Fish Is Women’s Business Too: Looking at Marine Resource Use Through a Gender Lens

  • Kathleen Schwerdtner Máñez
  • Annet Pauwelussen


The majority of studies in fisheries history have turned a blind eye on the role of women. This is mainly a result of the roles that most societies have traditionally allocated to men and women, with fisheries usually perceived as a male domain. However, women have always had a major influence on fishing practices and fish trade: as harvesters and collectors of marine resources, as processors and traders, and as central actors in informal networks that are especially relevant for small-scale fisheries. This chapter analyses gendered processes in fisheries, by shedding light on the manifold roles of women, in order to complement and challenge the results of historical fisheries research. It reviews studies on fisheries, gender and history, and provides a systematic overview on important aspects pertaining to women’s role in fisheries. It also contains a case study on giant clam collection and trade in Indonesia which illuminates how women have influenced and sustained fisheries in practise, and through time.


Gender lens Gendered processes in fisheries Fisheries history Bajau Indonesia 


Fisheries are usually perceived to be a male domain (Choos et al. 2008). This is partly the result of the roles most societies have traditionally allocated to men and women: men are regarded as providers, while women take care of the home and family. It is also based on a rather narrow understanding of fishing as the catching of organisms with certain gears, for example lines, nets, or spears. Activities such as the collection of shellfish and other organisms from shorelines and reefs – often carried out by women – have rarely been considered as fishing. Additionally, there is a general assumption in most research that fisheries operate in the public domain (usually male dominated), which is why the private domain (female dominated) is hardly the focus of attention. Especially in small-scale fisheries, much of the administration and logistics including financial issues, as well as the processing happens in the household and through family networks. Hence, an analytical focus on public and formal practices misses not only women’s roles, but also a considerable part of what it takes to organize and put a fishing operation into practice.

Traditionally, women have mostly occupied the pre and post-harvest sector and the processing and marketing of the catch (Bennett 2005). In many fishing communities, women provide substantial financial contributions from other income sources to fishing operations, and it is often their support that keeps fishing viable. Still, in most economic, social and historical research they have largely been ignored. Elisabeth Scott has used the phrase “those of little note” when referring to groups that were considered of little importance by dominant social groups, but also to characterize those people that are largely absent from the written records we use because they were not seen as relevant to write about (Scott 1994). Women in fisheries are such a group, and their role in marine resource exploitation has often remained invisible. Such ignorance leads to an underestimation of the social, cultural and economic contributions that women provide in fisheries, but also to a substantial underestimation of fishing pressure, especially in coastal areas (Harper et al. 2013).

If we are going to avoid a one-sided perception of the past “… we should be interested in the history of both women and men … (…) to understand the significance (…) of gender groups in the historical past” (Davis 1975: 90). It is important to point out that gender is not the same as sex. Gender is “a constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences between sexes … and a primary way of signifying relationships of power” (Scott 1986: 1067). Gender is not a natural or biological category, but constructed through social interactions in families, societies, economics and politics. It is strongly related to cultural norms and traditions, and as such, to the history of people and their interaction with their environment. Power is an inherent part of gender construction, meaning that the specialized knowledge resulting from the different domains in which men and women operate is also valued differently (Kelkar 2007). Only a careful differentiation of the roles, responsibilities, access and opportunities of men and women will provide us with a more complete picture of how both have used, governed, and changed their marine environment over time (Williams 2008; Bennett 2005). This requires an analysis of the knowledge of, access to, and use of, fish and other marine resources, differentiated between women and men.

This chapter aims to contribute to the analysis of gendered processes in fisheries, by shedding light on the manifold roles of women, in order to complement and challenge the results of historical fisheries research. After a short review on existing studies on fisheries, gender and history, we provide a systematic overview on important aspects pertaining to women’s role in fisheries. We will then introduce a case study on giant clam collection and trade in Indonesia to illuminate how women influence and sustain fisheries in practise, and over time. The case study especially shows the importance of female-dominated historical family networks, an informal institution that is usually overlooked in formal governance-oriented fisheries research. Based on these results, we argue that if fisheries history would regard fisheries also as informal activities immersed in family networks, women might be identified as key-actors, and ‘drivers’ of the course of fisheries over time.

