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For Ann Singeo, being in the ocean has always been a way of life. Growing up in Palau, she and her mother would gather on the shore with other women in their village. They would wade into the sea to talk, share food, and glean—hand-collecting marine animals to eat or sell. From the other women, Singeo learned about the biology and spawning cycles of sea cucumbers, which are commonly consumed in the country. “But it was really about enjoying nature and the connections with other women,” says Singeo, now a celebrated conservationist and Indigenous knowledge advocate. When she became a mother herself, Singeo brought her daughter to glean beside her in the turquoise shallows.
But in 2011, everything changed for Singeo and her fellow gleaners. Dried sea cucumber, or bêche-de-mer, is prized in Chinese cuisine and traditional medicine. In Hong Kong, top specimens can fetch an eye-watering US $1,800 per kilogram. In Palau, a ziploc sandwich bag of the animals costs just $3. So when buyers offering top dollar arrived that year from China, Korea, and Taiwan, it sparked a covert trade in sea cucumbers that soon exploded into a collecting frenzy.
So alluring was the payoff that Palauan men, who don’t typically target sea cucumbers, pivoted from their reef fishing businesses to collect the valuable echinoderms. Although harvesting them for commercial export had been outlawed since 1994, interested fishers were quietly given permission by local leaders to do so. “It was like a party in town, everyone was selling a lot of sea cucumbers,” Singeo recalls. “But for me, it was really depressing.”
By the time the government finally quashed the trade in early 2012, 1.1 million kilograms of sea cucumbers worth $1.3-million had been exported from Palau. The harvest all but wiped out the sea cucumber population, which fell by 88 percent and still has not recovered. With the party over, men who profited from the trade returned to their fishing businesses, and women gleaners were left to bear the loss of their cultural practice and livelihood.
“Gleaning was such an important part of women’s lives in this community, and now it’s gone,” says Singeo. “It feels like a part of your life was taken away from you.”
The saga illustrates how the benefits and harms of fishing are unequally shared among different demographic groups, even within the same village. Fishing is often assumed to be a male occupation, but that “narrative obscures the important role that women play in the harvesting of fisheries resources,” says Caroline Ferguson, a graduate student studying equity in fisheries at Stanford University in California.
After spending a year in Palau and hearing stories like Singeo’s, Ferguson wanted to know how and why the 2011 export boom impacted men and women differently. By interviewing more than 200 people, she and her Palauan colleagues found that men were able to displace women in the fishery by leveraging the knowledge and assets they’d acquired as reef fishers.
These advantages begin in childhood. Palauan boys—but not girls—are raised to spearfish and freedive on the reef. They learn about the species that live in these deeper waters, including a large and lucrative type of sea cucumber. In 2011, men were able to access this species while women were not, explains Ferguson.
Boat ownership is also male-dominated in Palau. In addition to harvesting the deep-water species, men used their boats to target sea cucumbers in the nearshore areas where women traditionally glean, says Singeo. “They would fill a five-gallon [20-liter] bucket with 200 sea cucumbers, up to 20 or 30 buckets per boat. They did this every night for months.” When areas close to shore became overfished, women had to travel farther from home to glean. Though some married women could use their husbands’ boats to do so, explains Ferguson, unmarried women and widows were not so lucky.
Around the world, women’s contributions to fisheries are routinely overlooked and undervalued, says Sangeeta Mangubhai, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society Fiji. Women gleaners in Fiji, for instance, are offered lower prices than men for the exact same product, she says. In Tanzania, women have fought to reclaim their traditional octopus fishery from interloping men. Getting more women involved in marine resource management is important, says Mangubhai, “because only then can we make sure those with the quietest voices are not being left out.”
By the time Singeo gave birth to her youngest daughter, the sea cucumbers were gone, and so was the ritual of gleaning.
Now when they go to the ocean, Singeo teaches her daughter how to cultivate sea cucumbers in the hope of restoring wild populations. The next step, she says, is to push for regulations that protect cultural use of resources so that they’re passed on to future generations. “This is just the beginning of the work that we’re doing.”