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Women in artisanal fishing

Shellfish gatherers and fisherwomen in southern Bahia

According to the Ministry of Fishing and Aquaculture, artisanal fishing (traditional/subsistence fishing) is the most common type of fishing activity in the country. It is characterized by small-scale catches in small boats or from land, mainly undertaken for family consumption or a local market. The knowledge required for this type of fishing is generally transmitted orally and in everyday practice between generations. It involves extensive knowledge of the environment, tides, winds, and the life cycles of aquatic species. Artisanal fishing generally aims to maintain life instead of accumulating profit. For this reason, the actual number of artisanal fishermen is not reflected in the official data collected by the Registro de Pesca Artesanal (RGP) (Artisanal Fishing Registry), by the colônias de pesca (fishing colonies), or even by the associations of fishermen and shellfish gatherers. These institutions act in different ways and have different goals, and they do not always fulfill local artisanal fishermen’s needs or reflect their reality.


The colônias, or colonies, founded around 1920 by the Brazilian navy, had clear military goals. They required fishermen to affiliate in order to acquire state recognition. More than 800 fishermen’s colonies were created along the Brazilian coast. These colonies are still active today and act mainly as the intermediary between the state and the fishermen. They provide a type of “fishing registration,” which allows the “colonized” to work as fishermen. Furthermore, they also offer the fishermen some labor rights such as a humble pension, INSS (social security), and a kind of unemployment insurance, which provides them with a minimum wage during the reproduction period of certain species so that they are not fished and can reproduce. However, the fishing registration requires exclusivity, which means that the fishermen are not allowed to be employed elsewhere. As a result, many work in the informal market in addition to fishing.


In order to remain in the colony, the fishers must provide ongoing documentation of their activities and also pay monthly dues. Not all of them can afford this. As a result, fishing associations started to be formed to represent the specific local concerns of each group of fishermen and shellfish gatherers. In general, they take up issues that are more relevant to these fishermen, but they do not have the institutional power to issue registrations. It is common to encounter fishers who are “associated” but not “colonized.” In general, the associations’ representatives are usually fishermen from the community itself. This increases fishermen's bond and trust in these representatives, which does not often occur in the colonies, as they cover larger areas and are directly associated with the state. The state perspective that views fishing as only an economic activity fails to consider the socio-cultural ties embedded in the activity, and the state recognition through registration does not always match the local ideas  around who are the true fishermen and shellfish gatherers.

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Octopus Catchers

Dona Miracy told us, with a smile on her face, that her father used to say:


“- Start heating the water because I’m going to fetch our dinner!

And he would quickly come back with multiple lobsters.”

She remembers a nostalgic past when food abundance was part of her family’s daily routine. In fact, as she and her fishing partners say, at that time, it was not necessary or possible to stock up on food. Since there was no refrigeration, they would fish enough “for the day.” At most, they salted some of the fish to preserve them and sell them in nearby cities “so we could buy flour, sugar, and salt.”

Artisanal fishing is an essential part of food security for many families worldwide. In Brazil, artisanal fishing is, not coincidentally, more prominent in the economically impoverished states. According to the data from the  Ministry of Agriculture and Fishing, Bahia is the third state in terms of the number of artisanal fishermen registered in the General Fisheries Registry in Brazil. It is also one of the states with the lowest economic development rate in the country (Pnud Brasil, Ipea e FJP, 2022).

Source: MPP, 2016.

Throwing the line

Source: MPP, 2016.

At the same time, according to the map released by the Ministry of Fishing in 2016 (INSTITUTO GEOGRAFAR, 2022), Bahia is one of the regions with the most environmental conflicts involving artisanal fishing. Fishing populations fight to keep their livelihoods through a number of initiatives including indigenous and quilombolas land demarcations, delimitation of RESEX (extractive reserves) that guarantee their rights against large fishing vessels; protection against real estate speculation and gentrification processes caused by the region’s tourism; and the environmental fights against port and petrochemical projects that have been occupying the coast and causing irreversible ecological damage in the area.

Artisanal fishers have been asking for help. Especially in the Northeast region of the country, the families of artisanal fishermen are in a struggle guarantee their livelihoods and survival in the face of the environmental, social, and economic devastation that is plaguing them.

Artisanal fishing is not aimed at big markets or the production and accumulation of capital. The small-scale productivity of these groups seeks to guarantee food for their families and relatives and maintain their way of life.

Within artisanal fishing families, women occupy an even more oppositional space vis a vis the market. Women, fisherwomen, and shellfish gatherers remain invisible. Fishing is associated with men. The male noun “fishermen” dominates the fishing universe and the social imaginary of this activity.

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Net fishing

Men, with their central identity as fishermen, go fishing as their “official job,” even when it is on a small scale and for the local market, while women divide themselves into multiple identities - mother, grandmother, daughter, housekeeper, fisherwoman… all of which needs to be in equilibrium since it is women, in our social structure, that are responsible for the care of their children, relatives, and housework. Therefore, they are left with very little time to go fishing, which can only occur in the absence of other housework and can only last as long as it doesn't interfere with domestic demands.

These limitations not only restrict these women to the mainland, as they must be available in case a relative needs them, but they also pose time limitations on their fishing which are dependant on the routine of their homes, such as taking care of their children outside of the school day, preparing food for their husbands and other relatives and neighbors, and  making time for everyday care of the household.

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Fishing in the corals

In the structurally established social roles, it is not women who go fishing to sell their fish. This function is given to the men, who have more opportunities to go out in the ocean or practice fishing styles that require greater physical effort, such as net fishing, which yields bigger and more marketable fish. Even though the processing of these fish is largely done by women, this is an inferior and invisible job that takes place within domestic spaces.

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Risi cleaning the fish

The women we engage with in this project fish to feed their families, to help their relatives and friends in need, and to sell what is left as complimentary family income. From land, small, non-marketable fish are caught. This form of fishing ends up excluding these women from most official fishing records and, therefore, excludes their participation in official fishing numbers.


This project stems from this feeling of invisibility, which is often raised by fisherwomen in meetings, national conferences in the fishing sector, and in academic research. We seek to engage with these women, follow their daily lives, their knowledge, and their life stories, valuing their lives as a fisherwoman in an attempt, still incipient, to give them greater visibility.

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Fishing on the bridge

From 3 different regions in Southern Bahia, Serra Grande, Uruçuca- Brazil; Barra Grande, Maraú- Brazil; and in the Canavieiras Extractive Reserve - Brazil, we have gotten to know fisherwomen and shellfish gatherers, listened to their stories, learned their ways of fishing and living, and heard them reflect on their doubts and joys, difficulties and changes in their ways of life, eaten their recipes, and followed their customs, rituals and everyday lives.

Meeting of the Network of shellfish gatherers and fisherwomen of Southern Bahia

Certainly, the fishing universe is vast. If we consider all artisanal fishing, men and women use a variety of techniques and tools in the capture of many species.  We do not propose to capture it all. We are not interested in listing or registering all of the fishing techniques of a certain region. Our goal is rather to shed light on the multiplicity of the fishing universe, whether in techniques, species, or life stories– There is not just one way. These women, too, have multifaceted identities, and they cannot be, nor should they be, characterized in any singular way.

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Fishing crosses these women's lives in different ways. Whether in a therapeutic way, catching octopus with relatives, or fishing with a rod to feed the family. Whether processing the fish of their husbands, fathers, and children, or maintaining family life, or hanging out with friends and relatives, and in so many other ways, these women are fisherwomen and so much more.

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Serra Grande
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