12 / 1997
In 1969, a group of determined women established an association in Gloucester, Massachusetts, US. Called the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association (GFWA), its purpose was to protect and promote the Gloucester and New England fishing industry as well as work to improve the quality of life for fishing families.
In Gloucester, fishing vessels and businesses are family-owned. One of the original objectives of GFWA was to establish a co-operative. However, in the face of resistance from local fish processors, who threatened to stop doing business with the fishermen, this effort was abandoned.
GFWA also championed successfully the concept of a 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)to allow the nation to protect and manage local fisheries for the benefit of coastal communities. This was necessary because in the late 1960s and early 1970s, foreign factory trawlers were `vacuum cleaning’ the fishing grounds off New England and depleting fish stocks which local communities depended on for their future.
Nevertheless, at the US national policy level, the push for economic efficiency in seafood harvesting is making it more and more difficult for small-scale fishers to survive economically. Most of the conservation rules which are imposed to save fish stocks cause plenty of economic damage to fishing families, while doing little to reduce fish mortality.
GFWA represents small-scale fishing families who lack the financial and organizational resources to influence economic and regulatory policy which favours more efficient harvesting. The policy is usually summed up in a few words: "There are too many fishermen chasing too few fish."
Many observers note that the regulations enforce a reduction in fishing capacity by driving families into financial ruin. The public normally accepts this policy and fishermen have been depicted as greedy rapists of the sea who care about nothing other than instant short-term profits. This image is promoted everywhere - from children’s feature films to national news broadcasts.
Government rule-making, which is often manipulated by outside economic interests, promotes conflicts among fishermen who use different fishing methods, by favouring one group over another. This makes it very difficult for the fishermen to unite their efforts in defence of their own interests.
The GFWA has begun to work towards helping the fishermen resolve these conflicts among themselves. The organizational capacity to bring together family-owned fish businesses is being developed. The goal is to clarify the issues for public debate, to leverage economic benefits for businesses, to influence government policy-making and to illuminate the many hidden costs to the public of consolidating seafood harvesting too narrowly.
GFWA is being supported in its efforts by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston with money and co-operation. The Archdiocesan health care system, Caritas Christi, is helping to develop an affordable health insurance program for fishing people. By offering affordable health care to affiliated fishing associations GFWA hopes to a build up membership in local grass-roots organizations and to encourage them to collaborate at a regional level.
GFWA also aspires to connect with other like-minded organizations. Each September an International Conference of Women in Fisheries is held, until recently, with participation from the US and Canada, since they share the same fisheries. These conferences have been very useful from a number of viewpoints. Women from Canada have warned of the serious negative consequences of simply providing welfare to fishermen so they can stay home. The social and family consequences of this Canadian policy have been disastrous.
Until recently, GFWA has not been supported by the fishermen in Gloucester, even though the women have become politically effective in ways the men never had time to develop. Things are changing now and a segment of the fishermen are looking to the organization to help them. This new relationship is opening up new possibilities. The experiences, talents and skills of the fishermen, their wives and other stakeholders from the community are being blended in a common action plan.
The GFWA is struggling to protect the interests of small-scale fishers in their area and to develop the local fishing industry. This is indeed a challenge given the fact that the heavy influence wielded by the industrial fishery sector has influenced fishery management policies adopted by the governments of the North and South. These policies have favoured the development of the industrial fleet, and have often hindered or restricted the access of small-scale fishing communities to fishery resources, causing considerable economic and social hardship. At the same time, they have not improved the management of fish stocks.
It is significant that the GFWA is also striving to improve the quality of life in fishing families, through, for example, making available affordable health care services. For GFWA, and for other organisations of women from fishing communities, the need to protect the access of coastal communities to fish resources, and the need to protect the culture and way of life of coastal communities, go hand in hand. Women of coastal communities see the need to view issues of fisheries management in conjunction with community-related issues, such as access to health and education. This is the perspective which needs to influence the agendas of male-dominated fishworker organisations.
Articles and files
BERGERON, David, Women lead the way in. Samudra Report, 1996/03, 14