How the other half fishes

By Danika Kleiber


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.