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Sea of Women: A WWF Special

Together with WWF, we’re putting women back into the stories of oceans. Sea of Women II takes you to two unique places in the Coral Triangle, where women contribute to sustainable fisheries by collecting data and raising awareness about protecting marine life in a mainly men-run industry. A story of strong women in the planet’s richest centre of marine diversity.

become an ocean witness
18 September 2019 | Coral Triangle, Maleisië

This Ocean Witness story is created by WWF, read the original version here.

“We have seen over the years, many of our coral reefs around the islands being destroyed by outsiders who practice fish bombing. The reefs are home to the fishes, which is our main source of food. It is not okay. We care about our marine resources,” said 19-year-old Aija who grew up on the Mabul Island, one of eight islands that surround the idyllic Semporna region on the east coast of Sabah, Malaysia.

Semporna is part of the Coral Triangle – a vast ecoregion of 6 million km2 that fuels economies and supports the livelihoods of more than 130 million people directly. There are more coral reef species in the Coral Triangle than anywhere else in the world, and is an area frequented by the blue whale, the largest animal to ever live on Earth.

But what makes Semporna idyllic – the beautiful reefs, diverse marine life, and bountiful fish – is being threatened by unsustainable fishing practices, including fish bombing.

Around 86% of corals in Semporna are at risk of destruction by fish bombing. Ending such practices is key to protecting the reefs and fisheries.

Wanting to protect the island she grew up on, Aija gathered her friends to support WWF-Malaysia’s Fishery Improvement Project (FIP). Earlier this year, they received training on how to collect fish catch data from the Mabul fishermen, which is then used to inform plans and polices in the development of sustainable fisheries.

As young citizen scientists, Aija and her friends visit the landing area in late afternoons to collect the data, when fishermen return with their catch to sell to middlemen on the island.

There they would measure the catch amount, the number of fishing trips made and amount of fuel used by the boats, which helps the local Fishery Improvement Project (FIP) to monitor Semporna’s fisheries and develop action plans accordingly.

Beyond collecting data, Aija and her friends volunteer with WWF to raise awareness on protecting marine resources. Together they engage community members to start planning for the impacts of climate change on their island, and to implement fishery surveys on other islands where there too are community-managed marine areas.

Despite being in her teens, Aija is already contributing to the household income. When she’s not busy collecting data on the coasts, Aija spends her days making and selling handicrafts to tourists to support her family, in hope that she can help reduce their dependency on fishing activities.

Being young and a woman, it is not easy for Aija to be taken seriously, especially in community-based planning sessions where participants are usually men. When asked if she finds that to be a barrier, she shrugged and said, “I believe that we are not the only ones doing this.”

"I believe that we are not the only ones doing this. I just hope that more youths like us out there will gain the awareness to protect and manage our resources,”
Aija added.

Aija is right. Far off to the south east of Semporna, women in Madang province of Papua New Guinea are being trained as community facilitators, and learning how to conduct spawning potential surveys with their fellow fisherfolk.

Like Aija, Beatrice Osaker and Raylyn Buanam are helping to manage their community-based fisheries by gathering data. These surveys help provide essential information on fish maturity and level of fish stocks in the community’s marine area, which are essential for decision-making by their community leaders who manage the fisheries. Communities surrounding the Madang Lagoon have become almost wholly reliant on marine resources for their livelihoods as land availability is limited due to coastal erosion and overpopulation.

Although Beatrice and Raylyn play an important role, there were challenges at first, including within their own communities, with some members viewing the surveys as intrusive or unnecessary.

“Initially, due to poor understanding there were mixed reactions among the community members. Some appreciate the work we do, others feel jealous or suspicious of what we do. They did not understand why we needed to measure the fish size and all that. After the recent awareness training with assistance from WWF, our fishermen are now more willing to allow me to collect information from their catch,” explained Raylyn, who spends two days each week as a community facilitator with WWF.

Beatrice, friends with Raylyn since they met through the survey trainings, agreed, “Just like Raylyn, there are challenges with fishermen not willing to allow me to collect information from their catch. However, I have included my family members who are very supportive of what I do.”

“As I am cutting fish, community members would ask me to tell them what the story is with fish. There is always a lengthy discussion. Often, I cannot answer all their questions, and I know there is a lot more that I need to learn,” Raylyn added.

“Yes, they ask all kinds of questions! Such as the sex of the fish, the maturity status. I share this information with them for their own understanding and to help with the overall community support towards this survey,” chimed Beatrice. When she is not working as a community facilitator, Beatrice gardens, fishes, and sells produce at the market to support herself and her family.

Thanks to the consistent data collected from the spawning potential surveys, Beatrice’s community was able to set a five-month tambu – a special coastal or marine area agreed to by the local communities, where a part is carved out for fishing, while the other half is protected from all activities for the fisheries and marine life to recover. The effect of the tambu was very positive, with enough resources that Beatrice’s community was able to share the area with other clans.

Despite the initial success, Beatrice is cautiously optimistic. She explained why, “Now that our understanding has increased about fish management, we must next learn to follow restrictions on fishing gear. For example, using the correct the size of mesh nets is important so that we are not catching juvenile fish.”

Raylyn agrees, “Through the work we put into the survey, my community now understands more about certain fish species. We have since established a small tambu area in our community’s water. Hopefully we can bring back some of the fish species that have not been caught in a while.”

Footnote: Cover image – © James Morgan / WWF-US

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Sea of Women: II

Maleisië

Together with WWF, we’re putting women back into the stories of oceans. Sea of Women II takes you to two unique places in the Coral Triangle, where women contribute to sustainable fisheries by collecting data and raising awareness about protecting marine life in a mainly men-run industry. A story of strong women in the planet's richest centre of marine diversity.