Studies on Fisheries, Gender, and History

There are not many studies on gender issues in fishing communities, and even less on fishing history. The majority of these few zoom in on women instead of showing wider gendered patterns. This is certainly related to the scientific interest to study less powerful societal groups, to which women often belong (Bennett 2005). It has also to do with the origins of the gender concept, which lay in feminist studies. But for the most part, it has been a response to the limited knowledge of the role of women in fisheries. Interestingly, Allison has recently pointed out that although most fisheries social research is on men, it does not engage with masculinity perspectives/concepts. He argues that both the physical settings and the distinct culture of fishing societies shape a kind of globally shared “marine masculinities”. Gendered labour division and men’s absence from their families and communities supports a strong masculine group identity, which is potentially reinforced by social and political marginalisation (Allison 2013). Research on masculinity will also support the analysis of women’s positions in fishing communities, and might contribute a better understanding of problems such as high HIV rates, alcoholism, and violence found among many fishing communities (Allison and Seeley 2004; Seeley and Allison 2005).

Earlier research explicitly considering women’s fishing activities can be found in the anthropological literature about Oceania from the 1920s to the 1950s (Buck 1930; Handy 1923; MacGregor 1937; Firth 1957). Most authors pointed out that women who fished or dived were just as skilled as men. Their observations confirmed that female fishing activities were common at many islands in Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia, although the degree of women’s involvement in the different activities varied considerably between individual societies.

The first consolidated publication on women in fishing communities has been the book “To work and to weep” by Nadal-Klein and Davis (1988). It contained 12 essays with a wide cultural and geographical range, some of them also with a historical perspective. A few years later, a publication on the social history of labour in North Sea fishing communities contained two essays which explicitly focused on the historical role of women in Norwegian and Dutch fishing communities (Fischer et al. 1992).

Since then, gender and fisheries research has become an emerging research field. A collection of essays on the lives and experiences of fisher women in Newfoundland and Labrador from early settlement to late twentieth century can be found in MacGrath et al. (1995). The International Collective in Support of Fishworkers (ICSF) has been publishing work on the role of women in fisheries in its newsletter on gender and fisheries “Yemaya” since 1999. In 2000, the journal Women’s Studies International Forum published a special issue “Women and the Fisheries Crisis” Davis and Gerrard (2000). The first global symposium on gender and fisheries was held a couple of years later in 2004 (Williams et al. 2006). In 2005, Neis and colleagues published their book “Changing tides: Gender, Fisheries and Globalisation”. It provided an overview on the state-of-the art at this point in time, including some 20 regional case studies on a wide range of fisheries, regions, and topics (Neis et al. 2005). Some case studies such as the study on women’s crucial role in the Nova Scotia coastal fishery (Binkley 2005), or the section on the Salmon canning industry of British Columbia (Muszynski 2005) employed historical analyses. In 2008, the journal “Development” published a special issue on gender and fisheries. Over the last decade, the number of studies has grown rapidly (Béné and Merten 2008; Frangoudes et al. 2008; Weeratunge et al. 2010; Zhao et al. 2013; Harper et al. 2013). Some key contributions are introduced below.

Yodanis (2000) has studied the social construction of gender in fishing communities in the United States. Her results show that differences between women’s and men’s orientation towards fishing in her case study were socially learned: while boys were supported if they showed an interest in fishing, girls’ interests were interpreted as part of a childlike play. Although many women in her study were active in the fishing business and even helped their husbands on board, these activities were never fully acknowledged as part of the fishery. Women themselves would undervalue the importance of their contributions.

The fisheries dependence on women has been highlighted by several authors (Harper et al. 2013; Bennett 2005). Clay and Olson (2007) even see the strong involvement of women in the resource enterprise as a characteristic that distinguishes fishing communities from other communities. Thompson (1985) has argued that this dependency also gives women more responsibility, and potentially more influence at home and in their community. One important study of the social lives of seventeenth century Dutch fishing communities supports the idea of relatively independent women. Despite of the fact that women in general had few legal rights in the seventeenth century: the seafarers’ wives enjoyed a relatively independent status in economic matters: a necessity, when the husband was away for extended periods of time. Also in moral matters, such as cases of adultery, these coastal communities looked more mildly on unfaithful fishermen’s wives, than women in general (Wit 2008).

It has sometimes been argued that there is a “dichotomy of sexual geography”, under which land is the domain of women and sea the domain of men. This dichotomy has been explained with the frequent absence of men from their families and community, leading to female dominance in the household. Empirical results have shown that this reaches far into the economic and power structures of the fishing community (Pollnac 1984). However, the existence of the sea-land male-female dichotomy itself has been challenged by several contributions in Nadal-Klein and Davis (1988) collection, which showed that women are in charge of, but not necessarily limited to land-based activities. While there is evidence that in some regions, fisherwomen in the past enjoyed greater autonomy in work and social relations than today (Cole 1991), in general the influence of women in fisheries management and decision-making seems to be increasing (Meltzoff 1995; Frangoudes et al. 2008).

