The invisible women behind Georgia's fishing industry

Image by Salome Kinkladze, shared under partnership agreement with Chaikhana Media.

This article was first published on Chaikhana Media. An edited version has been republished here under a content partnership agreement.

Women employed in the fishing industry in Georgia are usually informal workers, so there is scarce data on their incomes and contributions to the sector. But although these women's work is often invisible, it is essential. Most sort, clean, dry, and sell fish — all crucial work in the seafood supply chain. However, wage differences between men and women are still glaring: women need about three years of experience in the industry to earn the same as a man's starting salary.

The most invisible part of the industry is the preparation work before fishing, like weaving fishing nets.

Anthropologists have long studied the role of women in fishing, including how the work affects the mobility of women and men. In some cultures, men went to sea and had the opportunity to travel, while women stayed at home on land. Anthologists have started to question if staying on the land really means relinquishing power — a long-held belief. For example, in fishing communities, the fact that men spent long periods at sea reinforced women's dominance, power, and freedom in the so-called private sphere of the home. Here are some of the women working in this industry today.

Nona, 37 

In Tskaltsminda, a village in west Georgia, Nona stands by a covered shed on the highway in all weather and sells fish with about 12 other women. They leave at dawn each morning and often work 16-hour days. For older women, the physical burden is worse as long hours standing on the street take a toll.

The income is paltry here. It takes a lot of hard work to earn 10 GEL per day (roughly USD 3.5). You sacrifice your health, and you get worn out.

The Black Sea coast in Poti, near the lighthouse, where many of the women sell fish. Photo used with permission.

Lili, 67 

In addition to cleaning, processing, and selling fish, Lili, together with other fishermen, uses a net to remove the fish from the Black Sea near the villages of Ureki, Shekvetili, and Grigoleti and from the nearby Supsa and Natanebi rivers. She is an economist by profession, and she worked for the private and public sectors for years before she lost her job.

Times change, everything changes and I change too. Then you have to find some solution so you do not die of hunger.

Even though she works from morning till night with the other women, her income is small, so she also has to manage her family farm.

When men catch fish, they probably get paid a lot more, and they catch a lot of fish. However, they work in groups and have to share their income. And their wage is what?! They have so many expenses! They need to buy gas; they need to eat. Even if they catch 100 kilos of fish, it's nothing for 20 people. However, we all have some money left for food. We do not go hungry.

Iamze, 63

Iamze is 63 and has been working in fish production for 25 years. Now she owns and runs a fish shop with her sister and three other women. She has worked in various places, including the market in Kobuleti, another Black Sea town in Georgia’s Adjara region. Years ago, she even used to walk to houses in the community to sell fish from loaded storage boxes.

Then I put a table here, on the Maltakva Bridge, and covered it with a good cover so that it would dazzle the people as they passed. Anyone passing would see the fish and stop the car. I thought I had nothing else to do in Kobuleti as I would earn more money here. I used to buy and sell fresh fish from the fishermen's brigade. Then I made a counter near the bridge, covered it up, and continued working. Other women joined me, and the four of us started working together. Until we were told to move off the bridge. Other women returned to the market again, feeling discouraged. But I came here, closer to the water, and rented this building.

Now I get fresh fish from the fishermen and sell them. There is fish from the sea, as well as from Paliastomi Lake. We catch catfish, mullet, salmon and “barrabulka” (Black Sea mullus). We clean the fish as soon as we get them. Now I'm thinking about making a place where I can fry fish for customers so they can dine in a clean area by the water. I will also employ young women.

Iamze knows how difficult working in the market can be for women. The conditions are tough, the pay is low. She pays women she employs GEL 50 a day (roughly USD 17). When less fish is sold, it's GEL 30.

Lali, 56

Lali’s ties to the sea began when her father taught her how to weave fishing nets at the age of 10. Growing up in a family of fishermen, she says net weaving was a family tradition: her grandfather was blind, but he was still able to weave perfectly. She was happy to help her father. Today, Lali weaves nets of different sizes: there are 22 mm, 40 mm, 100 mm, and 200 mm nets, depending on the size of the fish to catch.
I weave all kinds of nets. There are three-walled fishing nets, as well as double-walled ones. Some fish need a single-walled net, for example, herring. The net requires a rope. We have to put corks on the top of the net and make a lead line on the bottom, after which we can start weaving the net. I weave 100 meters above and 100 meters below a day, which is one net. This work requires knowledge of mathematics, speed, and hard thinking. You have to measure accurately because if the net is made incorrectly, it will not catch the fish.
Lali orders net material from Azerbaijan and Turkey but recalls that during the Soviet Union, they used to buy net material from ships near a collective fish farm not far from Poti. They typically make the lead strings and corks at home.

Lali gre up in a family of fishermen and has been weaving fishing nets since she was a girl. Photo used with permission.

A few years ago, Lali, together with her two children, rented a building on Guria Street in Poti and set up a small canteen there. Passers-by can try the fish on the spot. Sometimes she takes freshly caught fish from the fishermen, and sometimes she goes fishing herself. But it's challenging to maintain a business, let alone a personal life. Lali lamented how little is left after rent, taxes, and other expenses are covered.

Marina, 62

Marina has been working in the fishing industry for 42 years. Together with about 50 other women working at the fish market, she interacts with tourists from different countries every day.

All the customers who enter my place, whether they are Ukrainians, Russians, Uzbeks, or Tajiks, are like my family members. Empathy, connection and love are essential in our work.

It is a demanding job — inventory, stuffing, cleaning, and even product placement is important, explains Marina.

Fish is like a child to care for. It should be completely clean at all times, and you have to wash your hands every time you touch the fish. Also, you can't put many of them together as they may get squashed. If you do, they will soon become spoiled. I have so much experience that if I see fish being sold anywhere, in Tbilisi or elsewhere, I can immediately tell whether it's fresh or old. Fish need love. They need care.

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