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Dona Maria

The state's neglect of women's fishing

Before meeting Dona Maria, I often heard her son Careca talk about her. Interestingly, when I met her in person, her husband was the one who told her story. Extremely shy, Dona Maria is not one to talk.  But she smiles and nods as her husband, Seu Valdelicio, tells his wife's story, which is also their family's story. Seu Valdelicio learned to fish by himself when he arrived in the region. He learned to throw nets to catch tarrafa on the beach. At the mouth of the river, he caught robalo, guaiúba and a lot of tainha. But his official profession was as a driver, he worked for many years on the Rota line (local public transport), and as a driver for the farms around the village of Serra Grande.

At the end of the afternoon, sitting on a wooden bench in front of the family's house, we watched the cars speed by on the BA-001 less than 20 meters from their porch. The BA-001 road, now paved with asphalt, has been part of the family's life since Seu Val arrived in Serra Grande more than 40 years ago. He drove along it every day, first as a dirt road, and from the 2000s onwards, on the road paved by the Northeast Tourism Development Program. As a driver, first of the logging trucks and farm vehicles, and later of the local transport bus, Seu Valdelício claims that it was with the road that he raised the family. And it was through it that he arrived in Serra Grande and met Dona Maria, daughter of Serra Grande, who lived on the banks of the Sargi River with her family of fishermen and shellfish gatherers.

Dona Maria, 63 years old, remained silent and smiling sitting next to me while Seu Val told me this story. She didn't say much, but she did tell me that she was born in Ponta do Ramo, where her parents had a farm in the mangroves, where she learned from a young age to gather aratu and shrimp. Despite all her shyness, she told me:

“I used to catch a lot of shrimp by hand. I would stick my hand in the hole, and it would come out full of shrimp.”

Desenho 06 -Camarão_edited.jpg


Seu Val says that Dona Maria went with her cousins to fish for shellfish. Her mother also caught shellfish, but she was the one who caught the most. She says that she misses those times, but that nowadays everything is different. In addition to not being able to go shellfishing due to her health conditions, even if she could:  “The mangrove is no longer how it used to be. ”After getting married, Dona Maria moved to the house where she lives today with Seu Valdelício and their children on the banks of BA-001. She continues to fish for shellfish, but now in another part of the Sargi River, which passes at the back of the new house.

Sargi River Mangrove

Since the construction of the BA-001, the areas on the banks of the Sargi River have been privatized and sold, leaving no paths to the shores to gather shellfish. In addition, with the growing real estate speculation in the region, native families have been increasingly pushed away from the banks of rivers and coastal strips, finding themselves increasingly distant from their childhood places and their traditional ways of life. In the case of Dona Maria, she still lives between the river and the sea, but the road also crosses her land, and shellfish no longer inhabit that mangrove. Like shrimp, which in the past was synonymous with abundance, nowadays, as Dona Maria says: “You can’t find them anymore.”

Dona Paula - Fisherwoman/ Walking in the mangroves

Dona Maria was once “colonized”, but, as Seu Valdelício tells it, with “the fine-tooth comb of the Temer era”, Dona Maria lost her General Fisheries Registry (RGP), and today, aged 63 and disabled, is still trying to retire as a fisherwoman. In 2001, one year after the inauguration of BA-001, a car lost control on the road and crashed into Dona Maria's house, where she slept with her two children. The accident caused irreversible damage to  her health. Since the accident, she has not been able to gather shellfish. Seu Valdelício makes a point of saying that during Lula's time, Dona Maria even received assistance from the INSS for the accident, but later, the president changed and she lost her rights.The fragility of the rights won by fisherwomen and shellfish gatherers is underscored by Seu Val's comment. Rights in Brazil are subject to political winds, a fact which contributes to the precarity of many citizens, including fisherwomen.


Like other fisherwomen, Dona Maria's fishing was not aimed at commercialization. It was never an economic activity for her. The shellfish and fish caught were for the family's food. It was Careca, her son, who turned fishing into a form of family income. As Seu Valdelício told me, despite fishing all his life, to eat and offer fish to his children, that was not his occupation. He did not want that for his children.