At present, there appears to be a general trend from disciplinary publications in anthropology and sociology focussing on selected communities and locations, towards more general considerations of gender issues in fisheries. While earlier work often analysed specific aspects such as power asymmetries (Thompson 1985) or certain aspects of women’s work (Volkman 1994), this is now changing to more comprehensive overviews on the role and importance of women in the sector (Harper et al. 2013). Despite the increase in research in gender and fisheries, historical research in particular is still paying very little attention to gender aspects in the marine and coastal realm.

Gender Aspects to Be Considered in Historical Research

There are a number of aspects which deserve more attention in historical research. We are differentiating between catching and collecting of marine resources, pre-and post-harvesting activities including processing and trading, and female governance and institutions. Because historical studies are limited, we also include more recent examples in order to provide a systematic overview on the role of women in fisheries.

Catching and Collecting of Marine Resources by Women

Although most of fish capturing is and seems to have been carried out by men, women have always been fishing. Comparatively well-known are the contributions of women’s fishers in the Pacific (Kronen and Vunisea 2007), also through the already mentioned literature from the 1920s to the 1950s. A more recent case study from Fiji states that women are still involved in all kinds of fishing activities, but that their roles have changed over time. For example, net fishing was widely practised by women in the past, but since the introduction of large gillnets, men took over this activity. Women also used barriers or fences to catch fish, which they then caught by hand or with a spear. Other activities such as nocturnal torch fishing are still carried out by women and men in search of eels, octopus, sea cucumbers, and shellfish. Women also continue to dive for shells, which they collect in depths between 8 and 15 m (Vunisea 2005). A new study from the Comoros has not yielded findings on considerable changes. Female fishers in this region still use a large variety of gears, including different nets, baskets, traps, pipes and spears, hand lines, and toxic plants (Hauzer et al. 2013). In Indonesia, Bajau women collect giant clams though reef gleaning and diving, as a case study will show later on in this chapter.

The roles of women in catching and collecting marine resources differ considerably between cultures. Oliver has argued for the Pacific that islands with a higher variety of marine environments are characterized by more stratified gender roles (Oliver 1989). He noticed that in traditional Pacific island cultures living on islands with steep shorelines, few beach and reef areas; men and women are involved in open and deep-sea fishing. On islands with shallow waters and beaches, the more dangerous deep-sea fishing activities are usually carried out by men, while women stay close to the shore. Another study has shown that in the vast majority of societies within Oceania, women have been involved in several types of reef fishing, although the fishing of bonito, tuna and turtles remains restricted to men (Chapman 1987). It seems that generally, men have capitalized the more dangerous, fairly long-term, but also more prestigious fishing activities. However, more research is needed especially to confirm if this is a rather recent, or indeed a long-standing tradition.

Research in the Amazon region has revealed that in the past, women went fishing close to the coast for consumption or sale (Maneschy and Alvares 2005, and references therein). With the beginning of industrial processing, they became workers in gear manufactures as well as fish and crab processing facilities. Still, women use fixed fish traps close to the shore, such as shrimp traps, or large fishgarths. As these large traps cannot be operated alone, they are run and maintained by teams of relatives, who also do the daily harvesting. The importance of women in this sector is mirrored by the special names given to them, such as pescadeiras and marisqueiras (fish and shellfish harvesters).

Women have played a major role in the development of some fishing industries, such as the Scottish herring fishery from the middle of the nineteenth until the first half of the twentieth century. Fishwives and young girls worked as gutting quines, cleaning and packing herring. These cutting quines would also follow the herring fleets which caught wandering shoals of herring around the coasts. The absence of women from household-based fisheries had a considerable influence on both domestic fishing activities, as well as on the social role of women in coastal fisheries. While the domestic role of women lessened, the power of middlemen and fishmongers grew in small-scale coastal fishing (Nadal-Klein 1988).

Similarly to the herring fishery, girls and young women were employed as fishworkers and cooks in the Newfoundland cod fishery from the late eighteenth to the mid-twentieth century. They also would occasionally fish to increase their income (Thompson 1985). In the early nineteenth century, fisherwomen worked in the sheltered inner fjords of the north Norwegian coast. They also joined the traditional beach seine net fishing of this region and received their part of the catch (Paine 1965 in Thompson 1985). In Swedish Baltic Sea communities, women went out regularly on small inshore boats to fish for bait. In some areas, they also participated in the more dangerous herring fishing farther offshore (Löfgren 1979). A German law of 1587 indicated that female seafarers were common in the Baltic Sea, as it obliged skippers to take a male seaman onboard rather than their wives or young women (Berggreen 1979). In Europe, these activities are nowadays part of fishing history. In other parts of the world such as the Philippines, women still help their husbands in hauling nets and lines, and through installing and maintaining stationary gear (Siason 2012).

