Octopus represents both food and profit for small-scale fishers who live along the shores of the western Indian Ocean. Changes in the region have implications for fisherwomen that need to be addressed by fisheries policy and management to become more gender equitable.
The warm salty waters of the western Indian Ocean glow bright turquoise in the late morning light. As the tide turns, fisherwomen in multi-coloured kangas start to wade back to shore after a full morning of pweza hunting.
In their hands hang bunches of octopuses, their bodies turned inside out. The women have skilfully speared them after spending hours scanning the nooks and crannies of the intertidal zone.
Women of the Swahili coast and neighbouring shorelines traditionally have fished octopus, among other creatures of the seashore, using the same techniques their mothers used, and their mothers and mothers’ mothers before them. Their hunting balances on the movements of the tide, changes in the weather, the needs of their families, and demands of the local societies in which they live.
But today’s drivers of change, such as the growth in global seafood markets, tourism, conservation efforts, and oil and gas extraction, threaten the context in which these women hunt octopus.
Copyright: A. Wosu.
New research shows how women in fisheries stand to be disproportionately affected by future interventions and policies if they fail to recognise their needs. These fisherwomen remain, on the whole, invisible: governments rarely collect information on their catches, their income, or their wider contributions to their households and society.
How exactly the many fisherwomen of the western Indian Ocean – and the households they support – will navigate their shifting positions is unclear. These octopus hunters require recognition and integration into fisheries policy and research, with a specific goal of addressing gender inequality, to ensure food and livelihood options for all.
Octopus and fisherwomen in the western Indian Ocean
Coastal communities throughout the western Indian Ocean have hunted reef octopus for centuries, from the Comoros to Madagascar, from Mozambique to Tanzania. Today, approximately 1.7 million people work in small-scale fishing in this region. Despite a lack of statistics, octopus is known to be an important source of food security and economic activity for these coastal populations. It is worth $2 to $3 USD per kilogram, to local traders waiting onshore. Hunting it requires little financial investment for fishing equipment or other costs, and once caught it can be sold immediately for quick profit.
The western Indian Ocean region stretches from Somalia to the tip of South Africa, and includes islands in the Indian Ocean. The coral reefs, mangroves, and other ecosystems here are rich in biodiversity. Recent studies at the sites mapped here have attempted to bring a gender perspective to fisheries management issues in the region. Image: E. Wikander/Azote.
While men have been involved to some degree, women usually have been the main hunters of octopus on the Indian Ocean’s African coast. They sell it fresh to local buyers onshore, or dry it and fry it to make it last a long time, as a nutritious protein source for their households or for sale in local markets. Their long-established practice fits with gender expectations: they remain close to shore in the intertidal zone. This marine space remains the only one in which most women can work due to socially constructed rules, perceptions, and duties embedded in the various local cultures. Women often may not learn to swim, which keeps them close to shore, wading but avoiding deeper water.
Women also tend not to have access to fishing boats – whether they are considered bad luck, unable to handle a boat, or don’t have the time available to learn how while taking care of their children and households. Men with access to boats may be able to access octopus gardens farther away from their homes or in deeper waters, while these remain hidden to women.
Fishing activities follow the natural dynamics of the marine environment, both daily and seasonally. Good weather makes hunting easier for everyone. But in rough weather, which might last for a whole season, women close to shore might not be able to spear octopus, as they cannot see them through the choppy waves. They switch to other creatures to harvest, such as cockles. While rough weather also affects men with vessels heading out to sea, in Zanzibar, for example, men can travel to the far side of the island to more sheltered bays, which is not an option for the women there who are expected to stay close to home.
Exporting octopus, feeding tourists
In the past decade, the demand for octopus from global markets has grown, both for export and international tourism. These relatively new market forces have recast gender relations in the fisheries of the coastal Indian Ocean.
The white sandy tropical beaches of Unguja, Zanzibar, where the local women hunt pweza, have attracted a booming and rapidly growing tourist industry. Western-style resorts have sprung up all over the island, attracting visiting tourists with an appetite for fresh and high quality seafood, particularly the delicacy of Swahili grilled octopus or the pweza wa nazi coconut lime soup.
Copyright: A. Wosu.
These types of foreign enterprises operate outside the culturally acceptable sphere of many local Swahili women, who are expected to avoid interacting with unrelated men. In 2013, Actionaid, an international charity focused on women and children, reported that men have benefited more from tourism, as the traditional Swahili value system prevents women from getting tourism jobs and from selling their fish directly to hotels and restaurants. Some men have gotten steadier or increased incomes from selling fish or from tourism-related work. Only a handful of women in southern Zanzibar, on the island of Unguja, have managed to create relationships with local restaurants that cater to tourists.
Tourist hotels also close off beach areas, blocking access to octopus gardens for men and women alike. But men tend to have the option of travelling farther afield more easily than women do in Zanzibar, which might allow them to access fishing grounds elsewhere.
