Fisheries in Turmoil: A Feminist Perspective

Forum for Discussion
In this issue of Samyukta we foreground the problems of fishworkers in the
context of globalisation.

‘Without women in fisheries, no fish in the sea’ was the conclusion of an International Workshop of Women who were either from, or working closely with, fishing communities. Fisheries has come to be considered a realm of men as they have been the fishers for a sufficiently long period of time, with women only exceptionally putting to sea for fish capture unless in the estuarine areas or as a helping hand to their men.

Fisheries, like all other sectors of primary production, has grown to become an extremely modern industry, not only technically, but also in the manner in which it is organized. Although in most parts of the southern world there still exists a large artisanal fishing sector with thousands of people reaping a livelihood from the open access fishery, in the countries of the north it is a highly sophisticated industry, with fishers registered as professionals possessing limited access to the fishery. Access depends on the management regimes of the various countries where quota allotments are made to those fishers who are lucky to obtain them or those who can pay for them.

Despite the fact that fisheries are ‘managed’ in the northern world, when one takes a look at what has happened to the oceans and the fisheries of the world today, the existing scenario is not only disturbing, it also indicates an intrinsic madness in the model development that has been pursued. While announcing the Year of the Ocean in January 1998, more than 1500 marine scientists from across the globe issued a joint statement entitled ‘Troubled Waters’ identifying many of the key issues underlying the current global fisheries crisis. It is striking to examine some of the facts.

Some facts

Eleven of the world’s 15 most important fishing areas and 60 percent of the major fish species are in decline. Although world fish output reached an all time high in 1997, the era of rapidly expanding marine catches ended over two decades ago. It is claimed that between 1950 and 1996, world fish production increased dramatically from 21 to 120 million tonnes. But this steady climb was due to the boom in aquaculture. Marine production reached a plateau of around 90 million tonnes in the 80s. Although an estimated 40 percent of the world’s fish stock are not yet in danger of collapse, no area of the fisheries remain untouched or stable. Why is this so and what had been the process that led to this imbalance?

For those who are new to the area of fisheries and for that matter to the understanding of natural resources, one should explain that fish is a natural ocean resource more bountiful in coastal waters than in the deep sea. It is an extremely multi-specied resource, each species having its own areas of habitation, be it in the temperate or tropical waters, at the sea bottom or at the water surface. Significantly, most of the species, at some point in their life cycles, enter the shallow waters, the estuaries or creeks, and even the less saline waters, and are under threat when these passages are obstructed. An estimated 80-90 percent of the global commercial catch is hauled into boats within 300 km, off the shoreline. One other important characteristic is that the fish species in temperate waters are fewer but in larger quantities whereas the species in the tropical waters are numerous but in smaller quantities. While the above is simplification of the fishery, it is important to understand the issues in depth.

Humans have been using this ocean resources from time immemorial. Coastal communities invented their own ingenious ways of capturing this resource, employing both the elements of hunting in the deeper waters, and gathering in the shallow areas. The gatherers were mostly women as is still seen in the island nations while men have been the hunters. Nevertheless, fishing was probably never seen as the exclusive activity which it later became, and even when it did, the activities of pre-harvest, harvest and post-harvest were closely related and shared among men and women in a complementary manner. It was indeed a way of life. What remain of this division of labour today in many of the developing southern countries is that while men fish, women take care of the processing and distribution of the fish. Despite being artisanal, the fishing and processing skill are at the same time advanced in that they are economically viable and recognise the timely change of season, the fish and food chain and the use of multiple gear to target specific species.

These skills have been developed over long years and handed down from one generation to the next. Its methods have stood the test of time. This kind of a fishery was sustained over many centuries. Gradually, this system succumbed under duress in many parts of the world, spurred on by urge to expand and dominate the oceans and finally, by the inventions of the industrial revolution that brought new dimensions to the fishing technology. With technology gaining importance not only did they displace people’s skills but the life cycle of the natural resources also remained unheeded with the illusion that the resource was infinite.