An interesting case of female supremacy in the collection of marine resources is the case of Asian ama divers. Ama (literally “sea women”) dive in some coastal areas of Japan, Korea and China. Throughout the year, they collect seaweed, shells and abalone. The women dive 5–20 m either from a boat with a male boat handler, or swim from the shore. The earliest known documentation of ama comes from Japan’s first chronology Nihonshoki, published in 718 (Kato 2006). There has been much debate about why the large majority of ama are women. The ama themselves believe that women have extra layers of fat on their body, which allows them to stay longer in the water. Traditionally, only girls were introduced into the ama community, and received diving gear as their wedding gift (Kato 2006). This is exactly the opposite to what Yodanis (2000) has documented in her study on the construction of gender in a rural fishing community of the United States, and shows how the social construction of gender roles in different societies is the underlying driver of “male” and “female” activities.

In many parts of the world, women gather shellfish and other invertebrates, or fish from the shore or reefs. This activity is known as gleaning, although this not fully captures the importance of this activity. Gleaning has traditionally served subsistence and local market demands, and often plays a major role for nutrition. Valuable resources such as sea cucumbers, giant clams, or octopus, are also collected, and the contribution of such gleaning activities to the family income can be significant. Gleaning activities usually involve a minimum of equipment, but they require a solid understanding of the behaviour of inshore marine resources, weather and sea conditions (Kronen and Vunisea 2007; Hauzer et al. 2013). Simple methods such as locating fish with the feet implicate a very adroit use of the senses, and skilful utilisation of fisheries knowledge (Vunisea 1997). Consequently, gleaning has to be considered as a separate fishing activity. Increasing demand and a higher value of many shellfish species has even strengthened the economic importance of gleaning in many areas. In the Spanish nationality of Galicia, female mussel collectors – the marisquadoras – have increasingly professionalized their activities since the 1960s (Meltzoff 1995).

The involvement of women into different fishing activities makes them important knowledge keepers. Given that men and women mostly fish in separate areas, women possess knowledge that men do not have. As a result of their different roles, men and women are exposed to different environments, skills and experiences, and are therefore likely to develop gender-specific domains of knowledge (Kelkar 2007: 301). It has been shown that women may be more knowledgeable than men in terms of certain ecological features (Chapman 1987). Historical research can employ this knowledge to obtain a deeper understanding of a certain ecosystem and its changes over time. As we will explain in the following sections, women also possess comprehensive knowledge on economic and other aspects of fisheries, which can be used for better insights in exploitation patterns over time.

Pre- and Post-Harvesting Activities, Processing and Trading

In many fisheries, women have traditionally occupied the pre and post-harvest sector through processing and marketing the catch (Bennett 2005). Pre-harvesting activities are multifaceted and reach from mending of nets to gathering bait and preparing food for the fishers. For example, Scottish fishwifes would spend several hours per day for gathering the baits and baiting the lines which men used to catch white fish (Nadal-Klein 1988). Portuguese archival documents from the sixteenth century suggest that women played a major role in the maritime trade at this time, including the financing of fishing expeditions to Newfoundland (Abreu-Ferreira 2000). In many West African countries, women provide credit to fishermen and act as patrons in patron-client relationships (Tvedten and Hersoug 1992). In such a relationship, the clients are economically and socially dependent on their patrons, and vice versa. For example: in exchange for credit, clients have to agree to sell their catch at a certain price to their patron, while the patron provides social security even if catches are low. Fanti fishtraders in Ghana often own canoes and fishing equipment, and control fishing operations through loans to fishermen (Endemano Walker 2002). In this way, they have a considerable influence on the realization of fishing activities, although Overå (2003) has argued that the extent of male cooperation determines the space for female entrepreneurs in this male-dominated sector.

Post-harvesting activities include carrying fish from the shore, and the sorting and cleaning of the catch. In small-scale fisheries, the catch is usually divided into a part for own consumption and a part that is sold. The preparation of fish for the household, but also further processing and the selling are typical female occupations. Processing may include drying, smoking, freezing, fermenting, and cooking. The marketing and selling of fresh or processed marine products is in many areas of the world dominated by women. In some regions, traders specialize in single products, such as the pulpeiras of Galicia (Northern Spain), who sell only octopus (pulpo).

