The Future (of Fishing) is Female

Women have been the backbone of the Newfoundland and Labrador fishery for centuries. Earning that recognition is reshaping the maritime world.

Tuesday, 25 June, was the tenth annual International Day of the Seafarer, and the theme for 2019 is “I am onboard with gender equality.” It was in this spirit that Fishing for Success—a non-profit social enterprise promoting popular engagement with the fishery—convened a panel of women working in the maritime sector to discuss the challenges and opportunities in making a living at sea.

The summit was a brief but illuminating session. It was a frank discussion about the barriers women face in a culturally—and materially—male-dominated industry.

Women have been the backbone of the Newfoundland and Labrador fishery for centuries. Earning that recognition is reshaping the maritime world.

Face to the Gale

About a century ago, roughly 80% of Newfoundland’s population was directly or indirectly working in the fishing industry. That figure was 30% on the eve of the 1992 cod moratorium, and by 2014-2015 it was less than 2%.

Only about 20% of those working in the fishery are women.

“People need to see others like themselves [represented in the workforce] if they’re going to start imagining themselves in those careers,” Kimberly Orren, co-founder of Fishing for Success, told the audience.

Panelists Jasmine Paul, a new apprentice fisher on her parents’ boat, and Crystal Hanlon, a marine engineer working as an instructor at the Marine Institute, voiced their agreement. Both encountered negative attitudes and stereotypes about women working on the boats.

Paul heard more than a few times that a woman would only be fishing if she was uneducated, lazy, and looking for E.I. Hanlon recalled instances where frustrations with orders, conditions, or language barriers erupted as frustration at the very presence of a woman on the ship. Orren evoked her uncles standing around the wharf and calling her a jinker: someone whose presence brings bad luck at sea.

Women have always been working in the fishery’

Dr. Nicole Power, a sociologist at Memorial University, told the room that the depreciation of women’s labour in the maritime sector is an old and common problem. She then summed up fifty years of feminist scholarship on the Newfoundland and Labrador fishery into two main lessons:

The first is that we need to expand how we think about how our fishery. It is embedded in a web of domestic, family, and community relations. It goes beyond the basic level of jobs and commodity production.

“Early feminist research [in NL] focused on revealing women’s work,” Power explained. Men were on the boats fishing, but women were processing the fish, mending the gear, raising the children, baking the bread, and doing all the other unpaid domestic labour necessary to support the work out on the water.

“Women have always been working in the fishery,” Power continued. “The problem is their labour is undervalued as ‘work.’”

This divide can still be seen across many traditionally male-dominated industries. An enduring culture of devaluing women and their work, Power suggested, is why targeted programs encouraging women to enter science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) career streams tend to be successful at getting them to start—but not in getting them to stay.

The second lesson is that often seemingly gender-neutral fisheries policies have been shown to advantage men and disadvantage women. Citing one example of retirement buyouts for lobster license-holders, Power said that in many fishing households, women had no choice whether to remain in the lobster fishery if their husband decided to retire.

Because ownership of fishing licenses goes to the highest bidder, control of the industry is increasingly concentrated into a smaller circle of larger owners. This further entrenches inequality in the fishery. The biggest barrier for both men and women in the fishery, Power emphasized, is the sheer financial cost of entry.

Navigating a World Built for Men

Gendered inequity can be quite literal in the fishery. Besides more general financial barriers to entry, both Paul and Hanlon talked frankly about the “gear gap”: virtually all the equipment, clothing, and machinery are designed for men.

Everything buttons up backwards and basic toilet facilities are nearly nonexistent. Hygiene and comfort aside, it’s also a serious safety issue. Ill-fitting gloves or boots risk getting caught up in ropes or netting, separating unlucky fishers from life and limb.

“There’s always ways to get around physical barriers,” Hanlon reassured the room after describing her methods for maneuvering a ship’s engine that was three stories tall. “But everything is definitely designed for men.”

Other barriers, like cultural ones, are less straightforward.

“There is an all-male culture aboard the boats and they are reluctant to change that,” Orren noted. Getting sea-time is a major obstacle for the advancement of women in the maritime sector. She suggested female skippers have to step up and make sure apprenticing women in the industry get more sea-time, networking opportunities, and supportive camaraderie in an otherwise male-dominated space.

Both Paul and Hanlon had a more straightforward suggestion: just make the space for women.

As a student mentor at the Marine Institute, Hanlon says that most girls have been thrilled to get experience with the more technical, ‘hands-on’ aspects of the work if given the opportunity. Becoming an apprentice fisher has allowed Paul to make an expansive network of friends and colleagues. Overall, she says people have been very enthusiastic and supportive. Most people want to see a more equitable fishery.

“Let women do what they want to do,” Paul shrugged. “Just make that space for us. We can do it.”

“You’d be surprised at what we can do when you let us.”

Fishing’s Fraught Future

As the session wound down with a Q&A, the panel and the audience grappled with some deeper existential questions. What kind of future is the fishing industry facing as the climate crisis accelerates?

“Climate change is the problem of our time,” Power told the room. But while some of the problems we’re currently seeing in fisheries are related to climate change, many remain rooted in the structural inequities of the industry itself.

“We know small-scale fisheries are more ecologically sound and sustainable,” Orren added. “The closer to home we are getting our food, the better off we all are.”

“We need a kinder fishery,” Paul said. She recalled a dispute with her father in her early days aboard the boat: she was carefully untangling starfish and other wildlife from the gill nets, while her father wanted her to work faster and leave them be. “Fishing as ‘resource extraction’ needs to be a mindset we change.”

“For me, [fishing] has meant growing as a person, growing my skills, and growing my relationship with my parents,” Paul concluded. “It has helped me find my place in the world and address my ecological grief.”

For Orren, Paul’s experience underscores the nearly mystical connection between fishing and human civilization.

“Fish are depicted among the oldest human cave paintings,” Orren told the audience. “Fishing has an ancient history in art and world spirituality. It is more than just an industry. It is the cornerstone of our shared social and cultural life.”

“We can track patterns of human migration based on the oyster shells they’d leave behind,” she finished. “Fishing will always be a part of our story.”

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