My first time

The first time I saw a gendered aspect to fisheries was during my time as a research assistant at the School for Field Studies (SFS). Our research base was in Puerto San Carlos, Baja California Sur. San Carlos is a small fishing town, the primary industry is seafood- blue crab, shark, rays, sardines, you name it.  It also has a cannery and fishmeal production. The cannery turns out small aluminum cans that you might find on a store shelf, and the fishmeal facility turns small fish and fish by-products into pellets, mostly for pig feed from what I remember. The cannery is a major source of employment for the residents but it is not without its problems- dumping waste into the local water is a commonly known one in the region. The consumption of sea turtle meat is also a chronic problem, and some innovative conservation scientists have dug into this issue for decades.  One innovative young scientist found that murals of sea turtles designed to support an environmental ethic were actually working to change the public’s opinions about sea turtles.

There was no hiding the cannery in town. When the big siren sounded, it meant a boat was coming in and workers needed to show up, no matter what time of day or night. And then you had only about an hour to breathe before the stench of cooking fish wafted your way (the school was so unfortunately downwind of the cannery). My first few weeks I was quite sensitive to the smell and gagged a lot at the stench, but that went away with time.

One day, we toured the cannery while it was operating. The smell was quite intense-there was an extra layer of bird poop on top of the cooked fish- because the birds hung around and picked up all the droppings on the docks. We donned face masks and hair nets, and were allowed to watch the workers on the assembly line. I was struck by the sight- most of the workers were women! There were a few men working the big cooking vats, but I really hadn’t been expecting to see so many women. It made sense, though- a lot of the men worked on the boats, and when they came in to rest, many women went to work at the factory. There weren’t a lot of other employment opportunities in town.

A bit later on, there was a protest in town. As I understand and remember it, there were foreign fishing vessels nearby and the fishing community wanted the local authority to step in. And when I went by the protest, I observed that the crowd was almost entirely men and there were no women present. It struck me that if the local fisheries were going to be impacted by more competition, then it could impact not only the employment of fishermen but also the employment of the women in the cannery. But where were the women? Why weren’t they participating in the protest? Why was their employment and participation in the local economy so invisible? I was infuriated, because I assumed nobody cared about the women’s jobs. Now, I’m sure that can’t be true, certainly the women cared about their jobs, but their participation just didn’t seem visible.

I never pursued these questions, but they influence me still. Where there is a crowd, a protest, a meeting- I look for the women. Are they present? Do they speak up? Are they listened to? Were they even invited? Do they want the same things as the men or do they have a different approach? I think these are great questions to start with. We need to make the invisible visible, and that starts by removing the scales from our eyes through our own observations and reflections.

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again-a gender lens is not something we can “get” right away, because it is a fresh way of looking at the world that you may not have ever tried before. To put on a gender lens you have to dig into the nuance of age and socioeconomics and race. It takes time and effort for us to pull back the curtain–for  our eyes to adjust to the dim light that is currently shined on gender, and to understand that what we have been looking for all along is hidden in plain view. We were just too gender-blind to see it.