Today, women increasingly compete with men who are attracted by the ever-popular octopus and seemingly easy profits. Octopuses exported or sold to the international tourist markets command higher prices than those sold locally. In mainland Tanzania, Zanzibar, and Madagascar, women fishers have been displaced from their traditional hunting grounds by their male counterparts in response to the arrival of exporters, large-scale traders, and westernised tourist resorts, researchers and others report.
For example, fishermen in the Kilwa region of Tanzania responded to increasing octopus prices linked to increasing demand, and readily displaced women octopus fishers, observed Marilyn Porter, a sociologist and professor emeritus at the Canadian Memorial University who focuses on women in fisheries.11. Porter, M., Mwaipopo, R., Faustine, R., Mzuma, M., 2008. “Globalization and Women in Coastal Communities in Tanzania.” Development 51(2):193–198.DOI: 10.1057/dev.2008.4See all references
The men identified themselves as breadwinners, and felt entitled to push women out, she reported, as women’s practices were not seen as real “fishing” – despite the skill required to spear an octopus.
Copyright: A. Wosu.
The fishermen acted in groups to rent vessels and access SCUBA gear, which women do not do because of cultural norms. This gave the men further advantage, and allowed them to rapidly increase their fishing effort across the seascape, so they landed more and more octopus – which became less and less available. This trend spread across the Indian Ocean towards southwest Madagascar during the early 2000s as the demand for octopus grew.22. Evans Ogden, L., 2017. “Fisherwomen—The Uncounted Dimension in Fisheries Management: Shedding light on the invisible gender.” BioScience 67(2):111-117. DOI: 10.1093/biosci/biw165See all references
Predictably, the octopus rush led to an octopus crash.
Managing octopus gardens
As exports and international tourism increased, the governmental agencies that manage local fisheries from Zanzibar to Réunion and non-governmental organisations realised they needed to turn their attention to octopus fisheries. One idea to recover from the crash was a shift to community management of octopus; starting in Madagascar, Blue Ventures spread the practice into communities in neighbouring Rodrigues, Zanzibar, Tanzania, and Mozambique.
Octopus grow and reproduce fast; they represent a key species that can quickly boost its population as a result of periodic short-term fishery closures. Short closures in Velondriake, Madagascar, led to increases in terms of income and landings.3-43. Oliver, T. A., Oleson, K. L. L., Ratsimbazafy, H., Raberinary, D., Benbow, S., Harris, A., 2015. “Positive Catch & Economic Benefits of Periodic Octopus Fishery Closures: Do Effective, Narrowly Targeted Actions ‘Catalyze’ Broader Management?” PLoS ONE 10(6):e0129075.DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.01290754. Benbow, S., Humber, F., Oliver, T. A., Oleson, K. L. L., Raberinary, D., Nadon, M., Ratsimbazafy, H., Harris, A., 2014. “Lessons learnt from experimental temporary octopus fishing closures in south-west Madagascar: benefits of concurrent closures.” African Journal of Marine Science 36(1):2014DOI: 10.2989/1814232X.2014.893256See all references
Copyright: A. Wosu.
But these closures and the community-based management seem to have overlooked women. In southwest Madagascar, women reported in the early stages being left out of the decision-making process. Village assemblies were composed nearly entirely of men who managed the fishery closures. While women wanted access to harvest in low tides, the assemblies did not open the fisheries in those windows. Women could not join these assemblies, sometimes due to lack of transport to travel to meeting sites or because of their domestic duties.22. Evans Ogden, L., 2017. “Fisherwomen—The Uncounted Dimension in Fisheries Management: Shedding light on the invisible gender.” BioScience 67(2):111-117. DOI: 10.1093/biosci/biw165See all references
Beyond the garden walls
Recent work in Mozambique by Adaoma Wosu of the University of Edinburgh shows how politics and the broader social economic setting affects women fishers. Wosu starts small to get a bigger picture. For example, religious prescriptions such as purdah can be strong. On Ibo Island, women often need their husband’s permission to connect with markets or traders, to have phones, or to travel.55. Wosu, A., 2017. The social-ecological dynamics of fisherwomen's behaviour: a case study from northern Mozambique. PhD Thesis, University of Edinburgh.See all references
Religious practices vary along the Swahili coastline, but are likely to have a similar bearing on women’s role in fishing.
Socio-economic factors may be as important in determining who hunts octopus: Wosu logged fishing times, target species, gear used, and fishing grounds over various time periods to map out the activities of fisherwomen. All fishers’ behaviours are poorly understood, yet are a major contributor to fishery crises and management failures. She found that women who hunted octopus the most were most likely to have had a mix of characteristics, such as little formal education, few sources of income, or young dependants.
Copyright: A. Wosu.
