A group of women stands alongside the roads leaving Gambia's capital city of Banjul, offering up oysters for 15 dalasis a cup, or about 55 cents for approximately 75 pieces of oyster meat. These women have been harvesting oysters from the extensive mangrove wetlands of Gambia for decades. Much of the harvesting is concentrated in Tanbi National Park, a wetland listed by the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (known as the Ramsar Convention). Surprisingly, the mangroves themselves have undergone little change during the last 30 years, even as the population of the country, increasingly concentrated around Tanbi in the Greater Banjul Area, has more than doubled.
Although the mangroves remain healthy, the harvesters have witnessed firsthand the effects of increased pressure on the oyster population. The women report that oysters today are smaller and harder to find than 30, or even 10, years ago. Yet even with the increased effort required, more women are harvesting today than in the past. These women rely on oysters for their livelihoods and contribute to food security in a country that is heavily dependent on seafood for protein.
In 2007, a group of oyster harvesters organized themselves into a producer association called TRY Women's Oyster Harvesting Association. The founding members decided to call the organization TRY because it was an effort to do just that-try to improve the situation for oyster harvesters without much certainty that their work would pay off. After some initial success raising funds to buy boats, membership in TRY grew rapidly from 14 women in just one village to 500 oyster harvesters from 15 communities across the Greater Banjul Area.
This growth was no small feat. Although the women are all Jola, a minority ethnic group in Gambia, they are divided into different sects with distinct languages and heritages. Through TRY, the harvesters have been able to put aside these differences and work as a cohesive community, making decisions by consensus and collectively prioritizing needs.
Two years after its founding, TRY became linked with the USAID-funded Sustainable Fisheries Project, Ba Nafaa. Ba Nafaa has helped TRY expand the scope of its mission and has worked to create a sustainable co-management plan for the oyster fishery that respects the needs of harvesters, consumers, and the environment.
In their short time together, TRY and Ba Nafaa have already made important strides in working toward improved livelihoods and fisheries practices. The women have collectively agreed to practices that may be difficult in the short run but that pay off over time. Traditionally, oysters are harvested during the dry season, with the wet months of July through December closed for harvesting. This past year, the communities agreed to extend the closed season until March. When harvesting resumed in the spring, the women saw the benefits of the extended closure immediately, noticing a marked increase in the size of oysters for harvest. Additionally, each community agreed to close one bolong, or tributary, in their territory for the entire year to encourage regeneration of the oyster population there.
The women are also adopting practices to ensure that Tanbi remains a healthy mangrove ecosystem. Harvesters are learning about the ecological importance of mangroves and how destructive practices like cutting roots with machetes damages the capacity of the ecosystem to support oyster populations and fish nurseries. They are sharing these lessons with one another and the Gambian public through short plays demonstrating proper harvesting techniques and sharing information about mangrove ecology. In a country stretched for resources, the oyster harvesters are also helping the Department of Parks and Wildlife Management police the wetlands by reporting observations of illegal fuelwood harvesting to local officials. The women are experimenting with shellfish aquaculture to help relieve pressure on wild stocks and limit the harm to mangroves.
One of the first accomplishments of TRY was to raise the price of oysters from 10 dalasis per cup to 15. Customers have been willing to pay the new price, a partial acknowledgment of the value of these harvesters' effort. One of the big goals for Ba Nafaa and TRY, however, is to see that number grow exponentially by opening up new markets in the high-end retail outlets serving tourists. This would be greatly aided by establishing a permanent market for harvesters who currently rely on customers stopping by the side of the road or at temporary markets in the major cities in the Greater Banjul Area. Eventually, the harvesters could develop an export market to the United States or European Union, which could yield prices high enough to create living wages for harvesters.
In the meantime, the oyster harvesters will continue to sell their catch along the road outside of Banjul, working together to try to improve their situation.
Christi Zaleski, an environmental studies undergraduate at Brown University, is spending the summer in Gambia working with the Gambia-Senegal Sustainable Fisheries Project Ba Nafaa.
Visit Worldwatch's Nourishing the Planet blog to learn more about improving livelihoods through sustainable seafood.