It either makes great irony or great sense that someone who works with the fishing industry doesn't actually eat seafood. On one hand, I have the freshest fish available all around me and I don't take advantage. On the other hand I'm not that person at the restaurant quizzing the waiter "Where was this fish caught? And how? Farmed or wild-caught? Is it sustainable?" and worrying that he's lying to me and I'm eating Bad For The Planet™ seafood.
I grew up at the beach and have been in love with the ocean pretty much my whole life. I decided in elementary school that I should study marine biology so I could train dolphins, a decision shared by most girls (and probably some guys as well) who wind up in ocean-related fields. At some point someone sits you down and tells you very seriously that you will most likely never work with dolphins because the supply outstrips the demand. You shrug, maybe shed some tears, and find your next field. For me, that was fish. From fish, I moved onto the people who catch them and how they catch them.
I've lived and worked in a couple of fishing towns and ports around New England because while I am not a fisherman, I work in a support industry for commercial fishing. For non-doxxing purposes, I'm going to be pretty vague about my specific job but rest assured it isn't very exciting. I'm generally land-based, dealing with research and policy, and the make-up of the staff is pretty fairly balanced between men and women. That's not the exciting part. The exciting part is that every now and then I get to go to sea. Let me tell you stories of sunrises and sunsets, dolphins playing in our bow wake, whales leaping out of the water around us, and motherfucking lightning storms at sea.
Mostly we go out to see what's being caught, how the gear is working, and sometimes to conduct some research of our own. Sometimes I'm on a small boat, sometimes a large ship. Sometimes it's a big crew, sometimes it's the bare minimum. Sometimes I'm out for a few hours, sometimes I'm out up to two weeks. When I'm out, I have my own work, but it often doesn't take that long. With pointers from the crew, I learned to help dress the catch, which is a matter of speed and precision. I'm better at precision than speed, but then again I'm not getting paid to do this and haven't been doing it for months innumerable. It's more a matter of not sitting back and relaxing while the crew work their hands off. I never want to be "that guy". I actually was once paid extra for it, because I worked literally the entire trip. Every time the mate next to me had to refill my basket, he'd say, "You know you don't need to do this, right? Right?"
I sometimes consider that in another life, I would have been a fisherman. Just not in this life. For one thing, I lack the strength and endurance and have never yet tried to push through a 20 hour shift (most I've done is 12, with breaks). I've never been through a big storm, as I can plan my trips around the weather, and if you've seen The Perfect Storm, you know that people do fish in rough weather and it is terrifying. I might, like a female monitor in one fisherman's story, ride through a storm sobbing and then race off the boat, never to return to sea. Other than my limitations, I feel as though I have a different part to play in the industry- supporting these communities and the resource they rely on.
Being the only female on board can sometimes come with perks, other times with awkwardness. The perks include the abundance of eye-candy (I'm not counting the 16-year-old because I swear I stopped looking when I heard his age (but really what 16y/o has muscles like that??)). And sometimes captains will clear out a bunk in their storage room so I have a room to myself. Other times, I'm bunking with the guys. Here's a challenge for you GroupThinkers- go get a sleeping bag. Now turn off the lights. Now find a pair of jeans and put them on in your sleeping bag in the dark. I once woke up and discovered I'd been sleeping in pajamas that were both inside out and backwards. If I don't feel like changing inside my sleeping bag, I race to change before any of the guys come into the room. One guy I work with walked in on me changing my shirt once and immediately closed the door. I didn't really care; I was in a sports bra and he didn't see anything more scandalous than my back. Meanwhile he'd work on deck with no shirt in the heat and all I can do is glare jealously because oh my god it's hot and why can't I take my shirt off too? Answer: because I know even an unsexy sports bra will either shock their delicate sensibilities or become joke fodder forever.
The first time I went to sea on one of the larger, offshore boats, I had a revelation: the bathroom or "head". On the smaller boats (about 40-50 feet), I'd usually have "my bucket" pointed out to me with the kind offer that the crew would make themselves scarce when I needed to go. One summer I did a few longlining daytrips on a 24 foot open boat in the middle of a bay and the only option for us women was to hang our bare butts over the side of the boat. You better believe I drank only enough water to stay hydrated in both these cases. I may have sprinted to the bathrooms at the dock once or twice upon landing, but I never had to pee on board. Want to talk penis envy? All the men have to do is walk up to the side of the boat and whip it out. (When there is a bathroom, they're so used to it being only men that they often don't bother closing the door, leading to some near misses of super awkward encounters.) With overnight trips and bathrooms comes another problem: red tides. One trip, there was no garbage in the bathroom so I'd have to wrap up my pad and sneak into the kitchen when no one was around to throw it out.