The Modernisation Bug

Modern fishing industry is dysfunctional as it is over-capitalised and held afloat by state subsidies. This phenomenon has its roots in the uninhibited growth and rapid modernisation in the industry over the past 50 years. Neocolonial policies after World War II gave spurt to the development of an industry that converted warships into fishing boats. Other technologies that were developed for war, like electronic navigation systems and sonars were adapted for commercial fishing and the era of large- scale capital intensive fisheries commenced. By the early 50s, European shipyards began to build factory trawlers with a catch capacity of above 500 tonnes of fish a day. These vessels were fitted with freezing and processing facilities. Fish was no longer required to be landed on shore and this threw all women workers out of their jobs. As there were no laws governing the movement of these vessels, they were free to go wherever they wanted and fish the sea empty. This led to exploitative trade practices, increased fishing effort and was motivated by the false perception that production could be increased indefinitely with maximisation of profit as the main objective, at the cost of fish as food for local consumption and employment of women and the weaker fishermen. These trends were supported by state policies that legitimized and even subsidized them to a large extent.

In these transformation processes, there were changes in community life and the division of labour between men and women. In areas where export agents took over the catches, women lost access to fish for sale and were turned into wage labourers to sort and dry fish for the exporters. In cases where new technology for higher productivity was introduced, the landings initially grew in size and could not be handled by women merchants who were ill equipped or who did not have the liquid money to purchase fish in bulk. No state funds were ever made available to help women enhance their activity. The only exceptions where women in the artisanal fishery on their own managed to retain their prominence in the post-harvest activity are in some African countries and the fish mummies of Ghana and they will go down in history for this. In cases where women were engaged in net weaving, the new net machines drove the women out of work. In other cases women went to work as migrant contract workers in the modern fish processing plants and when fisheries began to be considered a professional activity, they were relegated to the household. The labour they continued to provide to keep their husbands at sea and even their role in the ‘management’ of the craft, was unrecognized and passed off as free labour. Women began to be considered as ‘wives of fishermen’.

The contradictions 

The major contradiction in today’s fishery is that there are too few fishermen catching too many fish, not the other way around as it is made out to be. The dichotomy between the north and the south is characterised by an inflow of people into fisheries in the latter countries and an unemployment crisis in fishing communities in the former. During the 70s and 80s, the gross registered tonnage of the world’s fleet increased by 90 percent while the technical capacities of the fleet as a whole increased more than three times. This meant a dramatic increase in fishing power and effort. Yet, the landings per gross registered tonne declined by 62 percent during this time. Overall, catches have only grown by about I percent annually during the 90s, compared to 3 percent in the 80s. The fish caught is of lower quality and value. About one-third of all revenues from fisheries came not from the catches but from government coffers in the form of subsidized loans, preferential tax rates and other means of economic support. By the late 80s, the world’s large scale fishing fleet had exceeded the Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) of global commercial fish stocks by 30 percent. This implies that if fishers want to maximize their economic efficiency, they would have to reduce capacity by 25 to 50 percent, depending on price increases and cost reductions. Rising costs and falling revenues have made the industry financially vulnerable. Finding themselves caught in an economic trap of mounting debt and declining yields, fishers pressurise governments to keep excessive fishing quotas intact. Hence, many governments continue to give fishers large subsidies that actually bolster fishing. According to Matteo Milazzo, estimated global subsides in 1995 totaled $14 – 20 billion.

