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More Women Working in Fishing Industry


Women from the Tiwa tribe catch fish in a wetland at Dharamtul village in Nagaon district, in the northeastern state of Assam, India, February 19, 2017.

Fishing has long been an occupation where most workers are men.

Yet a recent study found that women are responsible for a “substantial” part of the world’s fishing industry. The study suggests that their work in fisheries is changing.

Women have jobs processing and marketing seafood. They also collect clams and other shellfish.

No women on fishing boat crews

Sara Skamser has worked in and around commercial fishing for much of her adult life.

When she was in her early twenties, Skamser started earning money by fishing and crabbing along the coast of Oregon. Eventually, she wanted to work on bigger fishing boats to earn more money. But the operators of those boats never offered her a job.

Sara Skamser has worked on and around fishing boats most of her adult life.
Sara Skamser has worked on and around fishing boats most of her adult life.

She said they would all tell her “no”, and say things like, ‘I know you could do the job, and you're probably stronger than me. But I don't think my wife would like it.’ Others would say, ‘I would feel terrible if you got hurt on my boat.’

Skamser said she received rejections like these in the early 1980s.

Today, women hold fewer than four percent of the commercial fishery permits approved by state governments in the northwestern United States.

Gender inequality is also an issue in other countries. In Mexico, Peru, Senegal and Vietnam, four percent or fewer of the workers on fishing boats are women.

Changes on land

However, new research suggests that things are beginning to change.

Skamser was one of many women who took part in a study on the influence of women in the northwestern U.S. commercial fishing industry.

Oregon State University's Flaxen Conway and Sarah Calhoun, a graduate student, looked at the findings. So did Suzanne Russell, a researcher with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They wrote a report, which will appear next month in the journal Marine Policy.

Fishing boats and trawlers berthed at docks in Newport, Oregon. The commercial fishing fleets in Oregon and Washington state remain overwhelming male-dominated.
Fishing boats and trawlers berthed at docks in Newport, Oregon. The commercial fishing fleets in Oregon and Washington state remain overwhelming male-dominated.

Conway, a sociologist, says they found women are playing a larger part in the fishing industry, but off the boat.

"If you look at the scientists, you look at the processing, you look at the marketing... Once you broaden that out to fisheries in general, then I would absolutely say there are more women in science positions and management positions than there have been… in my 27 year long career."

Suzanne Russell added, "We're seeing an increase on the business side more so than ever before.” She noted that new rules on the industry have created a greater need for jobs in the business and administrative side of the industry. This creates more employment possibilities for women, who have often worked in this part of fishing.

An international look

In another study, a separate research team looked at women and their influence on the fishing industry in Mexico, Peru, Senegal, South Africa and Vietnam. Sarah Harper of the University of British Columbia led that study. The findings were published in the journal Coastal Management.

Harper spoke to VOA on Skype.

"In terms of going out on fishing boats, I think it is still predominantly male-dominated. But certainly when we look at some of the small scale fisheries, the collection of shellfish and fish from shore, women are much more involved and definitely underestimated and undercounted in this area."

Harper says studies often ignore subsistence fishing by women wanting to feed their families. This makes it harder for government officials to measure the pressures on seafood resources or how to sustainably manage a fishery.

"When you're looking at managing fisheries and potentially trying to rebuild fisheries and implement conservation measures, you really need to know who is fishing and where. If there are fisheries that only men are focused on in certain regions and we're only focused on those, we're not getting the whole picture."

Hooking new opportunities

Sara Skamser now runs the commercial fishing net shop Foulweather Trawl at the Port of Newport, Oregon
Sara Skamser now runs the commercial fishing net shop Foulweather Trawl at the Port of Newport, Oregon

Sara Skamser is still involved in the industry, but not on a boat. She serves on several local advisory groups, and even started a fishing equipment company with her husband in Oregon. She said she sometimes does business with the fishermen who didn't offer a job many years ago.

"… I invoice those people now and occasionally there's a large invoice. I just look at 'em. I give them the look. Like, 'Uh, huh. Probably should've hired me. You would've gotten that for free,'" Skamser says.

Online support

The Internet has a number of online groups for women in fishing. One on Facebook, called "Chix Who Fish," celebrates victories such as getting manufacturers of fishing equipment to make products designed for women's bodies.

Flaxen Conway says American women in fishing have no need for gender-neutral names. "They don't want to be called a woman fisherman,” she adds. “They just want to be called a fisherman."

I’m Phil Dierking.

Tom Banse reported on this story for VOANews.com. Phil Dierking adapted his report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

commercial – adj. related to or used in the buying and selling of goods and services​

conservation – n. the protection of animals, plants, and natural resources​

crabbing – v. to catch or try to catch crabs​

dominate – v. to have control of or power over someone or something)

gender – n. the state of being male or female​

management – n. the act or skill of controlling and making decisions about a business, department, sports team, etc.​

predominantly – adj. more important, powerful, successful, or noticeable than other people or things​

sustainable – adj. able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed​

subsistence – n. the amount of food, money, etc., that is needed to stay alive​

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