WIOMSA, the Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association, convened it's 11th symposium from 1 to 5 July 2019 in Port Louis, Mauritius. The Organising Committee had invited Cornelia E Nauen of Mundus maris to deliver a keynote address on gender issues to support its own efforts to raise awareness on the topic. Starting with the opening with dance programme, four days of keynotes, parallel sessions of oral presentations on a wide array of marine issues with focus on the region and crammed poster sessions gave way to this keynote and a large number of special sessions mostly in an interactive format on day 5.

Hosted by the University of Mauritius, the symposium had a record number of registered participants with about 300 female scientists out of a total of roughly 650, many young up and coming colleagues.

There were more highlights than we have space here to report on, so all we can offer is a teaser:

Rashid Sumaila's keynote on why African countries should be champions for phasing out harmful fisheries subsidies in the World Trade Organization (WTO) walked the audience first through some key concepts and figures. He reiterated the global estimates of annual subsidies of about US$ 35 billion, most of which were harmful capacity enhancing transfers to private companies running industrial vessels.

Only a small part, often in the form of fuel and net subsidies goes to small-scale fisheries. As African fisheries are predominantly artisanal or even subsistence and anyway governments can spare few public resources for subsidies, African fisheries find themselves at a gross disadvantage to heavily subsidised foreign fleets fishing its waters.

Knowing that many distant water fleets would actually be loss making without subsidies and thus stop fishing, it would make much sense for African politicians to weigh in at the WTO to stop bad subsidies altogether. This would greatly help recover degraded marine ecosystems and stop the hemorrhage in earning of the small guys.

So Rashid's concluding advice for enhancing the state of fisheries was to fix the economics by removing incentives to overfish as shown in the slide to the right.

In the subsequent session (VI) on small-scale fisheries, K. Jesse and T. McClanahan reported on the results of their comparative study about public investment or disinvestment in healthy resources in 7 sites in Kwale and 6 sites in the Mombasa/Kilifi area, Kenya. The study covered data from 2010 to 2014, before nets were subsidised in Kwale while counties in the Kilifi cluster of sites invested into protected areas, and the period afterwards 2015 to 2017.

The results were rather clear. Resources and catch per unit of efforts of different gears were mostly in worse state in the second period in Kwale and up in Kilifi. Income of fishers having received net subsidies were down 7%, while those fishing in Kilifi near protected areas were up 12% compared to the previous period. Because in both areas a sizeable percentage of net with very small mesh size was used, the authors recommended phasing these out and using only larger mesh sizes to speed up resource recovery and upkeep.

Meanwhile, the WIOMSA Women in Marine Science association (WiMS) chaired by Veronica Bristol invited to a brown bag lunch. It was open to potentially all symposium participants, especially those who did not have the chance to participate in the pre-symposium workshop on Gender and Ocean hosted by WIOMSA and Mundus maris.

Indeed the interest outstripped the available space to seat all would-be participants. In short rounds of presentations and group discussions the WiMS leadership presented goals and activities of the association and got inputs from participants about what mattered to them for joining. The high expectations and needs for cooperation and mutual support were palpable. The energy in the room and willingness to engage more than compensated for the cramped conditions.

The gender keynote on the last day in front of a still well populated plenary was an opportunity to show participants that this socio-economic and cultural dimension was as much a critical ingredient to successful fisheries management as the results of biological and ecological research.

Cornelia started out reminding the audience that asking the pertinent questions and knowing how to extract the answers remained a challenge. As e.g. some of the underlying concepts of national accounting systems made value loaded implicit assumptions that could generate misleading data or create data gaps. A case in point is the framing that households are automatically male-headed despite evidence to the contrary as a result of demographic and social change in countries or regions. The weak sex-differentiated statistics in fisheries were another example which created obstacles to even asking some of these pertinent questions.

A meta-analysis of many case studies she had published together with others on gender in fisheries and aquaculture in 2004 had produced a pattern of invisible, unrecognised and under- or unpaid labour by women across countries in different socio-economic conditions. Fifteen years on the awareness has increased as could be gauged by a tripling of research papers since the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015 compared to the five decades from 1950 to 2000. Still, the numbers of studies are minuscule compared to the quantities of resource-related ones during the same periods. SDG 5 recognises gender equity and equality as among the basic conditions to achieve by 2030 and as a precondition for reaching many other goals.

Women are often disproportionately affected in their social status and income-earning possibilities in times of resource decline. Cornelia therefore proposed new avenues for collective learning and practice in ways that ask the previously forgotten questions and bring all stakeholders into the conversation about issues that matter for better futures. By way of example, she cited the first encouraging experiences during the pilot phase ot the small-scale fisheries academy in Senegal. The academy is developed by a collaboration in support of implementing the SSF Guidelines endorsed by the FAO's Committee of Fisheries and made part of SDG 14 in 2015.

Cornelia concluded her talk with some conclusions and suggestions for policy makers, but also for researchers. She signalled the interest of Mundus maris to engage with additional partners to make a difference through a broader international platform. The slides are accessible here.

The special sessions offered a final round of opportunities during the symposium to dig deeper into how to improve ocean management and increase the usefulness of research for policy and practice. The best artistic digest of such thoughts had been produced by Mahamoodally Mushulrah and won first prize in the World Ocean Day youth contest in Mauritius.

Get all the useful information about the whole of the 11th WIOMSA Symposium in Mauritius here.

Mundus maris thanks WIOMSA for the opportunity of a very productive cooperation in and around the symposium, in particular Julius Francis, Excecutive Secretary, Jacqueline Uku, President, and the entire Board and Secretariat.

All photos by CE Nauen.