The Other Half: Meet the Women Connecting Southeast Asia’s Seafood Supply Chain

Behind every fisherman are groups of women who are paving their own way in the seafood industry

Ibu Ersita now owns her family’s seafood business, having taken over from her mother, Ibu Rine. Though women make up half the workers in Southeast Asia’s seafood industry, they usually take on lower-level jobs that men refuse to do. However, that is starting to change. / Melinda Donnelly, USAID Oceans

When asked to picture how the seafood we eat makes it to our plates, many imagine men catching fish at sea or hauling their catch to market. But, women are an equally important part of the trade.

Women make up half of the seafood supply chain in Southeast Asia, working alongside men in many cases or performing work that is seen as too tedious or detailed for men. They organize boat trips, buy the fish once in port, and prepare and process the catch by painstakingly cutting, de-boning and packaging the fish for our plates.

Behind some of our favorite dishes is an entire other half of the workforce, which is often unseen.

And behind every fisherman are groups of women who are paving their own way in the seafood industry, working to provide for their communities, create more sustainable fisheries, and deliver protein to a growing global population of seafood consumers.

Women are shrinking the existing economic gender gap in salaries, work force participation and professional leadership in fisheries, which can ultimately increase the country’s GDP and advance their journey to self-reliance.

Paving A Way Of Their Own

Ibu Rine built her fish buying business decades ago. It is now run by her daughter. / Melinda Donnelly, USAID Oceans

On the small island of Sangihe in North Sulawesi, Indonesia, Ibu Ersita Masalamate runs her family’s fish trading business. Decades before, her mother, Ibu Rine Dapamani, founded the business, which purchases fish caught by small-scale fishers in the remote waters surrounding the island. She has now turned it over to her daughter to run.

The business sells the catch to a processing and exporting company in Bitung, North Sulawesi, a journey by sea of over 150 miles (241 kilometers). Processing companies export to international markets and offer higher prices for the fish than do local markets. Without a fish supplier like Ersita, fishers would be limited to selling their catch closer to home for much lower returns.

Ersita works with over 20 male fishers to buy blue marlin, various types of small fish including skipjack tuna and large yellow fin tunas that range from 60 to 140 pounds (27 to 63 kilograms) each.

Ibu Ersita now is the sole manager of the business, reporting that one of the most challenging parts of her work is to keep the fish she buys iced, as supplies are always low on the remote island. / Melinda Donnelly, USAID Oceans

In Indonesia, Rine is one of many women who buy fish from male small-scale fishers, but one of only a few able to buy high-value fish bound for international markets. The majority of women suppliers buy and sell comparatively low-value fish that is sold in the domestic marketplace and returns a fraction of the profit. To make ends meet, these women often resort to starting value-added businesses where they smoke, dry or otherwise transform low-value fish into higher-value finished products.

Creating New Markets For Sustainable Income

Ibu Marwiah (right) has become an entrepreneur, and a leader and advocate in the community for women’s empowerment and equal opportunity. / Melinda Donnelly, USAID Oceans

Ibu Marwiah Lahadji lives on the mainland in Bitung, Indonesia, one of the world’s 60 busiest ports. Here, fish are landed from across Indonesian waters, including from the Sangihe Islands. Marwiah buys raw skipjack tuna from the port for the cakalang fufu business that she founded in 1996, a smoked skipjack tuna product that is famous in the area.

She started the business at her home as a way to add value to the skipjack tuna, rather than selling it as a raw material for a lower price. She runs the business together with her husband, sister and brother.

Hasma Sapati works with Ibu Marwiah to prepare cured and smoked jackfish, and is now also the secretary for their women’s group in Bitung. / Melinda Donnelly, USAID Oceans

Through the business, she has become a leader in the community, providing employment to other women who otherwise may have to depend on their husband’s unpredictable fishing incomes. In the community, most smoked fish business owners are women who create additional jobs for men as laborers.

A woman sells fish for the local market at the Bitung Port. / Melinda Donnelly, USAID Oceans

In a place like Bitung where fisheries are the primary industry, it is often difficult for women to generate income of their own and it is particularly hard to manage finances when their husbands may be at sea for months at a time. Through the cakalang fufu business, women are able to achieve greater self-reliance for their families.

Marwiah is an avid entrepreneur, always pursuing new markets for her products to keep up with skipjack prices that have risen over the years due to limited supplies and growing international demand for the fish.

Business Partners And Caregivers

Ibu Maya is essential to her husband’s business and also the family’s primary caregiver. / Melinda Donnelly, USAID Oceans

Ibu Maya Tagengge grew up in the Sangihe Islands. Ten years ago she met Pak Muksin, who hails from Makassar, Indonesia, a city at the opposite end of the expansive Sulawesi island more than 700 miles (1,126 kilometers) away. When she and Muksin married, he was repairing car tires on the island, but that income was not enough to provide for his family.

“I’ve lived here for 10 years and have been a fishery entrepreneur (supplier) for the last two years. Before this, I had been experiencing many ups and downs,” Muksin said.

The couple built their fish trading business through Maya’s contacts, securing a consistent group of small-scale fishers to provide the fish they sell. “Since I am from Makassar and my wife is from here, most of the 100 fishermen I work with are my wife’s relatives and family,” Muksin said.

In addition to caring for their young daughter, Maya helps Muksin keep the business’ records. Maya records the transaction for the fisher and for the company that the fish will be sold to — a task male fish suppliers seldom perform themselves and is often done by their wife or an assistant.

Without these records, the fish could not be sold to mainland companies offering higher prices for the traceable tuna that international markets demand.

Maya’s role is not an uncommon one. Many fishers’ wives play a critical, but often less seen role in their husband’s business; they are responsible for preparing food and rations for their husbands’ fishing trips, properly storing and icing the fish once landed, and selling it on the local market.

Bridging The Gap

Ibu “RT” is the head of her village in the Sangihe Islands and also helps her husband in his fishing business. At dusk, Ibu RT can be found on the beach helping the fishers haul their boats ashore. / Melinda Donnelly, USAID Oceans

Although an essential component of Southeast Asia’s fisheries workforce, women often face a number of limitations. Cultural beliefs that women should not be aboard fishing vessels, for example, limit their opportunities for employment. Their economic independence is further challenged by limited access to market information, financial resources and mobility.

Public transportation is commonly deemed unsafe for women, limiting where they can go to sell their products. Women are also often at the mercy of informal lending schemes with high interest rates as formal loans are often out of reach for fisher families.

While Southeast Asia’s fisheries sector is becoming more progressive, there are still comparatively fewer women at the decision-making level and workplaces where most of the workers are women seldom have policies and practices in place that account for their needs.

USAID Oceans is working across Southeast Asia to bridge these gaps alongside our other priorities — combating illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing; conserving marine biodiversity; and enhancing the livelihoods of the people who work in and depend on the fisheries sector.


About the Author

Melinda Donnelly is the Senior Communications and Outreach Manager for the USAID Oceans and Fisheries Partnership. Follow @USAIDAsia for more.