Anna Maria, aka “the Bride of the Sea” as she’s known in her tiny coastal Italian village, was born into a fishing family, and went out on boats with her father from the age of four, but it was not until she was 30 when the laws regarding gender equality were passed in Italy, that she was able to apply for a fishing license and become an independent fisherwoman. Even today, 50 years later, attitudes to gender equality have a lot further to go than we may realise.
Globally, women’s fishing activities amount to an estimated 3 million tonnes of marine fish and other seafood per year, with an estimated economic value of $5.6 billion per year — about 12% of the landed value of all small-scale fisheries catches.
However, these contributions often go unnoticed.
So yes, women play fundamentally important roles in fisheries but still remain mostly invisible. Recognising, understanding and valuing these roles will not only contribute to fishery sustainability but also bring social, environmental and economic benefits to coastal communities.
We estimate the total number of women who work in catching, aquaculture, and processing in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea to be more than 14,000. People might be surprised to see women skippering their own vessels, shooting nets, pulling in lines — but a few do exactly that in artisanal fisheries across the region. The catching sub-sector is heavily dominated by men; ‘officially’ employed women represent only between 1 and 6% of the workforce.
Women play a crucial role in the clam fishery on the Gulf of Gabes in the south of Tunisia. More than 4,000 women work in harsh conditions across 17 production sites as ‘pecheuses pied’, digging clams to earn an income. Historically, their lack of visibility and education was a barrier to them receiving fair prices, and their families suffered too. But bespoke training and other development initiatives from the government and civil society have improved working conditions and raised standards of living in the local communities, showing that empowering women in fisheries benefits society as a whole.
In addition, the Mediterranean catching sector has the region’s highest number of women who work in supporting roles without legal status or remuneration. A good number of the male fishers in communities across the Mediterranean are only able to be out on the water because of the support they receive from the women in their family — their wives, mothers, daughters, and others. This is particularly the case in small-scale fisheries. “For every male boat owner, there is at least one female family member who assists him,” a fisherwoman from Greece told us.
This work could be directly to do with fishing — activities like mending gear, selling the catch, etc; or it might be in managing all aspects of the business (administration, marketing, accounting) or family life so the men can spend more time at sea.
In practical terms, gender equality makes sound economic, environmental, and social sense, and is more likely to lead to sustainable outcomes. Neglecting the activity of women can mean total catches are underestimated and the diversity of species targeted is misunderstood; meaning fishery strategies may only be based on partial information.
As for what broader perspectives bring to fisheries management, women tend to speak up more as traditional ‘caretakers’, taking different views on risk and advocating more sustainable management approaches — and we need much more of this in the future. They’re also more aware of social needs like food security and family wellbeing; and in playing a key role as professional skilled workers they need adequate training and opportunities.
Pescatourism is a fast-growing activity in the Mediterranean, with some operations jointly run by husband and wife teams (as is the case of Helena, photo) who share the fishing and hospitality duties. “Women have a broader view of the possibilities the fishing sector can offer. We, women, are more open to bringing tourists closer to our traditions, to explain how ancient fishing methods already had sustainability at heart and all the ways we can respect the sea.,” comments Antonella Donato, fisherwoman in Messina, Sicily.
Onshore women have often been forming marketing cooperatives to improve margins on sales, extending the scope of processing facilities to stay busy through the winter, branching out into selling other goods along with seafood products — forward-looking approaches like these are a precondition for long-term sustainability so it’s essential women face no avoidable obstacles to participating fully in the sector.
Overcoming the obstacles
The biggest obstacle of all currently is a lack of data — specifically, gender-disaggregated data on all aspects of women’s participation in fisheries and related areas. A lack of recognition often leaves women in poor working conditions with no means of representing themselves. Their pay is usually lower than men’s, and their careers tend to reach a glass ceiling beyond which only men progress. Every country in the region needs to do better.
An equal future
At a global scale, SDG5 commits the international community to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls” — a goal echoed in a Mediterranean fisheries context by the MedFish4Ever Declaration, which aims to “improve working conditions and promote the role of women in the fisheries sector and aquaculture”.
In practical terms, gathering gender-disaggregated data is the first step to greater progress, along with consistent gender screening of fishery policies and programmes.
Women’s roles in and contributions to fisheries — from pre-harvest activities right through to final sales — must be identified, documented, and recognised; and they must receive equal recognition and rewards for everything they do socially, economically, and environmentally. Safe working conditions, as well as equal pay for equal work, are essential, and women must have the same access to fishery decision-making opportunities as their male colleagues.
The ultimate goal is to reach a point where gender is no longer a point of difference in Mediterranean fisheries, where men and women work together for equal rewards on a level playing field.