In July 2020, amid a global pandemic, the tiny island of Mauritius faced one of the worst ecological disasters it had ever known. The MV Wakashio, a Japanese tanker, ran aground on its southeast coast and leaked a 1000 tonnes of fuel oil into its crystal blue lagoon. This was particularly devastating because the oil polluted 27 km2 of the island’s southeast coast, which is home to artisanal fishing villages and two important nature reserves. The devastating effects of the oil spill were compounded by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which disproportionately impacted an often overlooked and neglected subgroup of Mauritian fishers: women gleaners.
Gleaning in Mauritius: A gender and cultural perspective
There are four primary types of fisheries in Mauritius: bank, sport, tuna, and artisanal fishing. Gleaning, which falls under artisanal fishing, is a fishing method commonly used in shallow coastal areas or habitats exposed at low tide to collect marine life such as shellfish, seaweed, octopus and urchins (Fig. 1). While both women and men glean, in many countries like Mauritius, gleaning is primarily done by women, who tend to be largely unregistered artisanal fishers who fish to feed their families subsistence. Since gleaning typically happens on a small, localized scale and is not currently regulated by the Mauritian government, women gleaners are often not officially recognized through any registration system. Out of the 2200 registered fishers in Mauritius as of 2019, only 35 of them are female, and more than half of them operate on the southeast coastline impacted by the oil spill.
Fishing in Mauritius is often more than just income or subsistence; it is a way of life, one that is part of the culture and comes with traditions, especially when the whole family depends on marine resources for a living. The gendered nature of fishing in families is common, where men spend long hours fishing at sea and women either collect shellfish or spend very short periods at sea. This allows the women to spend more time caring for children or doing household chores. However, such gendered roles also highlight the challenges faced by women who must juggle these tasks. These women usually do not have access to boats or other fishing methods that would allow them to generate more revenue. There may also be cultural barriers where women are hesitant to come forward as fishers or tend to downplay their gleaning/fishing activities, as these activities are considered poverty-related activities. With the oil spill affecting a part of the island where artisanal fishing is the main activity, in addition to the lack of recognition, multiple communities, including women fishers, were left in an impoverished state.
Impacts of the oil spill on women gleaners: A deep personal loss
COVID-19 had already taken its toll on the villagers’ livelihoods and the oil spill served as an additional burden, significantly impacting the fisheries sector. Usually, registered fishers receive a monthly compensation of MUR 10,200 (USD 256), but unregistered fishers are not eligible for any compensation. As such, crowdfunding through local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) was the main source of support for these unregistered families.
Stefanie, a 34-year-old woman gleaner, had to prove her worth as an artisanal fisher with much difficulty to the authorities, to become a registered fisher and receive compensation. But she says that many other women fishers did not have this chance. Before the oil spill, these women were bringing additional income to their families. With the aftermath of the oil spill, many of them had to reach into their savings to feed their families and cover other expenses that were usually covered with their revenue from gleaning.
When the authors of this study spoke to 40 women living in villages impacted by the oil spill (Fig. 2), many of them expressed how this loss of revenue from gleaning activities led to food insecurities. In addition to having to buy food from shops instead of fishing for their food, they had to resort to backyard gardening to feed their families. Sometimes, food shortages even prevented their children from attending school because they did not have lunch to bring. The low levels of economic activity due to COVID-19 prevented many families from getting other informal jobs such as in construction, making their living situations even more dire.
Aside from the financial struggles that came with the compounded effects of COVID-19 and the oil spill, Sylvie, a 45-year-old woman gleaner describes it as a deep personal loss to not being able to go out and collect shellfish with her friends. In her own words, she says “I’m sad, thinking we could have gotten a meal out of a day gleaning with my friends today. I feel helpless”. Even more heartbreaking, it is this loss in generational knowledge and way of life that Mauritians are mourning with the coastal communities along the affected southeast coastline.
The sea is important to one and all
The marginalization of women in fisheries policy and management not only in Mauritius, but globally, is well documented. Recognizing women’s fishing activities would not only help these women legitimize their careers but would also help them on both cultural and economic levels. For example, in contrast to Mauritius where gleaning is still an invisible profession, the neighboring semi-autonomous island of Rodrigues (part of the Republic of Mauritius) recognizes gleaning activities, mainly octopus fishing (Fig. 3), as a main pillar of the economy. With 32% registered women fishers and gleaners, women have more opportunities and rights to contribute to fisheries-related discussions, and they are rightfully compensated for their work. Although women gleaners on Rodrigues Island face their own unique challenges, those in Mauritius face more significant issues due to lack of recognition. A useful first step here would be for Mauritian authorities to acknowledge women fishers and gleaners as an integral part of the system.
While Mauritius regularly ranks high on most development indices, the island still lags behind in gender equality related to economic participation. A system that does not recognize unregistered fishers further exacerbates these gender inequalities since women are systematically more likely than mean to be unregistered. In addition to recognizing women’s fishing activities, decision-making and policy development regarding fisheries should include both women and men for fair and equitable marine resource management and more sustainable outcomes, both ecologically and socially. After all, sustenance fishers like women gleaners are fishers worthy of support too.
Born and raised on Mauritius Island in the Indian Ocean, I came to the United States in 2015 as a Fulbright scholar to pursue a Masters degree in Marine Science at North Carolina State University. After completing my Masters degree, I stayed at NC State University where I am currently a 4th year PhD candidate, also working in parallel as an ORISE fellow at the U.S. EPA. My current research focuses on two blue carbon habitats: seagrass meadows and salt marshes. I am applying different methods ranging from satellite remote sensing to water circulation models to fill the current knowledge gaps in the areal extent and carbon storage capacity of these important blue carbon sinks for better monitoring and management of such ecosystems in the face of climate and anthropogenic pressures. When not sciencing, I enjoy my daily yoga routines, taking care of my house plants, watching f.r.i.e.n.d.s for the hundredth time, and nature walks/hikes.