Women in Aquaculture

Alex Whitebrook/ February 5, 2018/ News/ 0 comments

The need to increase women’s engagement in aquaculture has inspired Australia-based Dr Meryl Williams to focus her research on gender equality.

Dr Meryl Williams is a key figure in Australian aquaculture, with an impressive record in research management, science and outreach in fisheries and aquaculture. In 2015 she was awarded Australia’s prestigious Crawford Fund Medal for her achievements in these areas, as well as in food security, environmental conservation, gender equality and social welfare. Prominent among these is the website Genderaquafish.org, which Williams and several colleagues established as an information exchange for gender issues that affect people working in the industry in all parts of the world. Today, she works to ensure that gender is an integral part of aquaculture policy, practice and research.

Briefly describe your aquaculture career

Aquaculture became part of my fisheries research career in the late 1980s when I was on the committee reviewing Australian marine science and we touched on the promise of mariculture. In the 1990s and 2000s I led the WorldFish Center (previously called ICLARM) and aquaculture was a major programme component. Key questions we grappled with then were how the global supply of fish could meet growing demand, how to make aquaculture inclusive of small-scale farmers, especially women, and how to create truly sustainable improvements in production from genetic improvement.

Today, I spend a great deal of time on the need for gender equality in aquaculture (and fisheries). Recently, I profiled women in aquaculture with another researcher, Dr Cecile Brugere. We concluded that, although women work in all sections of the aquaculture value chain, their opportunities have not kept pace with the booming growth. Indeed, they tend to be falling behind as enterprises intensify and scale up production, losing women who were more active in small-scale farming but have few places in larger, more mechanised, vertically integrated farming, except as cheap labour in processing factories.

What inspired you to start in aquaculture?

Aquaculture simply cannot be ignored by any fisheries professionals. Many of my fisheries colleagues felt uncomfortable about the rapid growth of aquaculture with few early safeguards to make it sustainable, and some still do. I could see that aquaculture would have a critical impact on food production and society, as did agriculture thousands of years ago, and would develop much faster than agriculture. The production figures proved this. But I am sorry to say that the enthusiasm for growth at all costs had created problems. Just as seriously, but less obviously, the failure to consider adequately the human dimensions in aquaculture is an ongoing oversight. At an aquaculture industry conference in 1998, I presented on how aquaculture could benefit the poor and found that the idea of aquaculture being a tool to help people, rather than just to make profit, was novel to most of those present. Progress has been made since then, but this has been overshadowed by the dominance of larger and larger companies, a trend that has changed the industrial organisation of aquaculture.

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