Women Shellfish Gatherers Return to the Bay of All Saints in Brazil

women looking for shellfish on the shore
Jornal Correio
Bahia, Brazil
Women Shellfish Gatherers Return to the Bay of All Saints in Brazil

Without a formal job, women have started gathering shellfish in the Bay of All Saints for £73 per month and some protein in their meals. 

It is 2:30 am. 41-year-old Maristela Sacramento is already at Salinas da Margaridas bus station, carrying 158,733 pounds of shellfish. The final destination is the Agua de Meninos’ fish market in the city of Salvador, where shewill sell the shellfish gathered in the last few days. The bus has arrived and she is one of the first people to go in. Almost all the women inside the bus are carrying buckets full of shellfish, which makes the stench of the crustaceans even stronger. Next to her sister, Maristela gets ready for a quick nap. The morning has just begun. 

After being prevented from working in their original jobs, women have returned to gathering shellfish in the Bay of All Saints (BAS). The main areas where the shellfishery is practiced have become more crowded since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, in March 2020. They spend six to ten hours working, soaked in water and salt or among branches, so they can either have a source of protein on their meals or sell a kilo of seafood for R$17 (£ 2,25). 

This is Maristela’s situation. She used to own a bar in Salvador, but in January she returned to Salinas to gather shellfish with her eight-year-old daughter. After she suffered a heart attack, her work routine became harder. The difficulties of the pandemic, which already brought her financial instability, added to her health problems. There was no other way. They both had to return home. “I wasn’t able to maintain the bar.” 

After the bus trip, the two sisters take the 5am ferry-boat, the first one of the day. This  three-hour-long route is repeated every Wednesday and Saturday. Back on dry land, they sell the gathered shellfish at the fish market. The day before, her sister Dinorá found new customers — so she can stop working earlier. Maristela takes longer to sell the crustaceans. She tries to captivate customers as she shows the quality of her products.  

The Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) calculates that, in the sixteen cities bordered by the Bay, the average income is R$ 1,100 (£141,47) — minimum wage in Brazil. Bahia Pesca, the state agency responsible for promoting aquaculture and fishing, estimates that 30,000 women who lived around the Bay of All Saints work as shellfish gatherers in order to survive, with a R$550 (£73) income. All these cities have women who declare themselves as shellfish gatherers. 

a masked woman
41-year-old Maristela Sacramento who began gathering shellfish again in January / Credit: Fernanda Santana.

“The ocean tide is my source of income… but, I’m not going to lie, I don’t like doing this,” Maristela says.

In April, she started gathering shellfish again after being away from the activity for the last 25 years. However, she has not forgotten the moves of this hand dance that is passed on to each generation of women who live in the Bay of All Saints’ surroundings.  

In the last 25 years, Maristela worked as a housemaid, cook and, finally, as a restaurant owner in the Alto do Cabrito neighborhood, in the outskirts of Salvador. There, the main product was shrimp, which she would buy from the Salinas’ shellfish gatherers.  

“We are witnessing the return of women who have a history of fishing and, now, are returning to this profession,” Eliana Carla Ramos, Bahia Pesca’s Social Promotion coordinator, says . As they don't need a large financial investment to work, this return is made simple. All it takes is a bag, a bucket and physical disposition to gather shellfish. 

Maristela’s family has a fishing tradition that is carried from father to son and from mother to daughter. Maristela’s mother is a retired shellfish gatherer. Her father is also a fisherman. When the ocean tide is at its lowest, Maristela wakes up before dawn and walks, with Dinorá, to a mangrove known as Espigão. Maristela bears on her arms the marks of the wounds made by the branches of the mangroves. In her case, these injuries take even more time to heal, since she has diabetes, a disease that delays wound closure.  

Nowadays, in Maristela’s old restaurant there is a beverage warehouse. On a rainy morning in April, Maristela went back to shellfishing, three months after she came back to Salinas. On that day, she caught three kilos of mollusks. During the pandemic, the only assistance program aimed at shellfish gatherers was the distribution of masks, alcohol gel and information brochures on Covid-19 promoted by Bahia Pesca. 

The risk factors of shellfish gathering 

After working four hours in Salvador, Maristela and her sister make their way home. The routine leaves them exhausted, but they will return to the mangroves the next morning. “I’m taking painkillers so I can be able to work,” Maristela says. Shellfishing requires a work routine that she had forgotten about: picking, cleaning, storing, selling and hurting. At the end of the month, she earns R$600 (£ 79). 

Shellfish gathering has a direct impact on the health of the women who make repeated movements throughout the work process, from picking to selling, as explained by Paulo Pena, a doctor and professor at the Federal University of Bahia’s (UFBA) School of Medicine. He researches occupational diseases in fishing communities. "These are repetitive movements that last for many hours. All of this puts an overload on the musculoskeletal system," he explains. 

Not only do these movements put the health of these women at risk, but the high exposure to the sun, along with their work posture, which causes back pain, also contribute to worsening their health. Painkillers are often taken without a medical prescription. Skin cancer is another risk in the future. “Pills make the work bearable for me." While working, the women shellfish gatherers try not to think about the pain. 