Let me start out by saying that though the industry is often as testosterone-fueled as you think it is, I've yet to meet a fisherman who was less than welcoming to me. I've noticed there is usually one guy who takes me under his wing, showing me around, finding me a place to work, quizzing me on safety protocols, showing me to my bunk (for long trips) or making up a bunk for me on a daytrip when we have a long steam to the fishing grounds. One small boat didn't have an extra bunk for the three hour ride out (leaving at 2AM ohmygod), so they made me a little nest of blankets on the floor and one guy kept saying he could sleep on the floor and was I sure I didn't want his bunk? They offer me water or Gatorade and food their wives made for them. They often do the heavy lifting for me, which is much appreciated when I can barely drag full baskets of fish across the deck.
They chat with me about their lives and this is often my favorite part. I love fishing stories. 90 mile per hour winds snapping antennas, engines dying, knife fights, that time they were declared lost at sea for several hours. They show me Coast Guard commendations they received for rescuing the crew of a ship that sank and the pearls they collect to turn into jewelry for their wives and mothers. I hear about the narrow misses and the friends they've lost in the business. The occasional trip to sea may be fun for me, but it's hard to forget that fishing is the number one most dangerous occupation in the US.
One captain told me about buying his boat and fishing every day. When he adopted a puppy, it started coming on his trips with him. When his son was old enough, he started paying him $5 a day to take care of the dog. Nostalgic, he describes his son standing on a pile of buckets so he could reach the cutting table. The son is a regular crewman now and his dad hopes he will buy his own boat someday or inherit his. With stories like that, how can you not get invested into these men's lives and livelihoods?
By now you've noticed that I keep saying "these men". I've met a grand total of two women in the commercial industry. One I narrowly missed working with; she was pregnant when I sailed with her husband, the captain. The other was a friend of the crew I'd been out with and came out drinking with us after we docked. She was just as crass and drunk as the men (and wound up asking my boss to drop his pants so she could take a peek). As we sat at the bar, she was telling some story about her bunk flooding when the cabin sprung a leak. The interesting part of the story was that she was only there, in the captain's cabin, because a crewman didn't want her in the regular bunk room. There's a rumored other woman fishing in my current town; I've never met her but the crewman who told me about her says she's super tough and can pee standing up. I'm kind of jealous (see section on boat bathrooms and lack thereof).
I've asked a few guys if they believe in the old superstition of it being bad luck to have a woman on board. Most laugh it off and say no. One said it has a grain of truth, that he's seen men get distracted or try to show off when there's a woman present and distraction on a ship can be dangerous. He has a point, but the bad luck seems to stem more from men who can't keep their eyes or testosterone to themselves. Insert obligatory #notallfishermen.
Brief language discussion: fisherman, fisherwoman, fisherperson? I haven't asked the women I've met, but Linda Greenlaw, swordfishing and lobsterboat captain made famous by The Perfect Storm and the Discovery Channel show Swords: Life on the Line, says she prefers fisherman. It's just simpler that way and feels less like someone going out of their way because she's a woman. If you're interested in the fishing life, I highly recommend her books, especially The Hungry Ocean for its slice-of-life description of a typical fishing trip and sundry stories. Her books also discuss being a woman in the industry, which seems to mostly consist of old-timers being surprised she hasn't sunk her ship yet.
My Experiences as a Woman
Have I experienced sexism from the industry? Probably, though subtle. One day we were moving gear around the deck and the mate asked for help. I stepped forward and he said, "No, the strapping young lad over there." Granted, my coworker does have more upper body strength me but seriously, I could have gotten it. This was also the same guy who called me "hon" and "sweetheart". He also told me that "women are vengeful", but rumor is his wife asked for a divorce after we got back on land so I'll let that one slide. It's all small stuff because the guys are all very nice to me, but some women working with the industry haven't been quite as fortunate. Can you imagine that happening over a period of time where you can never be more than 150 feet away from your harasser?
Really, my biggest issues are internal. I often wonder, when these guys are all so helpful to me, offering their bunks and their food, would they still if I'd been a guy? Or is it just that I appear a sweet young girl? Then when I exceed their expectations, is it because I'm not a fisherman? Or because I'm not a man? When I mention to fishermen that I've helped dress the catch on boats, their jaws tend to drop.
I think the biggest thing about interacting with fishermen is my need to prove myself. I'm always volunteering to help, trying to do the most of my coworkers to prove I'm not just a pretty (hah) face. If they need someone to do something, I'm the first to hop to it. I find chances to casually bring up the other boats I've worked on and the work I did. As I said before, that includes their work. I even find myself cursing more at sea. When I see them outside of work, I ask about their trips and chat about regulations and prices, while yelling in my head SEE I'M SO KNOWLEDGABLE ABOUT THIS STUFF. Part of it is wanting them to not underestimate the next woman they meet, part of it is just wanting respect on my own terms. So I'll swear "like a man" and work "like a man" and even drink "like a man", but I don't want them forgetting it's a woman who does this.
Thanks for reading this, I hope you enjoyed it, and if you have any questions about my stories or the fishing industry in general, feel free to ask. If I don't know an answer, I can either find it for you or make up something completely ridiculous about narwhals and mermen.