With the new GATT regulations and the pressures of the free market on the one hand, the competition for the access to fishing rights on the other and the impending economic crisis, the fisheries have been hit more drastically with the result that women and the environment have borne the largest brunt. With the free movement of capital, the processing industry moves constantly to the areas where it can make use of cheap female labour. Women workers in the northern world were made redundant when it was found cheaper to process fish first in the islands of the South Pacific and later in Thailand, with the result that Thailand ranked first in the export of canned tuna when it did not itself catch a single tuna. The “free trade” regime is also built on the logic that any commodity can be acquired at any time of the year. Shrimps and other sea food, on which the industry has set a premium as an exotic food and wetted the taste buds of the consumers through advertising, have to be made available all the year round which implies that they will be targeted no matter what the cost is. This has caused a greater divide between the north and the south as the industry of the north expects the southern fishing grounds to be opened to them and the south looses its multi specie resource because only shrimps are targeted. The modern management regimes that are based on competition and privitisation of the resources and the assigning of quotas to those who can pay for them, again go in favour of greater centralisation in the hands of the companies that have influence and the money to pay for quotas. On the other hand, the south does not even have the infrastructure to monitor what these fishing vessels take from its waters. These negotiations are mediated by governments that do not have the interests of fish workers at heart but see them as a means of earning foreign exchange or as a means to negotiate other deals.

Whither Food Security

Looking at this kind of development from the point of view of food security is even more astonishing. Of the fish products that are internationally traded, 85 percent originate in the developing nations where small scale fishes provide a major portion of fish for more than one billion people who rely on it as their primary source of animal protein. Approximately, 16 percent of the animal protein consumption of people worldwide comes from fish. People in the industrial countries eat three times as much fish as people in developing countries, consuming on an average 28 kg. per person as compared to 9.2 kg in the developing world. Yet today, despite the fact that the demand for fish is increasing, a little more than one third of the world’s fish production goes to non-food uses like fish meal, fertilizer and oils. This hits the poor coastal communities in numerous ways.

According to recent FAO statistics, more than 21 million people worldwide are fishers. Of these, 90 percent are small-scale operators of whom 95 percent live in developing countries. About 200 million people around the world depend on fishing for an income. More than half of the fish eaten today comes from inshore and coastal areas that are dominated by about 19 million small and medium fishers.

Destructive fishing technologies at the same time deplete the resources by not only overfishing but also by destroying juveniles and ‘commercially non viable’ species which would otherwise be the food of the poor. These fishing technologies that are increasingly in the hands of fewer companies, also control the processing and fishmeal industries through their subsidiaries in the south. The circle is then complete. Fish is transformed into an industrial product for industrial use, snatched out of the hands and stomachs of those who most need it for life and livelihood.

The Aquaculture Myth

Estimated to be 91 million tonnes in 2010, the demand for fish in the world is increasing. The more recent technological answer to increase fish production is aquaculture. In 1995, the World Bank called aquaculture the ‘next great leap in food production’. The modern methods of aquaculture are a great shift away from the traditional ones. In the traditional systems, it was integrated with other food production, thereby making efficient use of natural resources. There are recorded instances of the way farmers and especially women in Asia achieved impressive economic results when integrating fish and vegetable farming. Today, modern intensive aquaculture which is highly capital-intensive, using genetically-altered species, greater technological inputs, industrial feeds and strong antibiotics had not only proved to be ecologically damaging but also has a crucial link to the degradation of the marine resources and access to fish as food in the developing countries. With the growing demand for fish by the countries that can pay, investors in developing countries have transferred rich wetlands into shrimp farms and fishponds. While shrimp exports bring steep economic returns, especially the hard currencies that developing countries badly need, this does not compensate for the economic and ecological losses to the coastal regions in the long run. By converting diverse ecosystems to single ones – as is the case with monoculture – a host of other products like ish, shellfish and timber from the cleared mangroves are lost. Also lost are the services that the wetlands provide, such as filtering of water, cycling of nutrients, buffering of the land from coastal storms and provision of nursery grounds for all marine species. The displacement of natural habitats has serious impacts on the fish catches in the world.

The crucial link, nevertheless, is the manner in which modern capture (fishing) technology destroys the natural resources or wastes them and simultaneously, creates culture technology to increase production. These methods of modern food production are seriously detrimental to the human life and livelihood for which food is supposedly intended. This is an even more aggressive combination ousting women and further exploiting nature. Examine how it works. When the use of aggressive and large fishing gear like trawls and purseine net became widespread, they were found to be not only highly efficient in their ability to trap fish but also ecologically destructive. The trawls literally ruined the fish habitat by leveling the ocean floor into flat football grounds. In order to make their operations viable, they concentrated on selecting only the high value fish species that their indiscriminate trawl and purseine nets hauled in. All the rest of the catches were either thrown aboard dead or dumped as discards. The FAO estimates that discards of fish alone – not counting marine, mammals, sea birds and turtles – amount to approximately twenty million tonnes or roughly one-fourth of annual marine catches. The transformation of fish into fishmeal leads to a loss of protein-around five tonnes of fish are used to produce a single tonne of fishmeal.