Their role as processors and traders provides women with unique information on changes in target species, sizes and quality, and price fluctuations. This data is often not being accounted for, because the majority of studies interview fishermen and male household heads. Gathering knowledge from fish processors and traders may provide a much broader and more detailed picture of species composition changes and species availability over time. In particular price changes are important indicators for increasing rarity, but also for upcoming demands.

Managing: Gendered Governance and Institutions

Current research indicates that women traditionally seemed to have had very little influence in formalised marine and fisheries management (Fröcklin et al. 2013). McCay has argued that women’s participation in the politics of fisheries governance has mainly been important when the men were out fishing (McCay 1993). Only over the past decades, there is evidence that fishermen’s wives have increasingly become active as political representatives and lobbyists in fisheries issues, at least in developed countries. As part of organizations such as the “Maine Fishermen’s Wives Association” and the “Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives”, women are now increasingly involved in policy making processes (Yodanis 2000).

Women have also entered formal governance institutions related to fisheries management. One example is the so-called “shellfish revolution” in the late 1980s in Galicia, under which female shellfish collectors have entered the cofradía, a traditional community fisheries organization. Cofradías (“brotherhood”) have been exclusively run by men for centuries, and the active participation of women for more than 30 years has led to a substantial change of women’s status and political power in their community (Meltzoff 1995). In developing countries, women’s empowerment has often been an obligatory part of fisheries development programs. As a result, they are more often included into existing management structures, although this does not necessarily lead to a reform of the gendered governance structures themselves (Resurreccion 2008).

Their role as collectors and fishers of certain species did of course make women de facto managers through the way they utilized these resources. Unfortunately, there is hardly any literature on the involvement of women in informal marine resource management, perhaps because most historical studies have not taken women seriously as actors engaged in, or even driving marine resource exploitation. Additionally, resource management studies have been preoccupied with formal institutions. Consequently, the few studies that discuss gender issues in (formalized) governance structures point out that woman have been underrepresented therein.

However throughout history, decisions about where, when and what to fish, as well as to whom to sell and on what terms, have also been mediated through informal arrangements. Such arrangements may be nested in networks of family ties, friendships or patron-client relations (Volkman 1994) as well as cultural and spiritual traditions, including taboos to fish in certain places or caring for sea spirits to ensure future yield (Clifton and Majors 2012). It is in these domains that women may have executed (and still execute) considerable influence on fishing practice and fish trade. An example of this is the way in which networks of fishing and fish trade have been organized among the Bajau in Southeast Asia, a case we turn to below.

Case Study: Bajau Women Collecting Clams

A case of giant clam collection and trade by Bajau women in Indonesia demonstrates the importance of women’s roles in the organization of marine resource exploitation over time. The Bajau are an indigenous group dispersed over a vast marine zone in Southeast Asia (Saat 2003). Traditionally, they have sustained sea-based livelihoods, living off maritime trade and subsistence fishing (Sather 1997). Whereas the Bajau are often associated with a sea-nomadic way of life (Chou 2006; Warren 1980), their majority lives along shores and on islands in (semi) permanent villages (Clifton and Majors 2012).

In Bajau communities, women can enjoy considerable status and power. They may head households or become spiritual leaders, they are often actively involved in village affairs, and their property (inheritance) is not fused through marriage (Sather 1997). In this respect, gendered power structures among the Bajau differ from some other, more patriarchal maritime groups in Indonesia, such as the Buginese (Pelras 1996). Bajau women are also actively engaged in daily activities of collecting, processing and trading marine resources (Gaynor 2010; Sather 1997). Their contribution to fisheries and their social networks are therefore indispensable to the organization and continuance of Bajau maritime livelihoods.

Below is a case study of Bajau women’s involvement in the collection and trade of the giant clam (a subfamily of bivalve mollusks: Tridacninae, or kima in Bahasa Indonesia) in Berau, a coastal regency in East Kalimantan (Indonesia). It is based on insights from ethnographic research carried out by one of the authors in this region in the years 2011–2013. The case shows that including the activities and social-historical networks of women is essential to an understanding of how fisheries and fish trade networks in the region are organized and sustained.