“Because the life of those who depend on fishing is very hard.”

But Careca chose to be a fisherman, “a real fisherman” as Seu Valdelício says: "Careca is really a fisherman, who goes to the sea and doesn't get sick." Interestingly, this framing links being an authentic fisherman with the ability to travel on the open ocean. While validating Careca, this way of understanding identity also marginalizes Dona Maria and all the other women who do not go to the open sea, even if they have lived a lifetime of fishing.

Careca - Fisherman / About Dona Maria shellfish gatherer

The woman who fishes plays a fundamental role in maintaining the fishing way of life for the community. However, her work is not characterized as economic activity– be it processing the fish caught by the men in the family, or bringing home fish to enhance household food security. Even though Dona Maria herself doesn't like to eat fish, as she confessed to me, she is still the one who works for others to have the pleasure of bonding over food. She is the one who always prepared moquecas and fried fish that live in these men’s memories and which inform their affection for fishing.

She is also responsible for cleaning and processing all the fish and shellfish caught by both the father and the son. Careca assures me that she enjoys this work, so much so that she won't let anyone else touch the fish when he comes home from fishing:

“My mother cleans them, she loves it! (...) It's something she's done since my father's time.”

The problematization of women's place within the fishing production chain poses an important question of the non-productive social place, historically characterized by the determination of women's space within domestic and family care. This complementary opposition between a fisherman, who goes out to sea, and a woman who stays on land  taking care of the house and family, is not a symmetrical opposition. The valuation of the adventure of going out to sea versus fishing on land have different returns when considering the household chores required to do after. As well as the relegation of processing to women, an activity linked to dirt and discredit, hierarchize power and prestige relations within the complementarity of the fishing family.

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Tainhas na rede

Careca fishes mainly with corrico, a kind of line that pulls artificial baits with rods and spear fishing. Spearfishing uses an air containment technique called apnea. As he tells it, he wanted to continue living in the village with his family and then he realized that he would need to improve his techniques to remain a fisherman. But he still throws the tarrafa in the winter to catch tainha, which is one of the region's traditional techniques and which he learned from his father as a child. All the fish caught by Careca is processed by Dona Maria, who does not receive monetary remuneration for her work. As Careca and Seu Valdelicio explain, she does it out of love. The fish are sold in their own small fishmonger's shop, also on the family's land by the BA-001 road, where they sell to tourists and other locals.

But Careca says he doesn't live off fishing, like his father. Rather, his fishing complements his income, brings family food, and feeds his fisherman's identity.

“I don't live from fishing, but I love fishing, I love being at sea. I love seeing my father happy, the satisfaction in his eyes when I arrive with the fish, which is something he taught me. Today he can't fish, but he doesn't stop eating the fish, I know and keep alive what he taught me. I want to pass it on to my son, in the right time, if he is interested (...) It's more to keep that flame alive, the culture, the essence, always respecting nature, the place.”

However, among women, female fishing practices, such as shellfish gathering and processing, are not being passed on to younger generations. Dona Maria always cleaned her husband's fish, and now she cleans her son's. Careca's wife does not know how to clean fish and is not interested in learning. As Careca told me, women are interested in other things, like paid work. Collaborative relationships between younger couples do not take place in the old fashioned way, in which the man went out fishing, and the woman took care of the house, the children and processed the fish. Now women want to earn their own money.

Baldy - Fisherman / About women in fishing

As Careca states, the few shellfish gatherers left are getting old, and shellfish gathering. As she told me once, the exclusive dedication of the employment relationship associated with the General Fishing Registry excludes the diversities of the category itself. As he told me:

“I don't live from fishing, so I don't need to be associated with the colony, but I wanted to have my registration, to be recognized as a fisherman.”

Careca's speech characterizes the superficiality of the legislation, which only sees fishing strictly as an economic activity. As such, it fails to capture the great variety in the activity, which is especially relevant in order to recognize the work of women.

Dona Paula
Dona Maria
Dona Nane
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