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Women as a Source of Information on Inland Fisheries

"Casual observation indicates that women play an integral role in inland fisheries."

Fishery Development Centre
Department of Fisheries
Udorn Thani, Thailand

MRC Assessment of Mekong Fisheries Component
Udorn Thani, Thailand

This paper explores the constraints on the involvement of women as information providers despite the fact that women are very much involved in all aspects of inland fisheries. They have as much experience and local knowledge as the men although this experience is different as women are involved in slightly different activities and under different circumstances. This means that the information women provide often complements that provided by men. In some sectors, especially subsistence/family fishing, marketing/processing and nutrition/consumption, women often have more knowledge and information than men.

A complete picture of the fisheries sector must involve women in data collection to ensure that their experiences and viewpoints are taken into consideration. The task lies squarely with the planners and field staff who design and conduct surveys. Special attention for women is warranted as they are largely ignored in official statistics.


Fish is recognised as the major animal protein source for the majority of people in the Lower Mekong Basin (LMB). Rural people living in the LMB depend on rice as their staple food and fish and other aquatic resources as a sizable portion of their protein intake (Ahmed, et al., 1998). The high proportion of fish consumed has a historical base in the long development of agricultural-fishing societies in which rice and fish are the major foods. Fishing and farming are difficult to separate as rural people do not consider themselves to be 'fishermen' (or fisherwomen) yet depend heavily on fishing for their livelihoods.

Fishing related activities can be roughly divided into catch, culture and processing/selling. Catch activities are often assumed to be carried out mainly by men. In the case of marine capture fisheries, men form the majority of the labour force because marine fishing is heavily industrialized, is considered dangerous work and includes long periods where the fishers cannot return home to their families. In inland capture fisheries it is common to see women fishing or supporting their husbands' fishing activities. This includes actively helping to catch, process and market the fish caught. This is especially true for subsistence fisheries.

Role of inland fisheries

Inland fisheries habitats are characterized by an annual cyclic flood pulse that causes the river to flood low lying lands next to the river and after a number of months to retreat back into the main river channel. The fisheries have a distinct seasonality whereby a distinct river and floodplain component can be observed, depending upon the hydrological conditions. Environments vary from freshwater to full seawater according to flood and tidal conditions (Coates, 2002). The bulk of fishery activities in the LMB is at the subsistence/family level with the exception of certain fisheries in the Tonle Sap Lake, the Mekong Delta and some localized areas of the Mekong and its tributaries where large commercial fisheries can be found.

Women's involvement in fisheries

According to official statistics women's participation is low. However, little information about women is collected. And yet, the most casual observation indicates that women play an integral role in inland fisheries. Women are involved in different activities in different ways. Many women join their husbands in fishing or fish alone. Women are often in charge of children and the supply of food and all their tasks are geared to maintaining household members' quality of life. This means women are responsible for:

Finding food for the family. This is a common responsibility for women in rural areas. Women are usually in charge of maintaining the family protein food supply. Many studies on inland capture fisheries have shown that catch in the LMB is seasonal. Professional and part-time fishing activities have a peak in the flood season when the fishers target the migrating fish stocks. At the same time, studies have shown that women need to fish and collect other aquatic organisms all year round to provide family food on a daily basis. During the dry season when men go to work as hired labour, women stay behind to take care of the house and find food for the family. On a daily basis, women continue to gather snails, frogs and aquatic plants and fish in nearby habitats in the dry season when most commercial fishing operations are at a low level of activity.

Processing fish in times of abundant supply for family or sale is also a common activity for women. Men are rarely involved.

Selling products is one of the many activities that women perform well. Women have good experience in marketing and women traders often outnumber male vendors.

The knowledge available from men and women about the same habitat is often complementary.

Supporting a husband in fishing and mending, making or repairing fishing gear is a normal practice. Women face physical constraints when the men are using large sized gear or fishing far from home. Still, this does not keep women from supporting husbands or working as crew on a fishing boat. In rural areas, it is quite usual to see women and men side-by-side fishing or mending gear.

Inland fisheries information

Inland fisheries information is needed for assessment, planning and management purposes and many approaches have been developed to collect data and assess fisheries production. There are two main sources for fisheries information:

1) Biological surveys to provide information in relation to biology and ecology of fish species, environment, etc. and

2) Socio-economic surveys that provide the bulk of statistics and information from very general descriptions to complex data on the relationships of communities, their activity patterns, livelihood strategies and their resource use in relation to the fisheries environment.

These two types of survey are translated into common approaches used for gathering fisheries related data and information. The biological survey is required to understand the ecosystem. These surveys are usually conducted in localized areas on species occurrence, trophic relationships and growth and interactions with surrounding habitats. A complementary approach would be to supplement these surveys with Local Ecological Knowledge provided by resource users. The biological information needs to be supplemented with information on the people component: fishing operations, processing/marketing, involvement, food security issues and alternative livelihood strategies.

The study on the Status and Perspective of Fisheries in the Lower Mekong Basin by the Mekong River Commission (Sverdrup-Jensen, 2002) recognizes that the techniques used for the surveys does not provide accurate information on the actual situation. The methodologies used leave much to be desired. The main problem is exclusion of the single most important group in inland fisheries - those involved in subsistence/family fishing. Moreover, the surveys normally do not consider gender aspects. This results in missing essential data on the state of the fisheries and resource use.

