A new look at historical data through the lens of gender illuminates the dynamic role women play in Alaska’s commercial fisheries.
Women play an integral, multifaceted—and until now, largely invisible—role in Alaska fisheries. The first comprehensive study of women’s participation, incorporating gender into 30 years of existing data, shows women participate in Alaska fisheries differently than men.
“Women are really important players in Alaska’s commercial fisheries. They’re key in contributing to family adaptability and in turn to community resilience,” said Marysia Szymkowiak, the scientist who conducted the Alaska Fisheries Science Center study. “Knowing how women participate directly in fishing and within fishing families and communities is critical to predicting and understanding responses to fishery changes—from individuals, to families, all the way up to communities.”
Historically, fisheries data on participants have not included gender. Such a gender-blind approach limits our understanding of access, mobility, and empowerment issues and can actually lead to gender biases.
“Not examining fisheries participation for women and men separately implies that there are no differences between them in our fisheries. That’s a flawed assumption with potentially negative social and ecological implications if women and men participate differently—and this research shows that they do,” said Szymkowiak.
Beyond direct participation in the harvesting sector of commercial fishing, women perform many other jobs that are vital to fishing success. Women step in where needed to adapt to changing fishing and family situations. This includes shoreside employment, working on family boats, direct marketing, and engaging in the political process. This essential but “invisible” work is not captured in fisheries statistics.
“We cannot ignore the critical role that gender plays,” Szymkowiak said. “Understanding when, how, and where women fish, and what limits their participation, is essential if we are to maintain and promote community resilience in the face of huge ecological, market, and management changes in our fisheries.”
Szymkowiak set out to explore women’s engagement across Alaska fisheries over time, and under dramatically changing environmental, management, and socioeconomic conditions.
To accomplish this she took a two-pronged approach. The study combined quantitative estimates of women’s direct participation as harvesters with focus group discussions. This provided a deeper exploration of women’s overall engagement in fisheries.
The quantitative estimates were made using an innovative method to “genderize” more than 30 years of Alaska fisheries harvest data. Alaska fisheries records include the name of the permit holder making each landing, and their birth date. Using only this information, the free R software package Genderize predicted harvester gender with a high degree of accuracy (greater than 90%).
“A key contribution of this study is demonstrating how readily gender can be added to existing fisheries data,” said Szymkowiak.
These genderized data were combined with results from focus groups conducted across seven Gulf of Alaska fishing communities with the most fishing activity. Focus groups discussed the many dimensions of women’s participation in fisheries, including gender norms, changing fishing conditions, and the future of fishing families.
Patterns of Engagement
Policy and Economic Implications
Understanding women’s participation is essential to an overall understanding of commercial fisheries dynamics. Ignoring gender can lead to unintended consequences in the event of economic, environmental, or policy changes. Women may be overlooked in policy considerations and disproportionately affected by regulatory actions.
For example, the responsive nature of women’s participation, while critical to fishing community resilience, may marginalize women in fisheries. Intermittent participation can put them at a disadvantage in catch share and limited entry programs that entitle participation on the basis of fishing history.
A lack of opportunity to diversify may make women especially economically vulnerable.
“I think one of the key findings of this research is how dependent women are on a single species,” said Szymkowiak. “That kind of economic dependence really makes them tremendously vulnerable to changes in prices and fish returns from year to year. Fishermen are used to fluctuations, but when they don’t have a buffer with earnings from other fisheries, that can make even one year a complete game changer. This research indicates women are more susceptible to those types of effects. So while women support the adaptability of Alaska fisheries through the many roles they fill, they are highly vulnerable to changes in this one resource.”
In a separate upcoming study, Szymkowiak found that Alaska fisheries parallel global trends. Women around the world perform jobs that are critical to the success of fishing operations and communities, but remain largely unrecognized in official fisheries statistics. This, together with the lack of gender in fisheries data worldwide, means women’s participation is poorly understood. Ultimately this contributes to the continued ignorance of gender differences in fisheries engagement, which are exacerbated by gender-blind policies.
“This research is just the start of what needs to be done to understand how gender affects fisheries participation in Alaska. My hope is that gender will become a key variable in fisheries data across various levels of access and ownership so we can understand how it shapes economic vulnerability and resilience,” said Szymkowiak. “By showing how gender can be incorporated into our fisheries data, this study moves us in the right direction.”
Source: NOAA Fisheries