Steady Wave of Women have Taken to Fishing Over the Years

This article was originally published in the Fall 2019 edition of the Union Forum magazine, written by Tina Pretty, FFAW-Unifor Women’s Coordinator. 

I was recently asked by a long-time fish harvester – who happens to be a woman – to read a local publication that talked about the “The New Wave of Women in the Fishery.” I looked up the story and the first thing I read was a caption, “Once more likely to stay ashore and handle the processing, the women of today’s fishery are just as inclined to ride the high seas with the men.” I can see why my union sister took issue with the article as women have long been fishing with their families and heading up their own enterprises, so I felt the need to set the record straight.

I did some historical research and found that women were rarely involved in catching fish prior to the 1970s. Back then women were discouraged from entering the male dominated inshore fishery and government regulations didn’t help matters by deeming women who fished in the boats as “helpers,” denying them Employment Insurance benefits to the wives of fishers. However, by 1991, 11% of all fish harvesters were women. So, a significant number of women have been in the fishing boats for over four decades.

Checking with the Professional Fish Harvesters’ Certification Board (PFHCB) showed that 22 years ago, when the Board was first formed, there were 2383 women registered and today there are 2089. However, women back in 1997 made up as significantly smaller percentage of the total number of registered harvesters at 14%, whereas by 2018 they make up 23%.

One long-time fisher Mildred Skinner from Harbour Breton started fishing in 1989 with her husband Alex. She fished for 20 years and the last 10 years she has been onboard boats in various capacities, working seasonally with the union as a field/science technician. Mildred is also a former member of the FFAW’s Executive Board and has met with many women fish harvesters through the years. Throughout her career she has been seeing more and more women entering the boats to fish.

According to PFHCB, in 2018 they had 119 new female entrants to the fishery. The interesting fact I found was women were coming into the fishery in all age groups. Of the new female entrants for last year, there were almost equal number of women under 30, women 30 to age 50 and over 50. This so-called “new wave” of women are not just young harvesters.

I asked Mildred what advice she would give women new to the industry. She said, “Take your right place as a crew member by learning your way around the boat, pay attention to how things work, and learn how to navigate and be safe.”

On challenges, Mildred said the weather, leaving her children at home with caregivers for long periods of time, and being isolated were her biggest ones. She has had successes as well and cited her most satisfying ones as finding her way in traditionally male dominated domain and getting involved in her union to represent harvesters in her area. She was especially proud of the skills she learned on getting around and operating the boat and how to bait and coil trawl. Mildred said she knew she had made it as a harvester one day while taking ashore lobster traps. Her brother-in-law said to her, “You are good at this – for a woman.” Mildred said some women might have taken it as an insult but she took it as a compliment.

Recently, there was a Land and Sea episode from 1977 promoted on CBC’s website that featured Mary and Josephine McDonald of West St. Modest, Labrador. The two women took over their father’s enterprise when he became ill. It was fascinating to watch this old footage of women fishing to help support their parents and younger siblings. The program at the time described the two women fishers as a rarity. They certainly worked hard as they hauled gillnets, cod traps, gutted their fish, mended nets, in addition to cutting and hauling wood and tending to a garden.

I also came across a report that was published in 1994 called, Women of the Fishery. In it was a series of 87 interviews with female fish harvesters and plant workers that were conducted just a couple of years into the moratorium. There were quite a number of women harvesters interviewed and coincidently, Mary McDonald from West St. Modeste was one of the women. In her interview she said she fished all her life since the age of 15. To my calculation, that put her in the boat around 1955. Other harvesters included Lillian Day of Garnish who started fishing in 1986; Marie Payne of Seldom who joined her husband in the boat in 1978, Anna Kenny of Fermeuse in 1987, Vera Abbott of Elliston in 1980 and many more examples.

According the PFCHB, as of 2018 there were a total of 2089 women currently registered in the fishery, 55% of which are over age 50 so we have a significant number of women who have been in the industry for a long time.

Through all my research and talking to women harvesters over the years, it’s always interesting as a townie to learn how many women find their work on the water rewarding. I asked Mildred Skinner what she enjoyed most about being in the boat and she replied, “I loved the sea and the feeling of freedom being out on the water.”

Perhaps in another life I’ll come back as someone with saltwater in their veins and enjoy the open sea and all the joys and challenges it brings. In the meantime, I hope women continue to look to the water as meaningful way to earn a good living, support their families, and keep their communities vibrant.

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