By Pramasty Ayu Koesdinar (Programme Coordinator, AKAR Foundation)

It was on the southern coast of Bengkulu Province where I first met Maryana, a fisherwoman from Merpas Village, Kaur Regency. This coastal village is known for its beautiful Laguna Beach which is popular with tourists, as well as its supply of octopus. Although she has been fishing for many years, Maryana has never wavered in facing the waves at the edge of Laguna Beach in search of octopus.

By understanding the potential of their own marine resources, hopefully the community will be encouraged to discuss how to sustainably manage their octopus fishery and preserve their traditional livelihoods.Since early 2020, AKAR Foundation* has been assisting the community and octopus fishers of Merpas Village in recording their catch data. By understanding the potential of their own marine resources, hopefully the community will be encouraged to discuss how to sustainably manage their octopus fishery and preserve their traditional livelihoods.

It is rare to see fisherwomen in Indonesia, but it was at Merpas Village where I first saw Maryana. She pushed a small boat towards the sea to start her quest in search of the life-giving fish these waters offer.

In Sekunyit Village, not far from Merpas Village, I remembered seeing several women sitting and grilling some fish on the shore near a traditional port while waiting for the fishermen to dock. Not long after, upon seeing a boat with two fishermen approaching, the women rushed towards the boat.

They pulled and anchored it on the beach. The women were given some layur (largehead hairtail fish) for helping the fisherman secure the boat, whilst several other women took more fish to be sold in the village. A fisherman noticed me observing this routine and said,

In this village, we forbid women to fish. Our wives and children don’t do things like that because it is a job that humiliates women and undermines the role of men as breadwinners.”

Such a view is common in rural and urban communities in Indonesia, where there is strong gender segregation in the occupational roles of men and women. In this historically patriarchal society, women’s roles are largely confined to the domestic sphere with responsibilities like childcare and household chores.

Despite women’s contribution in processing and selling catches, fisheries work that generates an income is almost exclusively linked to men. This has severe consequences for women and undermines their authority in household decision making.

Often, patriarchal structures subconsciously thrive within the community and are considered natural.Often, patriarchal structures subconsciously thrive within the community and are considered natural. This suggests that women’s subordination is not caused only by men’s oppression of women per se; instead, it is constructed and instilled in a social system that has transcended into cultural values.

Some women who are aware of the oppression they experience have chosen a different path in order to improve their lives. In Merpas Village, the octopus fisherwomen have opted to dedicate their lives to fishing as a livelihood in order to provide for their families.

The octopus fishers of Merpas

Back in early September, on the day I visited Merpas Village, we met with the community and octopus fishers at the village office. In collaboration with Blue Ventures, AKAR hosted a training session on using participatory methods to record octopus catch data.

Maryana, who sat among us, is known for being a skilful and tough octopus fisherwoman in the village. A mother of seven, this 52 year old fisher is a woman of experience with extensive knowledge of the sea and octopus.

Maryana has now taken on the role as the primary breadwinner to provide for her family.She chose to become an octopus fisher after her husband had an accident which caused injuries that have prevented him from fishing ever since. Maryana has now taken on the role as the primary breadwinner to provide for her family. She expressed that fishing and hunting octopus is a fun job, and that it helps her to send her children to school and university. 

“Maryana and the other octopus fisherwomen in Merpas Village are traditional fishers who are generally referred to as nearshore fishers,” said Herwan, one of the octopus fishermen. “This is because they only catch octopus close to shore or on the edge of the beach where the water is shallower and the waves break,” he continued.

The fishermen use spears and the fisherwomen use wooden sticks or iron crowbars,” added Bobi, another fisherman, “These octopus fisherwomen are more skilful at catching octopus than men. They are more meticulous, so often they catch more than the fishermen.”

However, I learned that the number of octopus fisherwomen is relatively small, with only five fisherwomen in the village who consistently go out to catch octopus. Other women work in aquaculture or in processing octopus for food products, such as chips, satay, and octopus stew dishes or curry-like soups.

The community in Merpas Village rely on octopus for their own food security, as well as to earn an income | Photo: Pramasty Ayu Koesdinar | AKAR Foundation

Understanding their catch

Data collection requires identifying the sex of the octopus, which helps fishers to understand the creature’s life cycle because female and male octopus mature at different rates, with females taking longer to reach adulthood. To sustainably maintain the octopus population, female octopus need to be able to lay eggs before being caught.

During an exercise on collecting octopus data, Maryana, the only female participant, correctly identified the picture of a female octopus.

Maryana can also distinguish the sex of the octopus from its eyes – she mentioned that the eyes of the female octopus are more prominent than the male octopus.

She explained that the female octopus’ physical characteristics can be identified by the shape of the tentacles. The tips of a female octopus’ tentacles are usually more oval-shaped, while the male octopus’ look smaller, pointed, long, and one of them adorns a white web-like strip. Maryana can also distinguish the sex of the octopus from its eyes – she mentioned that the eyes of the female octopus are more prominent than the male octopus.

Aside from her practical knowledge of how to identify the sex of the octopus, Maryana also shared how octopus naturally respond when caught using traditional techniques.

“It’s better to catch a large octopus that weighs over 700 grams. Small octopus are harder to catch and more aggressive than those that have reached maturity, so I always release smaller octopus back to the sea. Mostly, I catch large octopus that weigh four to five kilograms each.”

Octopus drying in the sun ready to be processed and sold | Photo: Pramasty Ayu Koesdinar | AKAR Foundation

Maryana then continued to talk about octopus habitats, “Large octopus spend most of their time hiding at the breakwater, while the small ones hide in small holes and crevices in the rocks and coral. Octopus feed on shrimps, crabs, small fish, clams, and snails,” Maryana asserted confidently.

As nearshore fishers, Maryana and her fellow octopus fisherwomen don’t use a boat and usually walk from the shore towards the coastal flats in search of octopus.

She acknowledged that octopus fishing in this way is affected by the movements of the tide. As the tide begins to ebb, they venture out to the shallows to hunt down octopus, but when there are storms or strong winds, it’s too dangerous for them to go out and fish.

Even when the weather allows, catching octopus is becoming increasingly difficult in Merpas Village. Maryana said that nowadays, the ocean does not provide sufficient octopus, mostly due to changes in fishing methods.

Now, many fishers from outside the village also fish for octopus in Merpas Village. They usually fish for octopus at night using hand-lines and take boats to harvest beyond the shore, regardless of the weather,” she told me.

Maryana’s story about the sea, octopus, and life demonstrates her unique ability to become skilled and capable in every job she commits to. She has developed this dedication from the day she learned to be an octopus fisherwomen, to becoming the wife of a fisherman, to mothering seven daughters and finally, taking on the role as the head of her family after her husband’s accident. Despite her position as a woman in a male-dominated society, Maryana has overcome the prejudices she faces and finds strength in her natural talent as an octopus fisherwoman.

*AKAR Foundation is a non-profit organisation that was founded to develop the potential of Indonesian communities, towards a critical, independent, democratic, and socially just society. AKAR is based in Bengkulu Province, Indonesia.


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