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Category: Field Notes: Women and Fisheries

Posted by Danika Kleiber
22 Aug 2012

Project Seahorse PhD student Danika Kleiber is studying the intersection of gender, fisheries, and food security. For an introduction to her work, read her first post from the field. You can also visit an archive of her posts.



Behold, my map. Each of those red dots represents data on women participating in fishing. It’s a work in progress, but I think it’s already pretty darn fascinating. The data comes from a variety of sources, and for the purposes of this map at least I’m not that picky.  Government statistics, ethnographies, personal communications, grey lit, peer-reviewed lit, books — everything! I’ve found papers on everything from inland river fishers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to shell-gatherers in Papua New Guinea, to salmon fishers in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. Some references are rather dated (a 1930 ethnographic study of Samoa is the current reigning champion), and some represent places where women used to fish, but no longer do so (such as the Greenland communities Dahl researched in the late 90’s).

I don’t pick favorites, but I have to say, I love government statistics. Finding a 1998 report from Mexico that broke down fishing participation by gender made my day (with special thanks to my friend Lindsay for translating the table for me). European Commission reports (2002), you also have my respect. Even if you did leave out the shell-gathers, you had the grace to admit it. 

However, mostly what I find is purely descriptive data. From short one-line descriptions such as “women are known to glean in the shallows,” to rich ethnographies detailing the diversity of fishing methods used, I enjoy these even as I find them somewhat frustrating.  Yes, I want meaningful cultural context, but I also want numbers! That’s the thing about policymakers, it’s not enough to know that women fish.  They want details like, How many women fish? How much do they catch, what type of species do they catch and are they catching too much?  For that perfect mix of quantitative and qualitative data I’ve had the best luck with human ecology, nutrition, and other interdisciplinary studies.

My global review has also inspired me to make a list of all the words for “gleaning.” Gleaning is the type of fishing I’m most interested in, because it’s the least studied, and the one most often practiced by women. It is the practice of gathering shells, sea cucumber, octopus, and sometimes even fish from coastal shallows. Here are some of the other words for it: groping, gathering, collecting, plucking, harvesting or hunting. Or if you prefer a more international flair, try panginhas (Cebuano), or fangota or alaala (Tongan). I was particularly struck by this sentence by Carrier in 1982 used to describe gleaning in Papua New Guinea: “It has no name, but if you ask a Ponam he will say mat which means ‘reef’ and covers all sorts of gathering, plucking and harvesting of sea creatures, usually by women and always during the day” [emphasis mine].  Poor no-name gleaning. 

The thing I like best about this map is the fact that it tends to promote its own growth. Over the last six months I’ve given lots of talks, and this map always features in the introduction. It’s a quick and dirty way to demonstrate that women’s fishing is not a geographically isolated event, it’s a global phenomenon. The interesting thing is that this map is the thing people tend to remember and want to talk to me about. And mostly the conversation is about how I’m missing some data points. A woman from Bolivia told me the women fish while the men farm, and a teacher from Columbia told me she’s seen women gleaning along the seashore.  I love getting this information. In fact, if anyone out there knows of any more red dots I should add to my map, drop me a line, I’d love to hear from you.

Posted by Danika Kleiber
12 Apr 2012
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.

Posted by Danika Kleiber
15 Feb 2012

I’m really excited about this:

Yummy pies

I know what you’re thinking. It’s just a freaking pie chart, what’s the big deal?  Well, my friends, this pie chart represents 600 interviews of people in 12 communities in Danajon Bank, Philippines. 

But of course in the end it’s not the amount of effort I’ve put into the data gathering that matters, it’s what this pie chart means that really counts. And to get to that I need to first explain where the numbers come from.


My intrepid research assistants interviewed 300 women and 300 men about their fishing habits.  We asked them to tell us things like their typical catch volume, how often they went out per week, and how much time they spent fishing during each trip.  From this I can calculate a number of things, but in this case I calculated weekly catch volume.  I then add up everything women catch, and then everything men catch, pop it into a pie chart and VOILA! I should mention for the die hard methods people out there that the respondents were randomly selected, and we found the proportion of women and men participating in fishing activities were very similar (83% of women and 85% of men) so using equal number of interviews was appropriate. 

This pie shows that women, who according to most people in the Philippines, don’t fish, still magically manage to be responsible for 1 out of every 3 kilograms of marine life that gets extracted from the ocean. Now, I realize that I’m biased, and that my judgement is only further blinkered by several weeks worth of data entry (I’ve been dreaming in numbers), but please believe me when I tell you that this is kind of a big deal.  Women fish.  And it makes up one third of the catch volume.  Booya!