Maristela’s routine is the same as the many women spread across the Bay of All Saints’ beaches and mangroves. In the Ribeira neighborhood, hundreds of women arrive with the ebb tide after a full-moon night. The low ocean tide is the perfect condition for the activity. The women shellfish gatherers meet at the naked sandbanks. As far as one’s eyes can see, there are women crouched near the sea, groping for the little crustaceans. 

36-year-old Talita Conceição has been sitting in the water for four hours now. She used to be a manicurist. Talita went back to the sea when she lost her clients. The bucket where she puts the shellfish in is already half-full. One of her three sons, 8-year-old Jander, helps his mother on the duty. At 8am the rest of the women arrived at the beach. A silent dispute for a place inside the sea unfolds. As the tide goes out, they search for new spots to pick the shellfish left by the sea. The marks of this activity, which takes from six to eight hours, are printed on the dry sand. At the end of the morning, the weight of the work is felt by Talita, who medicates the pain in her spine when she gets home. 

a woman sits on the shore
36-year-old Talita Conceição / Credit: Fernanda Santana. 

In the city of Salvador, the Bay of All Saints surrounds some of the poorest neighborhoods. It is not a coincidence that they are the main spots for shellfishing, like Ribeira. In that district where Talita lives and gathers shellfish, the average income was R$ 679 (£ 90) in 2010. Among the four neighborhoods with the lowest incomes in the capital of Bahia are Maré Island in the third to last position, and Frades Island, in the last one. Each resident of these peninsulas earns R$246 per month. 

At 11 am, the sea of Ribeira is already taken over by women shellfish gatherers. Most of them are black, like Maristela and Talita. In the last IBGE census, 80% of the Bay of All Saints’ population declared themselves black or brown. The women shellfish gatherers have some dry snacks — like biscuits — with a bottle of water so they can make it through the day. Since they will carry the shellfish on a bicycle or on the top of their heads, the less weight they bring along, the less costly it is to transport it. To save money, they come and go on their feet. 

It seems that this is a lucky day for Talita, who has just found a clam the size of the palm of her hand. “It’s a rare one,” she says. The usual routine is to fill up her bucket with little mollusks like papa-fumo, bebe-fumo or chumbinho, a little bigger than a fingernail. When Talita removes all the mud and sand from the bucket, it barely weighs a kilo of shellfish. This amount is either sold for R$ 17 or it is used to feed them. Selling the crustaceans is not always a good deal, so they prefer to have this food assured for when a time of food insecurity comes. The reality of hunger is not yet statistically mapped by each Brazilian state 

The children’s place 

Concerns about mollusk consumption exist. They are organisms able to inhabit environments contaminated by metals and organic compounds. For that reason they are good indicators of the quality of the environment. Adaptation, however, has its costs, and the contaminants accumulate inside these species. 

Therefore, their consumption can bring risks to populations such as shellfish gatherers that, throughout their lives, have shellfish as their main protein source. 

Three studies by Vanessa Hatje's research group were published between 2020 and 2021, that showed that contamination of BAS' seafood exists and varies by region and by type of contaminant. Vanessa is a PhD in Chemical Oceanography from the University of Sydney and professor at Ufba, who has been studying marine pollution in the BAS for 18 years. 

"In terms of contamination, sururu and chumbinho [two of the most collected shellfish in the BAS] are contaminated mainly in the region close to the Landulpho Alves Refinery (RLAM) , as well as in the estuary of the Subaé River due to industrial activities such as oil refining and sewage from households." 

Nowadays, seafood is the main protein of the dishes served at shellfish-gatherer Talita’s house. Nothing that she fishes is sold. Her children don’t enjoy the flavor of shellfish, but to choose what to eat is not always an option for them. The women shellfish gatherers are of all ages. There are adults, elders and children who, in turn, follow their mothers into the sea and are destined to gather shellfish in the future, whenever life asks them to. Poverty at the BAS’ surroundings, as it can be seen, also reflects in child labor. 

In Brazil, the term "child labor" refers to economic and survival activities carried out by children or teenagers under the age of 16 — except as a minor apprentice — with or without the purpose of profit. However, in the case of women shellfish gatherers' sons and daughters who accompany family members, there are reservations to be made, as is seen by Antônio Inocêncio. He is the Labor inspector who coordinates the inspection of combating child labor at the Regional Superintendence of Labor in Bahia (SRT) and the president of the State Forum for the Prevention and Eradication of Child Labor and the Protection of Working Adolescents (Fetipa). 

"The line that divides cultural transmission and child labor is really thin sometimes. It is necessary to observe the family's routine, what is the activity being developed, the child's school life and their leisure time," he says. 

The BAS has always been a ‘refuge’ 

Around the perimeter that Talita has chosen to gather shellfish, on the edge of Beira-Mar Avenue, in Ribeira, there are at least 20 other women. They don’t talk to each other. The job requires concentration as well as precisely repeated movements. “I learned how to gather shellfish with my mother. She would bring me along with her when I was seven”, recalls Talita. 

