3. Women's social and economic role in the fisheries sector
"Women don 't fish; they just gather shells"
Women engage in many types of fishing in the various Pacific Islands cultures, from deep-sea fishing alongside men and community fishing to reef gleaning and freshwater trapping activities. Traditionally however, women are much more involved in fishing activities in shallow near-shore waters1 while men's fishing activities are focused on deep-sea areas.
In the western Pacific, women contribute to fisheries in many ways:
they collect fish and other marine resources on a daily basis1;
their fishing produces a high proportion of the daily protein intake of families;
their fisheries often provide family income;
they are often involved in marketing and processing fish catches;
they engage in gear mending and manufacture; and
they are crew or observers on fishing boats2.
Women are also employed in fisheries organisations, and are involved in fisheries research, education and training.
Unfortunately, most of these kinds of contributions have often been underestimated. Fisheries studies have focused often on men's fishing activities, and Pacific men have tended to ignore their womenfolk's work. Men's fishing is given higher social status and official support, fisheries divisions usually concentrate on training and projects for men, and emphasis on high technology and deep-sea fisheries excludes proper attention to inshore and subsistence fishing (where women are involved)1.
When the consultant asked Ni-Vanuatu about women's fishing, the response varied from curiosity (at the question) and 'mild disinterest' to enthusiasm. There appeared to be a general view that women don't (want to) fish, or that they do so only occasionally, or very often, or that it was a normal part of the woman's role as a provider so why should it be remarked upon. The women who gather fish and shellfish for home consumption did not clearly identify this activity as 'fishing': 'fishing' was done usually when selling was involved, and women selling fish is not so common in Vanuatu. Yet throughout Vanuatu women engage in many kinds of fishing, including 'men's fishing': Atchin, north Pentecost and north Efate women go in canoes to dropline or troll; Litslits women are good divers; Mere Lava women fish almost every day from their canoes. Probably as many women seldom fish.
The understanding of the word 'fishing' on a commercial or men-only basis is unfortunate, as it negates the role of subsistence fishing performed largely by women on the one hand and supports the concept of exploitation performed largely by men on the other. Indeed, as in other western Pacific nations, Ni-Vanuatu women are engaged in the three recognised forms (end-products) of fishing: subsistence, artisanal (or smallscale) and commercial. The preservation, marketing and distribution of fish catches also remains the responsibility of women.
In coastal areas of Vanuatu, women's main fishing activity is reef or mud-flat gleaning and collecting. This practice is mainly for subsistence, and the provision of fish food to households is largely (but not always) the preserve of women. Women also fish for reef fish with handlines (from shore or canoe) or with fishing rods of bamboo (where sloping foreshores or reefs do not exist). In some areas women and men use nets to catch shoals of small fish including 'mangrou' (Decapterus, Selar), 'picot' (Siganus), sardines and herrings (Clupeidae). Fishing is also carried out in freshwaters by damming or handlining.
Artisanal fishing is becoming more important in areas within travelling distance to large markets: often on Efate, women, girls and boys use handlines to catch small reef fish which are then fried and sold with laplap. On Efate octopus (nawita) is also targeted for sale with laplap, and very occasionally baskets of shellfish (kai - Anadara, chitons, turban shells; not giant clams, Tridacna) are sold. Aquatic resources from Malo Island are targeted for similar sale in Luganville (Santo). At both urban areas reef fish are also sold direct to stores (e.g. Natai, Au Bon Marche, Chinese stores). When men catch reef fish for market sale, women are almost always the sellers.
Fishing for commerce is engaged in at various levels. Whole communities often harvest sea cucumber, trochus, lobsters, mud crabs ('Caledonie crabs', Scylla), mangrove oysters, freshwater prawns, coconut crabs and mangrou (eastern Santo). Sometimes the harvest of lobsters, greensnail, trochus and sea cucumbers is restricted to men, and it is uncommon for women to engage in fishing beyond outer reefs (e.g. for drop-line fish ('poulet', Pristipomoides; 'loche', Epinephetus). Women may engage in processing sea cucumbers. In Vanuatu there is no fish processing facility, and the processing of drop-lined fish is the task of the fisher.
