Sifting for stars

By Danika Kleiber

Kids gleaning.  Photo: Danika Kleiber/Project Seahorse

Kids gleaning. Photo: Danika Kleiber/Project Seahorse

I watched the boy comb the stubbly seaweed with his fingers. Absurdly I thought of a gold prospector sifting sand for nuggets. He was crouched in the intertidal flats at low tide, where the water was just high enough to cover his toes. I then noticed that there were others crouched next to him and they were all using the same careful sweeping and sifting motions. I knew they were gleaning but this wasn’t a type of gleaning I’d see before. I had just put a GPS unit on a volunteer and she was walking around the tidal flat with slow hunched purpose. This boy, and what I assumed to be his family, were motionless apart from their arms and hands. Sifting, sifting, searching.

I walked over slowly and peeked into the small plastic container the boy was using to put his catch in. I was expecting shells, but instead I saw stars. What seemed like hundreds of tiny little sea stars. It was strangely beautiful to see them clumped up like that but also a little alarming. I turned to Jay and asked what they were going to do with them. My mind ran with visions of sea star stew, which didn’t seem likely or appetizing. Jay explained that they would be dried and made into earrings. That made a lot more sense. Not food then, instead they were gleaning for curios.

Curio is that strange ‘other’ category in the trade of marine animals. I remember learning about it when I was editing seahorse trade papers. Most seahorses are used for traditional Chinese medicine, but a significant amount are also used to lend a bit of interest to a yo-yo or a keychain or even a toilet seat. Like seahorses, these sea stars are a beautiful shape and I could imagine how they would appeal as a pair of earrings. But it made me reflect how as a western consumer I am so often cut off from the chain of production. Next time I see a curio in a shop I’m sure I will imagine this little boy and his family sifting the seashore.

The shell game

By Danika Kleiber

Ate Elac, the caretaker of Project Seahorse's fieldhouse in Suba (an island off the coast of Bohol Province, Philippines, where I'm doing my research) had agreed to teach me how to glean. Unfortunately the tide wasn’t low enough, so we combed the beach for discarded shells.  We came across a conical bivalve shell, and Ate Elac picked it up and said, in careful and clear tones, “In Visayan [the local dialect] we call this shell bangunon." Next was a spiky bivalve: “We call this shell tikod tikod.” We went on to examine 16 different shells each named by Ate Elac in the Visayan dialect. My favorite was the kasing kasing, or "heart shell": a white bivalve shell that resembles the shape of a human heart.

In Visayan you will often hear words doubled, and the naming of shells is no exception. The repetition often conveys that the object is a smaller version of the singular version. For example, on the island of Calituban, which is known for its gleaning areas, you would find large litob shells, but in Suba where Ate Elac lives you find the smaller litob litob.  As Ate Elac named off more shells my mind played with this linguistic rule.  If “fishing” was what people used to do here, did the depleted marine resources and meager catch now make a more accurate name for this activity “fishing fishing”?

Most of the shells we found on the beach had come from other islands.  “This is not a good area for gleaning, not now,” Ate Elac explained. I asked her why there were fewer shells to be found today.  “More gleaners,” was her reply. I had heard this explanation before. There are simply more people in these communities every year. When I visit communities and examine the census sheets found in every health centre, the number always increase from year to year. 

Before I could ask about the population increase in Suba, Ate Elac went on to explain that the increase in gleaners was due to the collapse of the fisheries in 2000. Fishing was no longer sufficient to feed families, so men were increasingly gleaning to fill the gap.  And then something clicked in my mind. In almost every community we had visited, officials explained that for the most part women gleaned, while men fished and gleaned.  Not only have we overlooked women’s participation in marine resource extraction, we may have also missed a key method men have used and maybe increasingly using.

This is the great thing about gender research. It takes the radical step of including women, but it also often tells us a lot more about what men are doing too.

Beautiful, beautiful data

By Danika Kleiber

I have data. This makes me ecstatic, and like any excited child I need to show off my presents before I start playing with them.

First is the GPS data. This is really, really cool. As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post, my research focuses on the role of women in fisheries in the central Philippines. Gleaning is one of the main fishing activities for women in the coastal and island communities of Bohol Province, where I’m based. They walk in the shallows, collecting shells, sea cucumbers, octopuses, and sometimes even fish.   

We’re asking gleaners to wear GPS units as they do this.  This way we can track how much time they spend, and how far they go. Similar data has been collected for other fishing methods, but this is the first spatial data on gleaning in these communities that I know of. Below is a track of one gleaner in the community of Suba. The map is blurry, but you can see the route she takes. And that's just one hour’s worth of gleaning!

When the gleaner returned we also measured her catch so we can get fairly precise measurements to calculate catch per unit effort (or CPUE for those fisheries lingo folks).  She caught 29 shells and four itsy bitsy crabs, so one calculation of her CPUE would be 33 animals/hour. Of course you can do more with shells than just count them.  The average size of the shells may vary from community to community, so it’s also important to weigh each item.  In this case the CPUE using weight as a measure of catch was 310.5g/hour. 

We don’t have to stop there.  We can make it even more complicated — I mean, accurate!  Shells vary from species to species in how much shell they have to protect the animal inside.  The shell species found in different communities vary likely due to differences in ecological features of their intertidal areas. Total weight of shells from Jandayan Sur, one of the research sites, may not produce as much food as an equivalent shell weight from the island of Cataban, for example.  Therefore we need to directly measure meat weight, and this is where things get tricky.

Gleaners who bring us their catch wouldn’t thank us if we started smashing their hard earned catch to measure the meat weight.  To get around this we’ve been buying shells that we can smash with impunity. We take length measurements, total shell weight measurements, and then after a little smashing, meat weight measurements.  From this we can plot the relationship between total weight and meat weight like so:

Look at that beautiful positive linear relationship!  Using the equation that best fits the data I can estimate the meat weight for every aninikad (a very commonly encountered species of mollusk) I weigh.  The best part about this type of data collection is we get to eat the results.

I love gathering these numbers and I look forward to the stories they will tell about food security and gender dynamics, but there is another type of data we’re also collecting.  The beauty of working in human systems is that you can ask direct questions. I have to contend with the communication static inherent in working in a language and culture that are not my own, but the human explanations will complement and complicate the story the numbers will tell (and this is why interdisciplinary work is so freaking cool).

The most colorful answers come from questions regarding gender roles and fishing activities. My research assistants ask the respondents who is responsible for fishing and who is responsible for gleaning.  For the most part the response is that men fish and women glean (although this is clearly not a hard and fast rule, as women do fish and men do glean).  Then they get to ask why, and this is where things get really interesting. 

Often the answer has to do with women’s domestic roles precluding fishing activities, or women’s fear of waves and water.  But hands down my favorite answer came from a woman who declared to my research assistant Jay that “women can’t fish, because when they dive, their butt floats.” I snorted into my squid adobo when I heard this, and imagined what the pearl divers of Japan (almost entirely female), and the spear fishers of Fiji (many of whom are female) would say in reply!

Danika Kleiber is a PhD student with Project Seahorse.