Interestingly, it is those industries that have raped the seas, and encouraged the consumption of seafood that have moved to culture fisheries. In this process no heed has been paid to the lives of coastal communities that depend on the sea for a livelihood.

Where Women, Men and Nature Matter

Modern development coupled with capital accumulation is not only male dominated, it is built on the logic of destruction. It is the most violent form of historical development and has been referred to as matricide. Vandana Shiva and Maria Mies have shown extensively and with precise data that this is a patriarchal project leading to the destruction of nature and the feminisation of poverty. In the area of fisheries this becomes very clear. It is important to realise that the same logic which permits the rape of the sea has led to greater violence and exploitation of women on the shore. It is this logic that also advocates the culture of fish to increase “production”. When capture in wild for livelihood becomes unprofitable, culture is the response.

Coming back to the conclusion of the International workshop referred to at the beginning, it is now clearer why the women raised the slogan. The sustainability of the resource is the only way towards a viable and life-sustaining fishery. Sustainability has to do with nurture of life processes, as it has to do with capture and culture. A nurture fishery implies a respect for the cycles of production, using a technology that is selective and diverse unlike today’s gears that are over-efficient and used indiscriminately. Nurture fisheries is one where food that is caught is used only as food for human consumption, and an effort to regenerate the fish habitat that has been destroyed.

Respect for the cycles of production at sea necessitates equal respect for the cycles of production of life on land. Sustaining life or nurture has been possible only because of the immense non-remunerative labour that goes into it where women have contributed the most. Nurture of fish resource and nurture of life has to become the concern of both men and women and this will happen only when women’s rightful role and space in production is recognized. No matter what sophisticated regimes of fisheries management are put into place, without women in fisheries, there will be no fish in the sea.

Lesann, Alain. A Livelihood from Fishing, Globalisation and Sustainable Fisheries Policies. U.K: Intermediate Technology Development Group, 1997.

FAO Year Book of Fisheries, “Catches and Landings”, Rome (1967-91).

FAO, State of the World Fisheries and Aquaculture, Rome (1996).

FAO, Yearbook of Fisheries Statistics: Commodities, Vol 81 Rome (1997).

Milazo, Matteo, “Subsidies in World Fisheries: A Re-examination”. World Bank Technical Paper, No 4006, Fisheries Series, Washington 1998.

Mies, Maria and Vandana Shiva, Ecofeminism, London: Zed Books, 1993.

Shiva, Vandana. “India, People’s Power Empowerment”, in “The People Vs Global Capital, Japan: Pacific Asia Resource Centre, 1994.

Has been working with the fish workers movement in Kerala, and at the national and international level, for over 30 years. Was trained in social work at the TISS in Mumbai and has worked as an activist and researcher in fisheries as well as in medical social work and self-employed women. Has been working with Programme for Community Organisation (PCO Centre), International Collective in Support of Fish workers (ICSF) and National Fishworkers Forum (NFF) as well as NAPM. Has organised many programmes, especially on Women in Fisheries and has published widely on organisational problems of fish workers.

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Has been working with the fish workers movement in Kerala, and at the national and international level, for over 30 years. Was trained in social work at the TISS in Mumbai and has worked as an activist and researcher in fisheries as well as in medical social work and self-employed women. Has been working with Programme for Community Organisation (PCO Centre), International Collective in Support of Fish workers (ICSF) and National Fishworkers Forum (NFF) as well as NAPM. Has organised many programmes, especially on Women in Fisheries and has published widely on organisational problems of fish workers.

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