The Bay of All Saints has always been a "refuge for people who suffer relegations in various ways," according to the teacher of the Brazilian Federal Institute in Santo Amaro, Maria das Graças Meirelles. All neighborhoods and cities around the BAS still depend on fisheries. Their residents, sooner or later, are either going to learn to fish or gather crustaceans, as the need for it arises.

The men will fish. The women will gather shellfish and take care of their houses and children. This double journey is part of the reason why women are likely to be seen on land, by the sand, where they get the shellfish. In order to take care of the children and their homes, it is necessary to be closer to land. It is not coincidental that both Maristela and Talita raise their children by themselves. 

The Bay of All Saints’ calm waters and estuaries are a minimum guarantee of “freedom and human dignity,” Meirelles points out. “This physical labor of shellfishing is seen as the last resort; all women see it as a last refuge. They know this is a guarantee that prevents them from starving,” the teacher explains. During the pandemic, the end of formal and informal jobs also contributed to the return of women into the sea and mangroves. 

According to the General Register of Employed and Unemployed, in the state of Bahia, 560,342 people were fired from formal-contract jobs in 2020. On the other hand, 551,141 people were hired in that same year. In the cities by the Bay of All Saints, 7,489 people lost their jobs. This number only emphasizes the rise of unemployment, as many of these women who started gathering shellfish again had no formal jobs before the pandemic. 

After four hours in the sea, 56-year-old Ivonete Cristina da Silva's bucket is emptier than Talita's. For six days, including on Saturdays and on Sundays, she has been leaving her house in Massaranduba to gather shellfish. When she was fired from the two houses where she worked as a housemaid, Ivonete’s last option was the ocean. Now she needs to stay longer in the sea, because the shellfish is not only her food, but also her monthly source of income, which varies from R$ 500 to R$ 700. At her doorstep, she sells the seafood gathered on a day. 

“It is my only source of income. In the pandemic, nobody wants to see people working in their houses anymore,” Ivonete, mother of three children, says.

Enslaved women gathered shellfish during the colony days 

The enslaved black women who lived surrounded by the Bay of All Saints learned to gather shellfish to meet the wishes of their masters and also, in a way, to guarantee their livelihood. With the abolition of Brazilian slavery in 1888,  these women weren’t incorporated into the formal labor market. Instead, they learned to know the ocean tide and the stages of the moon. In doing so, they were able to escape from a “new slavery" — although many of them couldn’t escape this fate, and started working as domestic servants. 

“It was a big dilemma faced by these people: to run away from that new form of slavery or to ensure their family's livelihood in another way,” Welington Castelucci, a historian and professor at the State University of Bahia (Uneb), points out. 

It is not necessarily the lack of options that make an impact on the choice to gather shellfish, Wellington believes. But, in fact, a “search for a form of self-employment that prevents them from being exploited in new ways. There are testimonies from women who prefer to continue gathering shellfish than to work under someone else's rules, in this 'new-slavery-work form,'” Wellington contextualizes. 

The mother of 35-year-old Edileide Bispo was the first woman in the district of Acupe, in Santo Amaro, to have a freezer to store seafood. “Since I was a child, I have been gathering shellfish with my grandmother, who learned from her mother and sisters,” Edileide recalls. As a child, she thought shellfishing was a game. She soon saw she was wrong. “When I would have school homework to do, I would go in the ocean so I could buy the cardboard and pencils I needed. Then I realized that shellfishing was a way of working,” she says. 

Edileide has been a teacher since 2015, but in 2020, her contract at the municipal school was not renewed. In January, before she returned to gathering shellfish, Edileide opened a clothing store. But, who would she sell clothes to? “People had no money to spend,” she says. "If I hadn't learned shellfishing, what would I be doing?", the Pedagogy student at the University of International Integration of Afro-Brazilian Lusophony (Unilab) asks. Edleide is, at the same time, a reflection of history and the minority she belongs to. She remakes the story of women in her family, almost all of whom were shellfish gatherers, while she tries to build a new future. 

While Edileide is in the sea, her daughter takes care of her two nephews. Lisa rarely accompanies her mother. She doesn’t look at the work in the sea as a game. “The awareness of not wanting to be a shellfish gatherer wasn't even my own. This has always been my mother’s work, but she has never wanted us to live off of it.” 

In the week before the publication of this article, Edileide and Maristela had drawn new paths. With summer getting closer, shellfishing had become harder, which had made Edileide devote herself to her studies. Maristela had planned her final return to Salvador. Talita and Ivonete still thought about how the sandbanks would be after a full-moon night. 

shellfish held in a hand
Women in this region depend on shellfish for their food security and income / Credit: Fernanda Santana. 

This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network and Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK). It was originally published in Portuguese on 31 October 2021 by Jornal Correio. It has been translated to English and lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: Women shellfish gatherers who lost employment during the pandemic had no choice but to return to the sea / Credit: Fernanda Santana. 

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