The Berau coastal area consists of a mangrove delta, coral reefs and a shallow sea. Attracted by its rich marine biodiversity, Bajau families have migrated to the islands and coastal villages of Berau since at least as early as 1919, coming mostly from the Southern Philippines and Sabah (Malaysian Borneo) (Krom 1940; Pauwelussen 2016). Although some people have moved inland, most Bajau still sustain a close relationship to the sea, and the condition and rhythm of the sea pervades almost every aspect of community life, such as household activities, life-cycle rituals, and culinary practice. Bajau fishers are skilled in line-, net-, and spear fishing over reefs, along with manual collection of marine species at low tide, and braving the open sea to catch pelagic fish offshore. In Berau, these fishing techniques are complemented nowadays by the use of bombs and poison (blast fishing and cyanide fishing) (Pauwelussen 2015). Manual collection of marine species at low tide is referred to in the literature as (reef) gleaning; a fishing activity introduced earlier in this chapter. While in Bahasa Indonesia this activity is generally translated as berkarang (karang referring to coral or coral reef) the local Bajau term for gleaning “nebah”, nubba in Eastern Indonesia (Gaynor 2010: 84), includes also the gathering of marine animals and plants from sand banks, beaches and mangroves.

In Berau, as in most other places, women take the lead in reef gleaning. They are particularly skilled in identifying and assembling a wide array of edible and/or usable produce from different tidal marine ecosystems. Whereas men and boys do join some gleaning expeditions, ‘tending the sea- or coral garden’ is referred to as a typical women’s job. As a village elder and spiritual leader on one of the islands explained in an interview: “(for us Bajau) The coral reefs are the gardens of women. We men go to the sea, while our women tend to their garden”. This tending includes using the proper spells and offerings to nourish relations with the sea spirits that dwell in these gleaning places.

A highly valued resource collected from Berau’s coral reefs for both subsistence and market demands is the giant clam, or kima. Raw or cooked, it is part of traditional Bajau cuisine, and a vital ingredient for Bajau wedding ceremony banquets. While Bajau communities all over Berau consume kima, it is particularly on the islands that the collection of these marine creatures has taken a commercial turn. Along the coast, they are among the most sought-after marine resources by traders buying for Malaysian-Chinese markets. The animal’s adductor muscle is highly valued by Chinese, because of its purported aphrodisiac properties.

It is important to note that the collection and exchange of kima for commercial purposes is officially prohibited in Indonesia,1 and it has been given the status of ‘vulnerable species’ (VU – A2cd) in the 2004 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (Baillie et al. 2004). As Berau’s delta has by now been stripped of most large specimens (some species can measure up to more than one meter in diameter), the major part of kima yield nowadays consists of smaller animals (10–15 cm on average) nested in shallow reefs.

While staying in the Berau coastal zone for over a year,2 one of the authors was able to observe the ways in which kima collection is organized. Generally, older women prefer to use an individual canoe to peddle from the island to a nearby reef, alone or with one or two other women in their own canoes. After a day of collecting clams they return home. There are also married couples (sometimes accompanied by children) that use a small boat to gather on reefs further away from the island. They are usually gone for 1 or 2 weeks, sleeping and eating on the boat, and collecting a range of different animals for trade and consumption. The household-based gleaning trips resemble the Bajau fishing expeditions in the 1960s in Sabah (Malaysia), described by Sather (1997). There is also an increase of commercially organized kima gleaning trips in Berau which resembles the turn towards niche species by Bajau women described by Gaynor (2010). According to Gaynor this has led to new social relations of production, in which Bajau women gather increasingly scarce resources, such as kima, for international trade, often becoming indebted to traders in the process. The commercially organized kima-collecting trips in Berau are carried out by groups of eight to ten women (occasionally, a man joins) on a boat owned by a local trader and credit supplier. In these arrangements the trader (mostly a married couple) provides the collectors with a boat and fuel, and in exchange the women are obliged to sell their catch to them. Thereby, the arrangement becomes a form of patron-client relationship, common among Berau’s coastal communities (Gunawan 2012), especially when the trader facilitates credit loans in exchange for (future) catch.

Joining these kima-collecting trips during the fieldwork shed light on how this fishing practice is carried out. First of all, timing is crucial. Around full moon and new moon the reefs are exposed enough (during low tide) to make the activity safe and worthwhile, which gives the collectors a maximum of 2 weeks per month to gather kima. During these weeks, boats leave well before low tide, to moor on or near the reef before it has become too shallow. Women cover themselves with cloths (including shoes) to protect their bodies from the sharp coral, venomous stingrays and the scorching sun. As soon as a suitable spot is found, one of the women asks the spirits for permission to enter their home, sprinkling the water surface with cooked rice. Then the women get into the water, and start collecting clams while swimming and diving to a depth of 1–3 m, using goggles and a floating piece of Styrofoam to warn passing boats (see Fig. 1). As soon as the water level has dropped, they can walk on and around the coral structures, speeding up the collecting process. They usually collect only the clam’s meat, the shell is left behind. To cut the animal out of its shell the women stick a bar between the valves (to keep the shell from closing), while they swiftly cut the abductor muscle with a knife or the same bar. The meat is put in a net, and they quickly proceed onwards, wading through the water, bent forward, peering through the shallow water to spot the next clam in the reef. In just a couple of hours a group of women like this can easily strip nearly all kima from half a square kilometre of coral reef.
Fig. 1

Bajau woman wading through water looking for kima

When the water level rises, the women gather at the boat to go back home. Underway, they compare their catch, and discuss the features of the spot: the coral, the creatures they encountered, and the movement of current and wind. While there is a certain atmosphere of competition between the women regarding the amount of the catch, exchanging information and experiences is a vital part of their gleaning trips.