What fisheries information can women provide?

In a traditional rural lifestyle, men and women work together in the fields but perhaps in different areas performing different tasks. Women often support activities that are considered 'male' activities and even may be the leader for some work. Men generally engage only in income generating activities while women will do both income and non-income generating activities. Women can have as much, or more, local knowledge on certain aspects of fisheries, fishing habitats and related information than men. They may fish in the same habitats but they may select different places or periods and use different gear. These differences stem from a number of factors.

Differences in the physical abilities of men and women lead to differential fishing times and habitats. Night fishing and fishing in places with strong currents is normally done by men.

Responsibility for housework, childcare and reproductive activities limit women to go fishing in certain places but allows them to go fishing near the house. Men are less restricted in the distance they can travel to a fishing ground and the length of time they can stay away from home.

Access to training in new technology restricts women to low-tech or 'no-tech' fishing techniques (Kusakabe and Kelkar, 2001).

Table 1 shows womens' participation in surveys and their value as information providers or logbook recorders during a 1996-2000 study. There were two different survey types; socio-economic aspects of fisheries (baseline surveys) and biological surveys supplemented with Local Ecological Knowledge (LEK). Data gathered during biological/LEK surveys on fish migration in the Songkhram tributaries found that women provided good quality information about fish behaviour and fishing. For the socio-economic baseline surveys, no data on the quality of the interviews was gathered but the general impression by the enumerators was that women could provide excellent information, especially on women's roles and knowledge in fishing, consumption, food processing and marketing.

Table 1: Percentage of women providing fisheries information in different surveys and study areas in the LMB during 1996-2000

Survey Area



% total


% total









unspecified gave no species details

Most data collectors were men







average to good

An effort was made by Thailand to identify expert women fishers

Table 2 illustrates that experience in fishing for men and women is not much different. How women convey their experiences is different from men and this should be kept in mind when collecting information. Data collectors must be sensitive to local traditional and customs.

Table 2: Comparison of experience in fishing between men and women (years)

Group of fisher

Average age

Average experience







Source: Database of Fish Migration and Spawning in the Songkhram Tributary, NE Thailand

Data collectors should make a special effort to select women to provide information on fishing activities. The low number of women providing information on fisheries does not mean that women are not involved or have no skill and knowledge but that data collectors should be better trained to include women.

Gender: The key to more complete fisheries information

Riddle (2000) indicates that there are at least four main types of gender differences in acquiring local knowledge or traditional ecological knowledge:

In addition to gender, age is also important. Both old and young can have a good understanding of their environment and of different fishing activities. In surveys, an attempt should be made to include women and children because children can have an excellent knowledge of the immediate environment. The habitats where children go and the animals and plants they collect may be quite different from adults of either gender. The information may not be of interest to 'real' fishers, but it makes an important contribution to the food a household consumes. For example, there are many kinds of small fishing gear used by women and children such as hand-gathering, scoop nets and scoop baskets (Gordon, et al. 1997).

Taking gender into consideration provides better fisheries information for the whole year. For inland capture fisheries, many men fish only as a part-time or seasonal occupation. The data gathered from many studies in different areas in the LMB show a peak catch period that occurs in the rainy or flood season. Women often catch and collect fish and aquatic animals all year round due to their responsibilities for the food security of the family. Because women have a more 'continuous' experience, their information is essential for building a more complete and accurate picture of the inland fisheries.

Knowledge available from men and women about the same habitat is often complementary. Women often seem to have better knowledge about the smaller non-commercial species and about juveniles as these may be a valuable food supply. This is often ignored by male fishers who target larger species and adult fish. Since use of different gear affects the species caught, catch data from both women and men can complement each other since women use different fishing gear and fishing methods.

Gaining access to women's knowledge

Interviewers and survey staff need an understanding of gender as one of many requirements for obtaining local knowledge.

Techniques used to involve women need to be fine-tuned to allow women to encourage women to participate. The role of women is still considered to be merely supportive to the activities of the men. This misconception limits women's participation.

Timing is essential. Women have many burdens and 'a woman's work is never done'.

Suitable times and places must be selected to allow for maximum involvement. It is important that both male and female staff are employed to conduct surveys. Female respondents often feel more comfortable talking to women interviewers.


Ahmed, M., Navy, H., Vuthy, L and Tiongco, M. 1998. Socio-economic Assessment of Freshwater Capture Fisheries of Cambodia, Report on a Household Survey. Mekong River Commission.

Kusakabe, Kyoko and Govind Kelkar (Ed) (2001) Gender concerns in aquaculture in Southeast Asia, Gender Studies Monograph 12, Gender and Development Studies, Asian Institute of Technology, Thailand.

Sverdrup-Jensen, S. 2002. Fisheries in the Lower Mekong basin: Status and Perspectives, MRC Technical Paper No. 6. 95 pp.

Suntornratana U. 2001. Fishing and Aquaculture in Thailand. Gender Concern in Aquaculture in Southeast Asia. Gender Studies Monograph 12. Gender and Development studies, School of Environment Resources and Development, Asian Institute of technology, Bangkok, Thailand.

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