Despite women's contribution, there is no quantitative information on the amount of fish (for food security; family nutrition) provided by Ni-Vanuatu women to their own households, nor is there any information on the amount of fish sold at urban and rural markets. Information on fish harvesting in Vanuatu is limited to a few of the commercial fisheries. Women's participation in the fisheries sector is little acknowledged 'officially'. The priority of the planners is to see how much fish is exported or traded to restaurants, hotels and shops: it is not to see how much the fishing by women (or communities) contributed to the nation's economy through providing 'free' fish protein to families and thereby facilitating a healthier population.
The subsistence catch in Vanuatu in 1990 was estimated at more than 2,000 tonnes or more than four times the commercial catch, a comparative factor common to all nations in the western Pacific3. The few studies performed on women's fishing input in the western Pacific (such as in Fiji4, Western Samoa and Kiribati1) generally support claims to their high contribution to family nutrition. Tuara5 quotes Ram-Bidesi (1994) who estimated that subsistence fishing supports two-thirds of the western Pacific's population.
Harvesting and preparation of food for home consumption are the main activities performed by women in Vanuatu, and rural areas relies primarily on their subsistence sector to provide the daily food requirements. Social activities involving women in fishing range from two women fishing from a canoes, groups of women gathering shellfish and other invertebrates, and women participating in community fishing activities (e.g. coconut leaf sweep net).
In many Pacific Island nations the sale of surplus seafood is an established activity and the money earned is used to supplement the family income. This situation is also beginning to occur in Vanuatu, although many women still often harvest inshore fish solely for subsistence. Mangrou is a resource which is being increasingly targeted for sale as well as consumption - assisted by the ready availability of gillnets. The yield is eaten by the family and sold or given away within the community; or it is targeted by small-scale fishers and transported to urban centres with a small portion of the yield left for family consumption (this situation is more like that of commercial fishing).
In Vanuatu women are directly involved in commercial fishing activities by:
diving for trochus(some islands)
reef and mudflat gleaning and gathering trochus, sea cucumbers, mudcrabs and mangrove oysters
gathering land crabs
participating with husbands on commercial fishing trips (for 'poulet')
selling fish or fish products in markets
catching octopus to sell on laplap
netting mangrou fish and selling
·?catching freshwater natura for sale
working in the shell factories
processing (and buying) bêche-de-mer
catching coconut crabs and selling
repairing fishing gear
working at fish processing establishments (Santo & Vila Natai, supermarkets)
trapping lobsters for sale
working in shops that sell fishing gear
1 Matthews, E. (1993). Women and fishing in traditional Pacific Island cultures. pp. 29-33, in Workshop: People. society, and Pacific Islands fisheries development and management. SPC, technical document 5.
2 Tuara. P. N. (1995). The participation of women in fishertes in the.South Pacific. 4 pp. Paper presented at the SPC regional workshop on the role of women in fisheries development. Iloilo City Philippines, 17-21 July 1995.
3 Dalzell, P., T. Adams and N. Polunin (1995). Coastal fisheries of the South Pacific. Paper presented at the joint FFA/SPA Workshop on the Management of South Pacific Inshore Fisheries, SPC, Noumea, New Caledonia, 26 June-7 July 1995.
4 Matthews, E. (1995) (ed.). Fishing for answers. Women and fisheries in the Pacific Islands. Suva, Fiji: Women and Fisheries Network. 177 pp
5 Tuara, P. N. (1996). Women's fisheries development section: supporting women in fisheries. Paper presented at the South Pacific Commission Twenty-sixth Regional Technical Meeting on Fisheries. Noumea, New Caledonia. 5-9 August 1996. SPC/ Fisheries Information Paper 11. 5 pp.