Women act as Backbone of Fishing Activities in Vanuatu
In the Pacific region that consists of small island countries, fisheries are an important form of livelihood for the communities dwelling in these regions. From deep-sea fishing to shallow fishing and other marine activities in fact engage a major proportion of the population. In that, Vanuatu, a country comprising of 83 islands, have fishing as a major activity of the both men and women. It also comprise of an export activity, especially for the men. The piece below refers to women’s activity in the fisheries and problems face and discriminations faced by the ni-Vanuatu women in the fisheries export sector.
Women engaged in fisheries in the Pacific
In the Pacific region, fisheries are an important activity in which women remain engaged as important providers for subsistence needs to the family. 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 waters while men's fishing activities are focused on deep-sea areas.
In the western Pacific, women contribute to fisheries in many ways by collecting fish and marine resources on a daily basis, which improves the nutrient intake of their families, it provides for family income and women are also involved in post-harvest activities like processing of fishes and petty retailing.
In very small numbers, women are also employed in fisheries organisations, and are involved in fisheries research, education and training.
Despite such engagements activities of women in fisheries are largely invisible, as they are rarely researched or reported. The same can be said for artisanal and small scale, inshore fisheries where women often are heavily involved.
Fisheries in Vanuatu
Vanuatu, situated in the Western Pacific, exploits their fisheries resources at the subsistence, artisanal and industrial levels.
Subsistence activities include coastal line and net fishing targeting demersal and small pelagic reef and lagoon fish, as well as reef gleaning and collection of shellfish and other invertebrates. Most of the catch is for home consumption or family distribution, but where markets or handling and distribution facilities exist some part may be sold. The subsistence fishery is becoming increasingly cash-oriented around urban areas, with varying portions of the catch being sold.
Trochus and beche-de-mer are also collected in a low-technology, labour-intensive manner characteristic of subsistence fishing. However these species are sold and form a valuable portion Vanuatu’s of marine export products. About 100 tonnes of trochus are harvested annually, most of which is processed into button blanks in the nation’s capital, Port Vila.
Artisanal fishing with bottom hand lines primarily targets deep-water snappers and groupers, while hand-lining and gill-netting target shallow reef fish species. Annual production of deep-bottom, reef and lagoon fish was about 110 to 140 tonnes in the 1990s. Exports of trochus (raw and processed) in the 1990s ranged from 25.4 t in 1994 to 84.3 t in 19961.
Unlike the other Pacific islands, in Vanuatu, aquaculture and aquatic exports does not form a major part of the total exports contributing about 1% of the total share (2000). Their major aqua trading partners are Australia and Japan. A small fishery and export operation for aquarium species is based on Efate, and involves four companies. Ornamental fish and ‘live rock’ (coral fragments coated with micro-organisms, used to condition marine aquaria) are collected around Efate and air-freighted to overseas markets. According to the Fisheries Department, the value of aquarium fish exported in 1999 and 2000 was about US$38,000 and US$15,0002, respectively.
Women in Vanuatu play a significant role in the marine and aqua activities. A large number of Ni-Vanuatu women are engaged in the fisheries sector. Their activities mainly include gathering fish and shellfish for home consumption, which is barely identified as 'fishing' by the male community. Since 'fishing' as an activity is usually identified when selling is involved, and women selling fish is not so common in Vanuatu, hence women’s activities in the sector remain invisible.
Yet, 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 remain the responsibility of women. Throughout the island, Ni-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.
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 mostly the preserve of women. Women use traditional methods of fishing using hand-lines for reef fish (from shore or canoe) or fishing rods of bamboo. In some areas women and men use nets to catch shoals of small fish including 'mangrou', 'picot', sardines and herrings. Fishing is also carried out in freshwaters by damming or handlining.
Among the recently observed trends, women’s involvement is increasing in the other activities like artisanal fishing, which is becoming 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 is also targeted for sale with laplap, and very occasionally baskets of shellfish, turban shells, small clams are also sold. Marine resources from Malo Island are targeted for similar sale in Luganville. At both urban areas reef fish are also sold direct to stores. When men catch reef fish for market sale, women do the selling.
Problems and prospects for women engaged in fisheries
The basic problem in the fishing industries in these regions in the Pacific remain confined to women getting involved in the export activities. The export sector is predominated by the males in the community, who are regarded as the ‘main income earners’ and are also the main recipient of resources as well as profit.
Women in the sector suffer from wide discrimination when it comes to access of resources for getting involved in the export sector. The activities of women in fisheries, as described earlier do not get adequate importance as is required in order to incorporate them into the export of marine resources. Also, despite the importance of these fisheries for regional food security and livelihoods, there is little formal published information that could be used in planning for development, management or conservation.
Vanuatu also suffers from these problems. 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 does not take into account the amount of fishing by women that contributes to the nation's economy through providing 'free' fish protein to families and thereby facilitating a healthier population.
While aqua-marine exports are not that considerable in Vanuatu, yet the government is in the process of developing the export prospects. However, a direct involvement of women, specifically the rural and coastal women, in the process has been negligible as yet. There have been local planning, but that failed to address these issues. While the contribution of women to the fisheries sector cannot be ignored from the subsistence point of view, it is also important to recognise the immense contribution that women in these islands have towards the preservation of the aqua resources and the development of the export prospects.
Although the availability of published resources are small in number, yet those existing, clearly point out towards the fact that women’s contribution to the fisheries would be beneficial in terms of development of the fisheries sector in Vanuatu. The most labour-intensive processes in the fisheries activities that generate marine products meant for export, involve a lot of women but fail to provide them with their due returns. Such issues need to be addressed while formulating policies for the betterment of the island as well as benefiting the livelihoods of women and the rest of the population.
Kailola, Patricia J. (1996), Vanuatu - Technical Report: An assessment of the role of women in fisheries in Vanuatu, Report by Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Bangkok, December
Veitayaki, Dr Joeli and Irene Noaczek, (2003), Filling the gaps: Indigenous researchers, subsistence fisheries and gender analysis, Secretariat of Pacific Community (SPC) Women in Fisheries Information Bulletin #13, December.
Gillett, B. and G. Lightfoot, (2001), The economic importance of fisheries in the Pacific Islands: notes on the contribution of fisheries to GDP, employment, exports, and nutrition, Asian Development Bank (ADB), World Bank; Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA)
1Source: Vanuatu government documents and Gillett and Lightfoot (2001).