Earlier we pointed out that women can be valuable sources of knowledge of the marine environment. Obviously, the women gleaners in Berau are experts on local reef flora and fauna, currents and weather as well as changes in the reefs’ condition over time. Yet, they are not consulted as such by conservation and government agencies. Staff of the local Fisheries Department hold the assumption that women have no serious role in fishing and that their knowledge is limited to household shores and petty trade (personal communication 2012).

Besides leaving out women as bearers of ecological knowledge, there’s also another gap to be mentioned here. As we argued earlier in this chapter, fishing activities of women need to be taken into account to make a reliable estimation of fishing pressure. Based on interviews with local kima traders in 2012, we estimate that 300 k of dried kima was exported in that year per month, from just one of the three Berau islands involved in kima trade (field notes 2012). But because gleaning is considered a fishing practice of little significance, this particular form of marine resource exploitation is invisible in regional fishing statistics and management (DKP Berau 2012). This is striking considering the fact that Berau’s coastal zone was declared a marine protected area in 2005 and the trade in kima has been officially banned for decades. This status of illegality may in fact be another reason why kima exploitation is rendered invisible in regional statistics.

Trading Kima

Most of the kima exported from the Berau islands is sold to Chinese traders in Tawau, a border town in Sabah (Malaysian Borneo), often together with fresh or dried fish, squid, sea cucumbers, mother of pearl, shark fins and other marine resources that are highly valued on Chinese markets. Historically, the Bajau have played an important role in maritime trade in this region (Gaynor 2010). Maritime trade by Bajau in the Berau zone dates from at least the late 1800s (idem), possibly even from the tenth or eleventh century (Sather 2002), but historical evidence is scarce.

Besides doing the collecting, Bajau women also preside over much of the trade in kima. Earlier studies of the Bajau in Sabah have shown that women have traditionally played a central role in the processing and marketing of marine resources as well as the trade of these resources to Malaysian towns like Semporna and Tawau (Morrison 1993; Sather 1997). In Berau kima trade is not restricted to women (nor Bajau), and as we already mentioned above, often husband and wife collaborate in the trading business. But even if a man is known publicly as kima trader, it’s often his wife who actually manages sales and logistics ‘behind the scene’.3 Over the course of the research, a close relationship was developed with a female Bajau clam trader who positions herself rather on the forefront of the trade business, operating practically independently from her husband. To protect her identity, she is given the pseudonym ‘Ibu Mutiara’. Joining her on oversees business trips and family meetings yielded some in-depth views on a gendered trade network stretching from Berau to Tawau (see Map 1) (Pauwelussen 2015).
Map 1

Trade network of Ibu Mutiara in the Berau region, Indonesia

Ibu Mutiara buys sun-dried kima directly from the collecting women on the island (the main fieldwork location). She regularly visits the island to buy the clams, paying the women in cash, kind or a reduction in outstanding loans.4 She doesn’t shun away from lending millions of IDR (Indonesian Rupiah) in cash or kind,5 to be repaid by loyalty and new clams in the future. With such (patron-client) arrangements Ibu Mutiara binds the women to her business and ensures a more or less steady supply of product whenever she visits the island.

Ibu Mutiara manages her business mostly (and preferably) with women. This is not only because of the gendered collection of kima or the fact that same-sex contact is considered more appropriate in a dominantly Muslim society. Also, like we indicated above, in many Bajau households women are de facto running the financial and logistical part of the fishing operation. While Bajau men generally catch the bulk of marine resources, it’s their wives who are in charge of processing these resources for export. On the Berau islands we observed that women not only handle sales with traders like Ibu Mutiara, they also manage credit loans and place orders for fishing gear from Malaysia with the traders they collaborate with. The fact that most of these women’s management activities are acted out informally does not diminish their importance in fisheries. After all, small-scale fisheries and fish trade are to a great extent enmeshed in informal relations and practices.