The next thing you should do is doubt my data.  How could women possibly be catching all that if they don’t fish?  The answer has to do with semantics. (Aside: about a decade ago I had a long conversation with my college math professor about why feminist researchers make such a big deal about semantics. So, Christopher, 10 years later, here is my example:)

It has to do with how we define the words “fishing” and “fisher.”  Most of the time when people quantify community fishing activities they only talk to people who self-identify as fishers. In many ways this seems to make sense, but in reality can wreak havoc with the data because there is a big difference between the number of people who call themselves fishers (and define their activities as fishing), and the number of people who extract animals from the ocean.  And the difference is largely made up of women.

(Note: this argument is based on the scale of data collection.  If you are focused on only one fisheries then it makes sense to focus on only those that participate. I’m talking about research that scales up to the community, region, or international level.)

Women, for a variety of cultural and social reasons, rarely describe themselves as fishers.  And furthermore the extractive activity that women predominately participate in — gleaning — is rarely considered a form of fishing.  So a woman in a boat lifting a net?  She’s not really fishing, she’s just helping her husband. A woman walking around the intertidal area with a huge bucket and a machete? She’s just gleaning.  

You can see why I wouldn’t take this assessment at face value.  So for the purposes of my research I defined fishing as what people did, rather than how they defined that activity. Gleaning extracts animals from the ocean and is therefore fishing.  “I’m just helping my husband” shares all the characteristics of fishing, so it too is counted as fishing.  

And what do you get?  A delicious data pie.

Posted by Danika Kleiber
5 Dec 2011

Project Seahorse PhD student Danika Kleiber is studying the intersection of gender, fisheries, and food security in Bohol Province, Philippines. For an introduction to her work, read her first post from the field. You can also visit an archive of her posts.

“Can you lift it any higher, Jay?”

Jay was struggling to lift a very large ray out of the water so that I could take a picture.  It was very beautiful, very heavy, and very dead. A wife and husband spearfishing team had come back with the GPS they had obligingly taken out with them, and my research assistants Jay and Aileen were there to measure the catch. As part of my research, I’ve been weighing and cataloguing the catches of local small-scale fishers to determine what they catch, who catches what, and what they eat versus what they sell. It’s part of a larger project that looks at gender roles in small-scale fisheries and their impact on food security and conservation.

One look at the ray and we all knew the 4000g electronic weighing scale, which usually does a fantastic job on small shells of all descriptions, would be woefully insufficient for this behemoth catch. Jay had first estimated the ray at 50 kg. When we finally did manage to weigh the fish, it was 37 kg and change. At 65 pesos a kilo this catch was still worth just under 2500 pesos — about US $55-60.   

The fishers’ excitement about their catch was understated yet discernable. There was a brouhaha trying to find a big enough scale, and people were gathering around to take a look. One small boy even climbed on the ray’s back. I sat in the corner while the fisher woman recounted the story of pulling the ray into the boat. 

The animal was what is known around here as a jackpot catch. Although 2500 may not seem like much, the other catches we measured in this community ranged in worth from 16-350 pesos ($0.40–$8). 

I find the concept of ‘jackpot’ to be an interesting one, especially when it comes to fishing practices. I talked to my colleague Bernie about this after the ray had been measured and sold, and confirmed something that had been floating around in my brain: there is no jackpot in gleaning, only in offshore fishing.

Most studies detailing how people decide what fishing methods to use outline the risks and rewards, and like many things in life there is a tendency for those two things to be positively correlated, and (surprise, surprise) it also often plays into the gendering of particular fishing methods. 

Dr. Rebecca Bleige Bird’s new research from fishing communities in Torres Strait, between Papua New Guinea and Australia, highlights this point.  She discovered that offshore fishing was riskier, both in terms of the possibility of drowning and the chances of catching nothing, but people, mostly men, were drawn to it because there was always the chance of a big catch.  And with a big catch comes big prestige. 

On the other hand, Bleige Bird found that gleaning — which is done primarily by women and children and involves collecting shells, sea cucumber, octopus, and sometimes fish as they walk the shoreline — is the choice of people who need first and foremost to get food on the table. When food is scarce, you can’t take the risks associated with chasing the big catch. 