Recent policy shifts in Mozambique, for example, focused on protected or conservation areas and excluded individuals from various fishing grounds, concentrating fishing effort in nearby areas, and removing government support such as ice storage facilities and transport. As in other cases, Wosu found these limits made it harder for women to get access to fishing areas nearby relative to men, as well as to transport for sale.
Wosu argues that the case study of Mozambican fisherwomen shows how social dimensions are intricately linked to the dynamics of the ocean, as well as to the interactions of external drivers such as politics and internal institutions, for example religion and gender norms.
Gardening the octopus
Octopus management offers a chance for decision makers, both at local and higher levels, to directly address gender inequities across many small-scale fisheries. However, huge challenges lie ahead, especially for women hunting octopus.
International markets will continue to drive more men to hunt more octopus, as women’s access to this resource and the income it might bring them becomes more limited due to the constraints of gender norms and the locations in which they are expected to operate: in the home, by the shoreline.
To make headway on these issues, researchers need to ask the right questions to capture women’s particular perspectives. Decision makers need awareness and training so that their interventions in small-scale fisheries address the specific needs of women, without causing harm.
Copyright: A. Wosu.
One assumption that misleads fishery scientists and policy makers alike is that households or family livelihoods will improve if men increase their fishing incomes. Gender-based research shows otherwise.66. Porter, M., 2012. “Why the Coast Matters for Women: A Feminist Approach to Research on Fishing Communities,” in Gender in Aquaculture and Fisheries: Moving the Agenda Forward. Asian Fisheries Science Special Issue 25S:59-73 ISSN 0116-6514Download PDFSee all references
This will be difficult. In addition to conservation and tourism, oil and gas discoveries threaten to swamp out local fisheries management, especially on the Swahili coast and in neighbouring countries. Mozambique in particular had a boom in petroleum exploration in the first decade of the millennium, and the government supports ocean drilling despite likely environmental impacts – and conflicts with fisheries.77. Benkenstein, A., 2013. “Small-Scale Fisheries in a Modernising Economy: Opportunities and Challenges in Mozambique.” Governance of Africa’s Resources Programme. Research Report 13. South African Institute of International Affairs. 53 pp.Download PDFSee all references
Meanwhile, recent government support to commercialise small-scale fisheries – for example, constructing trading centres and approving use of nets and other technology for offshore fishing – tends to outweigh sustainable management for food security and nutrition for coastal communities.88. O'Neill, E. D., Crona, B. 2017. “Assistance networks in seafood trade – A means to assess benefit distribution in small-scale fisheries.” Marine Policy. 78:196–205.DOI: 10.1016/j.marpol.2017.01.025See all references
Local fisherwomen continue to hunt octopus, for now. It remains to be seen how this traditional hunting partnership will evolve, in the context of these looming regional changes in the western Indian Ocean.
Show references (8)
1. Porter, M., Mwaipopo, R., Faustine, R., Mzuma, M., 2008. “Globalization and Women in Coastal Communities in Tanzania.” Development 51(2):193–198.DOI: 10.1057/dev.2008.4
2. Evans Ogden, L., 2017. “Fisherwomen—The Uncounted Dimension in Fisheries Management: Shedding light on the invisible gender.” BioScience 67(2):111-117. DOI: 10.1093/biosci/biw165
3. Oliver, T. A., Oleson, K. L. L., Ratsimbazafy, H., Raberinary, D., Benbow, S., Harris, A., 2015. “Positive Catch & Economic Benefits of Periodic Octopus Fishery Closures: Do Effective, Narrowly Targeted Actions ‘Catalyze’ Broader Management?” PLoS ONE 10(6):e0129075.DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0129075
4. Benbow, S., Humber, F., Oliver, T. A., Oleson, K. L. L., Raberinary, D., Nadon, M., Ratsimbazafy, H., Harris, A., 2014. “Lessons learnt from experimental temporary octopus fishing closures in south-west Madagascar: benefits of concurrent closures.” African Journal of Marine Science 36(1):2014DOI: 10.2989/1814232X.2014.893256
5. Wosu, A., 2017. The social-ecological dynamics of fisherwomen's behaviour: a case study from northern Mozambique. PhD Thesis, University of Edinburgh.
6. Porter, M., 2012. “Why the Coast Matters for Women: A Feminist Approach to Research on Fishing Communities,” in Gender in Aquaculture and Fisheries: Moving the Agenda Forward. Asian Fisheries Science Special Issue 25S:59-73 ISSN 0116-6514Download PDF
7. Benkenstein, A., 2013. “Small-Scale Fisheries in a Modernising Economy: Opportunities and Challenges in Mozambique.” Governance of Africa’s Resources Programme. Research Report 13. South African Institute of International Affairs. 53 pp.Download PDF
8. O'Neill, E. D., Crona, B. 2017. “Assistance networks in seafood trade – A means to assess benefit distribution in small-scale fisheries.” Marine Policy. 78:196–205.DOI: 10.1016/j.marpol.2017.01.025