To Help Women Working in Fisheries, WTO Should End Harmful Subsidies

Payments benefit industrial fleets rather than coastal communities, expert says

To Help Women Working in Fisheries, WTO Should End Harmful Subsidies

It’s no secret that women, especially those in developing countries, perform a lot of the hard, thankless work that keeps societies functioning. This is true across the fisheries sector, and to mark International Women’s Day (March 8), The Pew Charitable Trusts spoke with Dyhia Belhabib, Ph.D., program manager for Community Fisheries at Ecotrust Canada, who has worked with women in artisanal fishing communities across West Africa. 

One way to help improve conditions for women and all workers in small-scale fisheries is through ending harmful fisheries subsidies—the roughly $20 billion per year that governments pay primarily to industrial fishers to offset costs such as fuel, gear, and vessel construction. Subsidies can harm fish stocks by promoting fishing beyond sustainable limits.

Q: What drew you to ocean conservation?

A: I grew up in the small town of Tazmalt, Algeria, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the sea. We lived in semi-conservative society and by the age 14 I was engaged to a French-Algerian man who wanted me to become a banker.  But this didn’t feel right, so I ended our relationship and focused on my studies. After I passed Le Baccalauréat, [an academic qualification awarded by the Algerian Ministry of National Education] I found myself looking for a career that was the opposite of banking and I eventually found my way to marine science where I studied at the Institute for Marine Sciences and Coastal Management in Algiers.

Q: When did you realize this was going to be your life’s work?

A: Things really changed for me when I began my field work in Bejaia, Algeria, where I was doing a thesis on shrimp. I met a small-scale fisher who cried to me because he had nothing to bring home to feed his kids. He pointed to a trawler in the horizon and explained that the large fishing vessels were taking his food. For the first time I was exposed to the socioeconomic aspect of fishing, and it really struck me as being hugely important—not just about protecting the environment, but also about human beings. I had a profound realization: if you want to protect fish you have to protect the livelihoods of those who depend on the fish. I was also attracted to the challenge of being a woman in this field. It felt bold and rebellious. Once we all went out on a trawler on an acoustic survey for 15 days, and there were 40 men and just four women. There are not many women in Algeria with an engineering degree who can build a trawling net and fish with it!

Q: When did you recognize that harmful fisheries subsidies was a critical issue that needed to be addressed?

A: I first realized the impact of harmful subsidies while working on a project to address IUU [illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing] in Guinea, Africa. I saw the impact of international fleets, fueled by subsidies, that were operating illegally and overfishing the local marine waters. I looked into the foreign agreements and saw how complex this issue is. We cannot just remove [all] subsidies from a sector that depends on them, as that would hurt small-scale fishers and coastal communities, many of which work to protect the ocean.

Q: More broadly, how do women fit in the fisheries sector?

A: Women mostly work as fish processors—in fact most of that work is done by women—and it’s a vital role. The sub-Saharan [Africa] countries would be malnourished were it not for women smoking, salting, and drying fish—difficult, heavy labor that they do mainly outside and in facilities that I wouldn’t describe as processing plants but rather as sites due to the modest equipment. Across Gambia, Mauritania, Guinea, Senegal, and other countries when the pirogues arrive the women wade into the water and use baskets to bring the fish ashore. I remember being hugged by lots of women processors the last time I was in Senegal—they asked me to make a case to the fisheries minister for more modern equipment, like smoking ovens, especially as catch is declining and processing factories are competitive. These women are losing business. They can’t survive in the long run. They don’t have the same access to funds that the artisanal fleets have, and they don’t get help with day-to-day operations and have no assurance of an ongoing supply of fish. 

Q: The World Trade Organization is considering new rules to end harmful fisheries subsidies, which would help meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Do you think that will happen?

A: I think WTO negotiators need to be mindful of the impact that harmful subsidies have on fish stocks. There needs to be some fine-tuning [to the policy] but removing all the subsidies is not helpful. If [negotiators] are thoughtful, they’ll allow for some subsidies, a process of transition [to wean fishers off of subsidies], and available alternatives for communities. The industrial sector can always find other investments yet the artisanal sector doesn’t have the same luxury. Once we have less fish for the industrial sector we will have more fish—and opportunity—for the small-scale sector, and thus they won’t need subsidies anymore. That could also help women be more competitive in the sector, especially if some of the artisanal subsidies go toward women and other vulnerable groups. 

Q: What other factors are affecting fish stocks?

A: Climate change plays a role here: Fish follow their preferred temperature range, wherever that leads them, and some countries will benefit from those shifts and others will lose. I’ve heard a lot of fishers say they’re following the fish from Senegal to Mauritania. Fish will return in many areas after the removal of the subsidies. More research is needed to understand these effects better.