a global phenomenon. The interesting thing is that this map is the thing people tend to remember and want to talk to me about. And mostly the conversation is about how I’m missing some data points. A woman from Bolivia told me the women fish while the men farm, and a teacher from Columbia told me she’s seen women gleaning along the seashore. I love getting this information. In fact, if anyone out there knows of any more red dots I should add to my map, drop me a line, I’d love to hear from you.