Research diaries: the contribution of women to the Maldives’ one-by-one tuna supply chain

Dalhousie research student Peter Wessels reports back from the field about his initial findings on the roles of women in Maldivian tuna fisheries
Peter Wessels presenting social research at the GAF6 conference, Bangkok, Aug 16

Importance of gender research in fisheries

When you consider that women make up around half of the global workforce involved in capture fisheries and associated supply chains (estimates from the FAO), it is easy to appreciate the enormous contribution that they make to the volume of fish consumed globally. However, it is important to remember that data on the numbers of women working in fisheries have only recently been produced and it is likely that they are an underestimate. More importantly, such estimates only scratch the surface of the larger issues of inequality and wellbeing for women, and highlight how little we really understand about the roles of women in fisheries. Knowing the number of women involved in fisheries globally is of little use if we don't know the actual roles and contribution they are making, or what the impacts of current policies are on women in fishing communities. 

With the emergence of international commitments such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the FAO Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small Scale Fisheries there has been a renewed effort to quantify the contribution of women in fisheries supply chains and to integrate this data into policy. Many organisations working with fisheries, like the International Pole & Line Foundation (IPNLF), are furthering research and developing programmes aimed at exploring and enhancing the gender dimension of fisheries management. These new endeavours hold great promise for fishing communities worldwide. After all, how can we expect to make the most effective policy decisions in fisheries when a significant portion of the data is missing?

Women in one-by-one tuna fisheries

One-by-one tuna fisheries are widely regarded to be the most environmentally and socially responsible form of tuna fishing, with minimal impact on the environment, and associated social benefits such as increased employment. In the Maldives, traditional one-by-one methods have been practiced for centuries. Despite the high social importance of these fisheries within the Maldivian culture, and a general awareness of the role women play, no studies have yet explored the contributions women bring to these fisheries with any detail. With this in mind, I reached out to IPNLF to see if I could support its ongoing research into gender roles in the small-scale, one-by-one tuna fisheries it works with. This research would contribute to my Master’s thesis for the Marine Management course at the University of Dalhousie, Canada; exploring how to effectively bring women into policy discussions and developments in fisheries management, particularly in small-scale fisheries. I hoped it would contribute to furthering global understanding of gender roles in fisheries.

After developing my project outline with IPNLF and the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture for the Maldives, and securing a grant from the Waitt Foundation, I embarked upon my journey to the Lhaviyani atoll, 140 km north of the Maldives capital Malé in early July. I planned to map the roles women are playing in tuna supply chains in the Maldives; and work to develop and test indicators that can represent the gender dimension of these fisheries for a broader programme of social and economic monitoring of tuna fisheries in the Maldives. I would carry out my research by conducting interviews with the fishing communities and other interested stakeholders.


Research results

Nearly a month-and-a-half into my research, I have discovered that alongside fish processing, which is vital in its own right, women occupy an array of roles throughout the supply chain. One of the more interesting developments that I have noted among women in the Maldives’ tuna fishing sector is the emergence of entrepreneurial cooperatives among women in the atolls. These cooperatives are organised by women to support female run businesses and provide cohesion within a previously disorganised sector. One such cooperative, for example, makes packages and sells tuna-based products to other islands, resorts and the capital, was initiated and is maintained by women in existing women’s cooperatives. There appears to be substantial social and economic benefits associated with these cooperatives, such as raising the women’s status and their empowerment, providing access to assets, livelihoods diversification, and income generation. However, as yet these cooperatives have not received much attention from the government or other investors and their potential is not well understood. My initial research has indicated there are many promising developments for women within the tuna supply chain in the Maldives, such as entrepreneurialism, empowerment, and improved livelihoods. However, to fully unpack and further quantify the impact of these roles, more research is needed. 

The Gender in Aquaculture and Fisheries conference (GAF6)

I was offered the opportunity to present my initial research at the Gender in Aquaculture and Fisheries (GAF6) conference, which was held over a four-day period in Bangkok, Thailand. This year’s GAF6 conference drew a record number of participants, representing nearly every single Asiatic country and beyond. I was, though, the only representative of the Maldives. The sessions covered an array of topics exploring the gender elements of: climate change resilience and adaptability in small-scale fisheries (SSFs); nutrition and food security in SSFs; and poverty alleviation in SSFs, to name but a few. I felt the diversity of topics and presentations was superb, and it was great to have a global perspective to better understand the unique challenges and opportunities women face in fisheries around the world. I presented my work in poster format, and was delighted with the engagement from fellow participants who provided me with superb insight and recommendations for going forward with my research.

I have now returned to the Maldives after the GAF6 conference with a renewed energy. Based on what I observed at GAF6 and through my own research, I am confident that momentum is building. A number of organisations, like IPNLF, are working hard to further our understanding of the contributions women have in fisheries. It is important that organisations invested in fisheries management across the supply chain – from fisheries, to NGOs, to governments – work together to make a concerted effort to give attention to the importance of gender roles in fisheries. This will likely mean adjusting reporting systems to specifically accommodate gender-oriented data collection. However, while improved and more inclusive reporting is a fine first step, incorporating this data into decision making in fisheries will be the true testament to this research. This too will take honest effort and cooperation between all parties involved in fisheries management. There remains a great deal of work ahead as we are only in the initial steps of raising awareness around this issue.

My belief in the importance of this research has been reaffirmed both through my own research findings and learning from others at GAF6 and I’m inspired to continue my study. I’ve already learnt a lot from my experiences and conversations within the fishing communities on land and at sea (including the strength of my sea legs!). I will keep you updated with the next stage of my research journey – look out for my next blog!