First Woman and African To Lead World Trade Organizations Starts With Fisheries Subsidies

Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO), Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala   Photo: World Trade Organization

The new Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO), Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, an economist from Nigeria, made ending fishing subsidies by governments her first priority on Monday, according to E&E News.  This has long been a priority for the WTO, but her decision also reflects the importance of women in promoting and ensuring sustainable fishing globally.  Women make up “roughly half of the fishing workforce and an estimated 70 percent of the global aquaculture industry” but the actual number could be even greater because many women in the industry are “invisible and unpaid.”  And it is not just in the developing world — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports the same is true in Alaskan fisheries, where women play an integral, multifaceted, and underappreciated role.

Why This Matters:  As we celebrate Women’s History Month, we wanted to shine a light on women’s contributions to the natural resource economy.  When it comes to fishing in many parts of the world, women are often undervalued, vulnerable to some of the worst working environments, and even sexual victims in their seafood roles.  The new Director-General is giving a voice to women in fisheries who strive for both greater sustainability and equal rights.

How Are Women So Overlooked In Fisheries?

Women’s contribution to the fishing sector tends to be discounted because there is an emphasis on catching fish at sea, whereas women take on other roles such as fish processing, local sales, and subsistence fishing by fisheries.  This oversight creates a wage gap for women and also a knowledge gap because women’s knowledge and experience are overlooked in research and policy. One recent study began to rectify this situation.  A recent study of Mexico’s fisheries found that when women were given the opportunity to lead in fisheries, they were both great managers and entrepreneurs, as well as “active promoters of good practices, including (1) fishery and ecosystem restoration, (2) environmental monitoring, and (3) marine conservation.”  Similar groundbreaking research on women in Alaska’s fisheries found that because women tend to fish only near shore and for a single species, they are highly vulnerable to changes in prices and fish returns from year to year.”

Ghana’s Queen Fishmonger

In Ghana, women pass down the title of queen fishmonger — or Konkohemaa — from generation to generation.  The Konkohemaa is the most powerful woman in the fishing community because they have traditionally owned boats and financed fishing and that has guaranteed them a portion of the catch.  When the boats come in, the queen fishmongers bargain with the fishermen to buy their catch, according to the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF).  But this traditional system is beginning to crumble because of the decline in fish stocks — now the system is built only around profit and the queen fishmonger’s power is declining due to illegal fishing that is depleting local stocks. The EJF and its local Ghanan partner NGO Hen Mpoano have “found that women are left out of technical initiatives, community meetings, and management decisions. Illegal fishing has a drastic effect on their businesses too, and yet they have no say in the way this is tackled.”

To Go Deeper: Watch this EJF video about Ghana’s women in sustainable fishing and the growing crisis there.

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