This fusion of informal and business relations is also manifest in Ibu Mutiara’s trade network. For the buying, transporting and selling of her kima, she goes along with Bajau custom in which networks of collaboration follow or mimic relations of family (Nolde 2009; Sather 1997). New business allies are added to her network by (mutually) determining a certain kinship affiliation, no matter how distant. And if there is no faraway niece or uncle to be found to ascertain such connections, they fall back on a common Bajau ethnicity, which is also referred to as: ‘we are all one family’.

The historical-geographical dimension of Bajau social networks is crucial for the way fisheries and fish trade is organized in Berau. Ibu Mutiara descends from the Malaysian-Philippine Bajau groups that have migrated southwards to East Kalimantan in the last 100 years or more (Sather 1997). Until today, Bajau families in Berau sustain close ties of trade and family with oversees places and kin, and there is a constant flux of relatives and trade partners coming in and going out of the Berau delta (Pauwelussen 2016). Although such networks of Bajau affiliation are dynamic and geographically dispersed, they are also cohesive. They are made cohesive through continuous visits, phone calls and exchanges between kin in (and moving between) different places.

Among the Bajau, it is particularly women who make an effort in keeping alive family relations. Because of the tendency to matrilocal residence among the Bajau, the connections between female relatives generally predominate over those between men (Morrison 1993). Moreover, as they do most of the ‘networking’ through gossip, exchanges and attending ceremonies, Bajau women are also more involved in, and knowledgeable about, family ties than men. Clearly, their social networking is of considerable importance to the way in which fishing and fish trade is organized and sustained.

This historically grown, transnational network of real or imagined relations of family and Bajau ethnicity also form the feeding ground of Ibu Mutiara’s business, patterning the lines along which loyalty and reciprocity is motivated and mobilized for her kima trade interests. The immersion of business and family is particularly apparent in the way Ibu Mutiara safeguards passage of her kima load through customs (crucial because of the protected/illegal status of her trade ware), by maintaining productive relations with (related/Bajau) politicians, police and navy officers (often through their wives) all along the trade route to Malaysia. This routine is supported by the tendency among the Bajau to identify stronger with ethnic-historical affiliation oversees than with national borders and to show more loyalty to family customs than to customs rules.


Most writings in fisheries history have turned a blind eye to the role of women. Apart from a few noteworthy exceptions which we have tried to summarize in this chapter, the overwhelming majority of studies do not employ a gender perspective. Although gender issues are now increasingly becoming relevant in the fields of fisheries, aquaculture, and marine and coastal management, historical studies are still laying behind. That is astonishing, given the importance of women as harvesters and collectors of marine resources and their central role in processing and trading. The vital role of women in the Scottish herring and the Newfoundland cod fishery are just two examples of female contributions that had a major influence on the development of these industries. As our case study in Berau has shown, women play a major role in the way fishing and fish trade in this region is organized and sustained. They sustain the networks of regional trade patterned along (informal) family/Bajau networks across the sea. Important is the historical dimension of these trade connections: the development of trade networks in time and space, networks in which relations of family, business, and trans-national ethnicity is fused. Based on the findings in this chapter, we argue that a gendered perspective on the different roles of men and women has much to contribute to a better understanding of the history of marine resource exploitation. Insights from a gendered perspective may also help to improve the governance and management of current and future marine resource use.


  1. 1.

    Law of the Republic of Indonesia No. 5, year 1990 on the Conservation of Natural Resources and Ecosystems, and Appendix Indonesian Government Regulation No. 7, year 1999: Types of Plants and Fauna.

  2. 2.

    The research was set up as a multi-sited ethnography. Whereas all three of Berau’s inhabited islands were involved in the research as fieldwork locations, one island functioned as base from where different trips and visits were made elsewhere. Because the commercial exploitation of giant clams is officially banned in Indonesia the names of places and people are not given here, in order to protect research informants.

  3. 3.

    To illustrate: When the researcher asked around for giant clam traders, people mostly directed her to male traders first. But when asking these men about the clam trade (price, organization, logistics) they referred the researcher to their wives instead, saying something like: ‘for the specifics you’ll have to ask my wife, it’s her business’.

  4. 4.

    In 2012, 1 k of sun-dried clams was worth 100.000 IDR to 130.000 IDR on the island (8–11 Euros at that time).

  5. 5.

    Providing the women with fishing or household products that she imports from Malaysia.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kathleen Schwerdtner Máñez
    • 1
    • 2
  • Annet Pauwelussen
    • 3
  1. 1.Leibniz Center for Tropical Marine Ecology (ZMT)BremenGermany
  2. 2.Asia Research CenterMurdoch UniversityMurdochAustralia
  3. 3.Wageningen UniversityWageningenThe Netherlands

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