Douarnenez Women

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The Cornouaille region in Brittany has been selected for this research. According to the 2013 report of the Quimper Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCI), the region has a total of 400 fishing vessels, 200 registered buyers and creates around 5700 jobs in fishing, fish trading, transportation, boat building and repair and naval services. As such the fishing industry occupies a very important place in the Cornouaille region. The 7 regional ports provide 50% of the region’s fresh fish catches and 24% of the total fish caught in France.

The region has historical links with the region of Cornwall, U.K as the original settlers are said to be Celts from Great Britain and some cultural links, such as musical instruments and words, can be found.

For more information on the CCI report please visit following website.


Douarnenez is a town located in the region of Brittany, France. It has a population of around 16,000 inhabitants and the most important industrial sectors are fish canneries and manufacturing of cans, retail food, supermarkets, electrical, medical centres and seawater.

A local know-how in the processing of sardine, identified as “la sardine pressée” gave Douarnenez high growth in the industry. The preservation technique involved preparing sardines in brine and depositing them in barrels filled with oil and water in a specified row. In this way sardines was preserved for weeks.

Around 1924 the sardine fishing and canning industry made the town famous in France. There were 25 processing fish plants and the port has around 500 fishing vessels. From 1955 until 1990 spiny lobster fishing also took place in the region and played a dynamic role in the Brittany ports, especially in Douarnenez and Cameret where lobster fishing landing represented 15% and 75% respectively. Spiny lobster fishing was practised in the open waters of French West Africa but in 1960 with decolonization, the new independent states took control of their territorial waters and in 1978 gained the right to have a fishing economic zone of 200 miles. At the same time France negotiated with the Islamic Republic of Mauritania the right to fish in their territorial waters in exchange of allowing local fisherman to be part of French boat crews. With the European Economic Community and the appearance of fishing licences and the loss of bilateral agreements, the spiny lobster fishing industry disappeared.

At the beginning of the 90’s there was no spiny lobster fishing fleet and only three fish processing plants were left, employing 740 people, mainly women. These women have been participating in the process of conserving tuna and sardine since the period after the First World War when they constituted the majority of the work force for the cooking needs in the fish processing plants, while men participated in the final part of the canning process by welding the lids of the fish field cans. In 1910, the seamers –can closing machines- replaced the men.

An important historic fact in 1924 was the women’s strike in all the fish processing plants in Douarnenez, where they demanded better working conditions. According to Anne-Denes Martin, a researcher in the subject, women developed a system of values for the industry such as dexterity, quickness, and the most original: singing. Women used to sing while working at the fish processing plants in Douarnenez in order to make their long working hours bearable.

The power relationship between men and women was settled in the period when women had more work than men. Women worked at the processing plants (canning, filleting, and monitoring the processing work of fish) and managed the household when the men could not go to sea. It has gained Douarnenez the reputation of a “matriarchal society” which survives today. In 1924 women from processing plants and fishermen formed the most important social group giving women a certain authority in the family and social life.


Martin, Anne-Denes, (1994) Les Ouvrières de la Mer, Paris.
Penkalet-Kerivel, (2008) Françoise, Histoire de la Pêche Langoustière Bretonne, les « mauritaniens » dans la tourmente du second XXe siècle. Rennes.