Blige Bird detailed how, in Torres Strait, women are expected to put food on the table every day, and that leads them to choose gleaning. In my own research, we ask women why they don’t fish off shore in boat, and the answers we get usually mention the physical risks —drowning, exposure to the elements, seasickness, and so on. 

As with most gendered activities (that is, activities that are associated with men or women but not both) there is a tension between expectations (men fish, women glean) and reality (men also glean, women also fish).  It is this tension between the gender ideal and actual practice that I think presents the possibility of understanding how social change might occur.  

So to recap I’ve somehow managed to connect a 37 kg spotted ray with social change and gender equality. I wonder what I’d do if someone caught one of these.

Posted by Danika Kleiber
31 Oct 2011

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 shellbangunon." 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.

Posted by Danika Kleiber
12 Oct 2011

Small fish species caught with illegal net.I was packing up, getting ready to leave my research site in Aguining after a week of data collection.  That’s when Jay, my research assistant, told me the local barangay captain — the local Filipino term for village leader — had caught a seahorse. Did I want to see it?  I grabbed my camera and went down to have a look. 

Turns out it was a pipefish.  Or more specifically 14 pipefish.  Pipefish are related, but they are not seahorses. There was also a bucket of tiny little catfish, puffer fish and a variety of silver and stripy fish, and another bucket of slight larger puffer fish, needle fish, one squid, and one small black tip shark. The team quickly switched gears into ‘weigh all the catch by species’.  Slowly we worked our way through the fish, down to the bottom of the bucket where the small fish were drowned in the fallen scales of the bigger fish we had already weighed.  That’s when my worry came back. 

There weren’t any seahorses, but the large quantity of small fish still indicated illegal fishing.  Probably in the form of a net with a mesh size smaller than regulation.  I was a bit surprised that the barangay captain, who had boasted to me only yesterday about how illegal fishing was declining in his community, would share this catch with us so openly.  Finally it was explained to me that this wasn't the captain's catch.  It was the catch he had confiscated from the illegal fishers he’d apprehended earlier in the morning. They'd been using double fishing nets. It suddenly all made much more sense. 

I asked him what would happen to this catch.  He told me it would be dried then distributed among the community.  I don’t have enough information to calculate the catch per unit effort as precisely as the rest of the catch data I’ve collected, but these measurements do give me an idea of how effective illegal fishing gear is at taking large quantities of very, very small fish from the sea.

Danika Kleiber is a PhD student with Project Seahorse. You can read more about her adventures on the Project Seahorse blog, starting here

Photo: Danika Kleiber/Project Seahorse

Posted by Danika Kleiber
30 Aug 2011

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!

GPS graphic

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:

Aninikad graph

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).

 Danika Kleiber/Project SeahorseThe 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.

Posted by Danika Kleiber
6 Aug 2011

Local fisher, Danajon Bank, PhilippinesToday I’m visiting Batasan, a tiny island on Danajon Bank, Philippines, where I hope to find a site for my doctoral research into the role of gender in small-scale fisheries. Leading the way are Marivic Pajaro and Eli Guieb, Project Seahorse alums who did their own doctoral work in the area. I’m hoping that by having Eli and Marivic introduce me to the community here, I’ll be considered cool by association!

Batasan is a small and very densely populated island. The houses line a single street stretching down the middle of the oblong island. The last time Eli and Marivic visited Batasan was six years ago, when they were doing research for their own PhDs, and if the joyful greetings of the community members is anything to go by, they were well liked. 

At every house Eli and Marivic catch up with old friends. My grasp of Cebuano, the local language, is still rudimentary, but I practice catching certain words and phrase structures. I realize from these conversations that time is mostly measured in the growth of children. Babies have become little people, and little people have become bigger people. Eli tells me that there are many new houses and more people since the last time he was here.  

We have a particularly long conversation with Jerry, a local fisher whom PhD students often hire for his skills as a researcher assistant. Jerry reminds us that there have also been less pleasant changes. There are fewer fish. He tells the story of a fisher spending an entire day fishing and only finding a single crab. 

With more mouths to feed and marine resources declining, I can’t help but wonder how the people of Batasan will meet their dietary need for protein in the future. Batasan has an old and well-respected marine protected area (MPA), but by itself it cannot sustain the food needs of this growing community. We touched on this problem during the Marine Protected Areas workshop hosted by Project Seahorse in late June: Small community MPAs are undoubtedly effective at many levels, but they can’t be the only answer. 

Danika Kleiber is a PhD student with Project Seahorse.