“No man can be a fisher and lack a wife” – casting light on women’s central role in the fishing industry

8th Mar 24 by Amelia Cookson

To celebrate International Women's Day, we explore the history of fishwives and how women play a vital role in the global fishing industry.

You may have heard the expression ‘swearing like a fishwife’ or sung along to ‘Molly Malone,’ (also known as ‘Cockles and Mussels’). But have you ever wondered where sayings and songs like these come from?  

To celebrate International Women’s Day, we are going to dig into the history of fishwives and explore how women still play a vital role in the global fishing industry, including in the farmed salmon supply chain.  

What is a fishwife?  

Step back in time to Scotland in the 19th and early 20th century, where fishing was mainly seen as a man’s job. However, on shore, women played critical roles within the industry.  

Whilst caring for their large families, these women were responsible for cleaning fishing lines, attaching new bait, gutting, processing the catch, carrying the fish to the marketplace and selling the fish. Sometimes the work even included wading out to the anchored boats to carry the men back to shore on their backs! You can see how this old east coast saying is no exaggeration; “No man can be a fisher and lack a wife“.  

They managed the work alone as their husbands were away fishing for extended periods of time, making them self-sufficient. Their role as a salesperson gave birth to the saying ‘swearing like a fishwife,’ as the women were known to be loud and foul-mouthed. However, like any good salesperson, they had to be loud and persuasive. Especially given the highly perishable nature of the fish.  

Fishwives were an essential part of the local economy and culture of Scotland until industrialisation in the mid-twentieth century made small-scale fisheries obsolete. 

Women in the modern-day fishing industry  

Whilst fishwives, such as the ones described, may have vanished from Scotland and elsewhere, women continue to play a vital role in the modern-day fishing industry around the world.  

Today, millions of lives and livelihoods are supported by aquatic food systems. According to the FAO, 58.5 million people were employed in the primary fisheries and aquaculture sector in 2020, half of whom are women (including pre- and post-catch). However, women also constitute a disproportionately large percentage of the people engaged in the informal, lowest paid, least stable and less skilled segments of the workforce, and often face gender-based constraints that prevent them from fully exploring and benefiting from their roles in the sector. 

When it comes to salmon farming, in our recent report Blue Empire, we found a repetition of these patterns, where women are being negatively impacted by the industry.  Salmon are carnivores and depend on wild fish in their diet, in the form of fishmeal and fish oil (FMFO). For the Norwegian salmon farming industry, much of this wild fish is being sourced off the coast of West Africa, depriving local communities and women of this fish.  

Traditionally, women play a central role in processing and selling fish throughout the region. They dry, salt, ferment, and smoke fish such as sardinella and bonga, a vital source of affordable protein, then store and sell them for local consumption. This craft is handed down from mother to daughter across generations and is a source of pride. 

However, now they are bearing the brunt of the damage caused by the industry which is gobbling up valuable micronutrients in a region where millions of women suffer from anaemia and simultaneously driving up the price of fish, pushing women out of business.  

The small fish targeted by the FMFO industry contain key nutrients including iron, zinc, and calcium. These nutrients are critical for children’s cognitive development and for women’s health in West Africa, where more than half of the female population suffer from anaemia. 

 The increasing scarcity of fish stocks has also driven more and more women out of business as they are unable to compete with ever-increasing prices per crate of fish. Following a major on-the-ground investigation in January this year, The Financial Times quoted Fatou Thoiye, who lives in a Senegalese fishing town: 

“A case of yaboi [round sardinella] used to cost 3,000 francs [5 euros], now it costs 50,000”. 

Women are fighting back 

To survive, in the past, Senegalese women processors came together in so-called economic interest groups (“groupements d’intéret économique”, or GIE) to ensure purchasing strength through numbers. But in recent years, more and more GIEs have lost a substantial number of their members who, despite mobilizing, could no longer make a living through fish processing and sales.  

To counteract this problem, processors and fishmongers have been calling for a recognition of their profession which would grant them a better place in decision-making and policy-making processes to defend themselves against powerful fishing and FMFO industries. However, their call has yet to be acted upon despite the economic, social and cultural significance of their work. 

Ultimately Norway’s and other countries’ appetite for FMFO to feed farmed fish is creating relentless pressure on West African fisheries, making it increasingly challenging for people in West Africa to defend their livelihoods. 

What’s the solution? 

To combat these issues, we’re calling on Norwegian decision-makers to stop further growth in salmon farming, mandate genuine transparency throughout the supply chain, and ensure that Norwegian companies’ activities and feed sourcing practices do not run counter to the country’s own development policy, which puts women and Africa centre stage. Feedback will continue to work with local community groups in West Africa, as well as groups challenging the farmed salmon industry in the UK and Norway. 

Despite the many issues of the industry, much of the Norwegian farmed salmon ends up being sold as a ‘luxury’ product in restaurants across the UK, like Wagamama. Take action to help stop this injustice by signing our petition, in partnership with Eko and Wild Fish, calling for restaurant chain Wagamama to drop farmed salmon from its menu.

Photo © Clément Tardif / Greenpeace

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