gender roles

My map

By Danika Kleiber

Project Seahorse PhD student Danika Kleiber is studying the intersection of gender, fisheries, and food security. For an introduction to her work, read her first post from the field. You can also visit an archive of her posts.

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.

What does and doesn't constitute fishing

By Danika Kleiber

I’m really excited about this:

I know what you’re thinking. It’s just a freaking pie chart, what’s the big deal?  Well, my friends, this pie chart represents 600 interviews of people in 12 communities in Danajon Bank, Philippines. 

But of course in the end it’s not the amount of effort I’ve put into the data gathering that matters, it’s what this pie chart means that really counts. And to get to that I need to first explain where the numbers come from.

Methods:

My intrepid research assistants interviewed 300 women and 300 men about their fishing habits.  We asked them to tell us things like their typical catch volume, how often they went out per week, and how much time they spent fishing during each trip.  From this I can calculate a number of things, but in this case I calculated weekly catch volume.  I then add up everything women catch, and then everything men catch, pop it into a pie chart and VOILA! I should mention for the die hard methods people out there that the respondents were randomly selected, and we found the proportion of women and men participating in fishing activities were very similar (83% of women and 85% of men) so using equal number of interviews was appropriate. 

This pie shows that women, who according to most people in the Philippines, don’t fish, still magically manage to be responsible for 1 out of every 3 kilograms of marine life that gets extracted from the ocean. Now, I realize that I’m biased, and that my judgement is only further blinkered by several weeks worth of data entry (I’ve been dreaming in numbers), but please believe me when I tell you that this is kind of a big deal.  Women fish.  And it makes up one third of the catch volume.  Booya!

The next thing you should do is doubt my data.  How could women possibly be catching all that if they don’t fish?  The answer has to do with semantics. (Aside: about a decade ago I had a long conversation with my college math professor about why feminist researchers make such a big deal about semantics. So, Christopher, 10 years later, here is my example:)

It has to do with how we define the words “fishing” and “fisher.”  Most of the time when people quantify community fishing activities they only talk to people who self-identify as fishers. In many ways this seems to make sense, but in reality can wreak havoc with the data because there is a big difference between the number of people who call themselves fishers (and define their activities as fishing), and the number of people who extract animals from the ocean.  And the difference is largely made up of women.

(Note: this argument is based on the scale of data collection.  If you are focused on only one fisheries then it makes sense to focus on only those that participate. I’m talking about research that scales up to the community, region, or international level.)

Women, for a variety of cultural and social reasons, rarely describe themselves as fishers.  And furthermore the extractive activity that women predominately participate in — gleaning — is rarely considered a form of fishing.  So a woman in a boat lifting a net?  She’s not really fishing, she’s just helping her husband. A woman walking around the intertidal area with a huge bucket and a machete? She’s just gleaning.  

You can see why I wouldn’t take this assessment at face value.  So for the purposes of my research I defined fishing as what people did, rather than how they defined that activity. Gleaning extracts animals from the ocean and is therefore fishing.  “I’m just helping my husband” shares all the characteristics of fishing, so it too is counted as fishing.  

And what do you get?  A delicious data pie.

Fishing the jackpot

By Danika Kleiber

Project Seahorse PhD student Danika Kleiber is studying the intersection of gender, fisheries, and food security in Bohol Province, Philippines. For an introduction to her work, read her first post from the field. You can also visit an archive of her posts.

“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.

Food security in Batasan

By Danika Kleiber

Today I’m visiting Batasan, a tiny island on Danajon Bank, Philippines, where I hope to find a site for my doctoral research into the role of gender in small-scale fisheries. Leading the way are Marivic Pajaro and Eli Guieb, Project Seahorse alums who did their own doctoral work in the area. I’m hoping that by having Eli and Marivic introduce me to the community here, I’ll be considered cool by association!

Batasan is a small and very densely populated island. The houses line a single street stretching down the middle of the oblong island. The last time Eli and Marivic visited Batasan was six years ago, when they were doing research for their own PhDs, and if the joyful greetings of the community members is anything to go by, they were well liked. 

At every house Eli and Marivic catch up with old friends. My grasp of Cebuano, the local language, is still rudimentary, but I practice catching certain words and phrase structures. I realize from these conversations that time is mostly measured in the growth of children. Babies have become little people, and little people have become bigger people. Eli tells me that there are many new houses and more people since the last time he was here.  

We have a particularly long conversation with Jerry, a local fisher whom PhD students often hire for his skills as a researcher assistant. Jerry reminds us that there have also been less pleasant changes. There are fewer fish. He tells the story of a fisher spending an entire day fishing and only finding a single crab. 

With more mouths to feed and marine resources declining, I can’t help but wonder how the people of Batasan will meet their dietary need for protein in the future. Batasan has an old and well-respected marine protected area (MPA), but by itself it cannot sustain the food needs of this growing community. We touched on this problem during the Marine Protected Areas workshop hosted by Project Seahorse in late June: Small community MPAs are undoubtedly effective at many levels, but they can’t be the only answer. 

Danika Kleiber is a PhD student with Project Seahorse.

How the other half fishes

By Danika Kleiber

danika_intro-blog_gleaning.jpg

It was the last week of interviews. My research assistant Kristina and I had spent the last month asking residents of a small coastal community in the central Philippines about how, what, where and why they fish.  People had obligingly answered and I had a binder full of data sheets to show for our efforts.  I was feeling rather smug.  From the interviews I now knew what I had previously only been allowed to suspect: women fished.  I just hadn’t seen it yet.

Before I left for the Philippines, I had received plenty of looks of polite bafflement when I explained that I was going to research gender and small-scale fishing practices. The idea of women fishing had not occurred to most people. This sentiment was also echoed in the Philippines.  “Women don’t fish,” a local official told me.  But every woman I spoke with admitted to taking wild animals from the ocean.  If that isn’t fishing, then what is it? 

After a long day of interviews Kristina and I decided to walk home along the seashore.  As we rounded a corner I saw a woman wading up to her shins in the tidal flats.  In one hand she carried a knife, and in the other she had half a plastic coke bottle.  She walked in gentle zig-zags with her focus on the water below.  She would periodically stoop down, and reach for something with her hands.  There was no boat, no net, no hook and line, and yet this woman was fishing. This is what I’d been waiting to see.

The fishing this woman was doing is called gleaning. From the readings I had done to prepare for my research I knew gleaning is a method of marine resource extraction used throughout the world.  It is a form of fishing that requires little equipment and women, men and children all participate in it.  As people walk in the shallows they collect shells, sea cucumber, octopus, and sometimes even fish.  And yet gleaners are rarely considered ‘fishers’, even by themselves.  They are not counted in official statistics on fishing, and biologists seldom research the population dynamics of the animals they collect.   

I didn’t ask this woman any questions, but from the data I had collected in my interviews I could make a few good guesses about her.  She was probably gathering shells and small crabs to feed her family that night.  It was also likely that over her lifetime she has witnessed the same decline in catch abundance that has been mentioned by male fishers in this area who dive and fish offshore in boats.  She probably has to walk farther and search longer for the dwindling resources that she and her family rely upon for food. 

If we don’t consider the impact that gleaning can have on the marine ecosystem, and we don’t understand the importance of women’s fishing to family food security, we are missing half of the information we need to manage marine resources and biodiversity.  As we work with these communities to protect marine biodiversity and ensure food security for future generations, we need to understand the full demand that humans are making on their marine ecosystem.   We need to count this woman because without her successful marine conservation won’t be possible.