By Annam Raza
When nomadic humans first began to settle down, they exchanged their wandering lifestyles for more sedentary ones. This settlement did not occur in one place; these so-called cradles of civilization sprang up all across the world, from the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East to the Andes in South America. They did all have one thing in common: they tended to form near bodies of water. As a result, alongside hunting and agriculture, fishing was one of the primary ways to obtain food. As societies advanced, fishing became a specialized skill, creating a community and culture around it.
Fast forward to modern day: industrialization rapidly expanded fishing, and technological advances meant that small-scale fisheries were eclipsed. Our newfound ability to catch large amounts of fish, back when there was a relatively pristine ocean, led to overfishing, depleting the ocean of its once plentiful resources. In the 1800s, we almost hunted whales to extinction. By the 1950s, Atlantic cod and herring, as well as California sardines, suffered a similar fate. The privatization of fisheries led to unequal distributions of marine resources, but despite this, the small-scale fishermen, entwined with history and culture, continued to fish. It was all they knew, but in a fishing market saturated with competition, this created a cruel self-perpetuating cycle: impoverished fishermen would harvest too much from the sea, making overfishing worse, but they had no alternative forms of livelihood.
Today, overfishing is one of the biggest problems faced by marine conservation, alongside pollution and climate change. Commercial fishing needs to be assiduously monitored, as its methods result in large amounts of by-catch and rapid depletion of resources, but the same does not apply to small-scale fisheries. Although they do contribute to the problem of overfishing, the solution is not to shut them down; the livelihood of 12 percent of the world depends on them, and they employ 90 percent of the world’s capture fishers and fish workers. Fisheries and aquaculture are the source of 17 percent of the animal protein consumed in the world and up to 50 percent in some Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and Asian countries. Although small-scale fishers supply most of this food, their own families are often too poor to afford food. To overcome this paradox, as well as reduce the impact of small-scale fisheries on overfishing, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) collaborated with governments to develop a set of ‘Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-scale Fisheries in the Context of Food Security and Poverty Eradication.’ One particular emphasis within the guidelines stands out: the role of women in fisheries.
Women are severely overlooked in fisheries, despite making up a significant percentage of the work force – almost 46 percent, according to some statistics. They are involved in pre- and post-harvesting work, as well as other forms of aquaculture such as collecting mollusks using hand nets, and managing households when men are away at sea. Despite their quiet (but clearly significant) contributions, they are rarely economically remunerated, and relegated to a lower socioeconomic status. By neglecting to include them in development and support systems, policies reduce their chances of breaking the cycle of poverty, but their importance in households is undeniable.
One of the strategies to curtail overfishing focuses on this importance: instead of urging men to find alternative forms of employment, women should be offered microcredit, providing them with resources to find food, and money, elsewhere.
What is micro-credit?
Founded in 1983 in Bangladesh, Grameen Bank decided it would extend small loans to impoverished people without collateral, a credit history or proof of steady employment. 95% of the bank’s loans are to women, although they are not necessarily gender specific. Although intended to help alleviate poverty in cities and agricultural communities, this theory could easily be adapted to suit coastal communities.
Not only would this help alleviate overfishing, it would also benefit the women. It would encourage them to develop their entrepreneurial instincts, and allow them to be more creative. More often than not, they cannot afford an education, but this would give them the liberty to exercise their intellectual muscles. This, in turn, would strengthen their presence in communities, allowing them to be acknowledged as visible strongholds. It is foolishly optimistic to think it would overcome gender inequality, but it would certainly help reduce it, and having actual capital to work with, their worth would be quantifiable. Over time, as they focus more on external avenues of income, women would be less inclined to have more children, as they would have a concrete reason to have smaller families. This could help address another problem plaguing our planet: overpopulation. The intrinsic education that would come along with learning to manage a small business would hopefully spill over into the awareness of a smaller family being a smarter idea. Over time, this could lead to better education, and eventually, the widespread adoption of contraception, which would again, reduce the population explosion prevalent in so many developing countries
Research suggests that women have better repayment skills, and focusing on helping women is favorable for societal improvement. As they also tend to have longer life expectancies than their husbands, they are usually the dominant gender in old age, replacing the men as heads of households. These schemes often allow for intelligent women that have been overlooked to shine in their own right, while still assisting their community.
This strategy is not merely theoretical; it has succeeded already. In Zambia, 700 women from the village of Mbete turned away from fishing the shores of Lake Tanganyika, as they simply could not turn a profit. Zambian fishermen used to be able to catch Buka Buka (Lates stapperssii) throughout the year, but by the mid-1990s, the fish were only rarely caught between April and October. Alongside this, the steep slops of the lake resulted in erosion and sedimentation loss. The importance of the maintenance of Lake Tanganyika, which provides a livelihood for 7 to 10 million people, resulted in the introduction of a revolving fund in 2009, which enabled those 700 women to receive small loans. Initially, they started by planting rice, but the success of their efforts has supported expanded efforts in poultry farming, vegetable gardening and fishpond farming. They even plant cena and pinecones to alleviate the effects of erosion. An initial investment of $60 has resulted in a yearly return of $279, allowing these women to feed their families and send their children to school.
And this was in Zambia. Modern microfinance has humble roots, but since starting in Bangladesh, it has slowly spread across the world. In 2006, the Microcredit Summit Campaign was founded, and members have pledged to end poverty by 2030. The 2014 summit will be held in Merida, Mexico, but there is a very similar one much closer to home; for the past eight years, a microfinance summit was hosted right here in San Diego by the San Diego Microfinance Alliance. The Alliance aims to educate people about microfinance, and contribute to alleviating global poverty. The change will not be a sudden one, but then again, the problem is not a simple one: poverty is intrinsically entwined with other dilemmas we face on our planet. Yet every step in the right direction will chip away at these issues. Although the victories described earlier do not seem like much, they have the potential to accumulate over time. With respect to overfishing, for each family that is no longer reliant on fishing to survive, there is an equivalent marine life population that manages to stay alive and reproduce. So, in this case, every drop counts.
Image by Christian Ostrosky