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At Sea

While fishing is often thought of as a traditional male industry, many women work aboard fishing vessels. Women who fish often start out as galley cooks or sternmen on lobster boats. Some grew up fishing with their families and fell in love with the sea. Others work as observers, collecting catch data for the government, or as scientists guiding research. Title IX, a federal law passed in 1972 which prohibits discrimination based on gender in education or other programs that receive federal assistance, helped more women move into jobs at sea. As more women became successful in such jobs, the opportunities for others expanded.

Crystal Vaughan fishes offshore as Mate on the F/V Reliance, a New Bedford scallop boat. After stints in fisheries science and a job on shore doing mechanical work, she opted for a life at sea, “to do this job wholeheartedly, you gotta really enjoy the job more than the paycheck.” (quote from an interview with New Bedford Standard Times)

PHOTO BY PHIL MELLO

Crystal Vaughan fishes offshore as Mate on the F/V Reliance, a New Bedford scallop boat. After stints in fisheries science and a job on shore doing mechanical work, she opted for a life at sea, “to do this job wholeheartedly, you gotta really enjoy the job more than the paycheck.” (quote from an interview with New Bedford Standard Times)

PHOTO BY PHIL MELLO

Aubrey Ellertson Church, a Research Biologist with the Commercial Fisheries Research Foundation, measuring a lobster.

PHOTO PROVIDED BY AUBREY ELLERTSON CHURCH

Aubrey Ellertson Church, a Research Biologist with the Commercial Fisheries Research Foundation, measuring a lobster.

PHOTO PROVIDED BY AUBREY ELLERTSON CHURCH

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Usually, our trap season starts by April 1st. We call everybody in and we start going through the gear. Usually by the last week of April the traps are in and we’ll be fishing. Overnight the scup will show up, and then it’s full 14-hour days for me. That usually lasts up to about six weeks as far as volume goes. We can catch up to a million pounds of scup in a very short time. We try to stretch out the season as long as we can. Some years we’ve actually finished up in July because we’ve caught-up the striped bass quota so early and there is no reason to keep the traps in, and other years we’ve fished into October.

Corey Wheeler-Forrest, Trap Fisherman
Pt. Judith, RI
Photo by Markham Starr

What do you call a woman who fishes?

As women moved into traditionally male-dominated jobs, a variety of occupations adopted gender neutral language. “Policeman” became “police officer.” “Fireman” became “firefighter.” With more women working on deck and in the wheelhouse, has fishing industry terminology also changed? Academics and some government agencies tend to use the term fisher, but most women who fish prefer to be known as fishermen.

Wendy and Douglas Hooper hauling traps on their lobsterboat
PHOTO BY MARHAM STARR

I got my first quahog digging with my toes when I was 5 years old. My biggest day scratching was 2500 pieces. I worked high tide to high tide alongside my mother and sister for 3 or 4 years. We were always the last to leave the flat. I did all of my thinking and figuring things out when I was on the water. It is nice to be alone. I love that part of it. I love the smells. I’m a labor person. Whenever I work on the land, I always go back to the water.

Coralie Peltier, Shellfisherman, Chatham, MA
Photo by Shareen Davis

Wendy and Douglas Hooper hauling traps on their lobsterboat
PHOTO BY MARHAM STARR

Three generations at the Barn Hill Shanties after a day of quahogging and clamming in Chatham.

Erica Peltier Mitchell, Wendy Tileston, Sandra Liska and Coralie Peltier, Shellfishermen
Chatham, MA
Photo by Shareen Davis

Heidi and Barbara are shellfish farmers on the Lower Cape who harvest oysters and quahogs. They were photographed at Barbara’s Indian Neck shellfish grant in Wellfleet, MA for the 2003 Cape Cod Fisherwoman calendar.

Heidi Gallo & Barbara Austin, Oyster Farmers
Chatham, MA
Photo by Shareen Davis

I grew up on the beach in Dennis and have always felt more comfortable in the salt air with sand and gulls around me. Being a shellfisherman means I work in the fresh air every day and never need to go to the gym . . .It is physically demanding work and does require working in all weather conditions which can be a challenge. Working for myself also means a lot of business expenses, a lot of record keeping and the need to constantly challenge yourself. I’m also completely at the will of nature, if the temps are too cold or there is too much rain water or there is disease in the water, I can’t work. Mother Nature is the ultimate boss.

Karen Johnson, Oyster Farmer
Wellfleet, MA
Photo by Shareen Davis

Clamming and weir fishing have been my life. I was born into it and the gifts I have received from working on the water have been many: Digging steamers paid for my college degree; packing fish for the family business taught me the value of working together; building fish weirs has shown me the strength of my own body; relying on Mother Nature’s bounty for a living has taught me that hope and patience are inseparable; providing food for people has been my most rewarding work. Advocating for fishing family health and safety is my new chapter. I couldn’t do this work without growing up in a fishing family, with the ultimate fisheries advocate, my mom. Or knowing what it feels like to pull empty nets, break an engine, crack a shoulder, and rescue an unconscious crewman from freezing cold water.

Shannon Eldredge, Trap Fisherman
Chatham, MA
Photo by Shareen Davis

I love the community around trap fishing and being at the Point in Galilee. I’ve gotten exposed to a whole new culture, because I feel like it’s this dying breed that don’t exist anymore. It’s definitely not ever boring. Every day you just kind of take it for what it is and do the best you can. There’s no routine – there’s no punch in, punch out. Every day out there is great. When I got my first paycheck I was like, “I got paid to do this? Get out! No way! This is a job that I get paid for?” Every day out there I love. I do. I treasure it. It’s hard and it’s tiring, but I want to continue to do it.

Stesha Campbell, Trap Fisherman
Galilee, RI
Photo by Shareen Davis

I was in Provincetown working, and my ex-sister-in-law’s new boyfriend was a fisherman with a scallop boat called the P-Town Queen, and I went to the boat for the Blessing of the Fleet and the following week I was working on it as the cook and crew. Probably the most disreputable boat that made the least money, but that’s how I got started. I got off it pretty soon. I did some scalloping out of New Bedford, and after 6 years I switched over to dragging. I ended up running the first dragger I worked on, the Johnny-O. I had another woman crew, but we just had to fix so many things all the time that I burned out quick. I remember the owner saying, “The eyes of the fleet will be upon you,’ and they were. Some people said, “We thought he was crazy to let you do that – I still think so!” But still people were very kind and supportive.

Ellen Schomer, Deckhand
Photo by Markham Starr

I remember years ago in school, one teacher said “the men are smarter than women.” And I said “Oh really!” He said “Oh yeah! Just go to the library, and look at the books, there are more book in any library was written by men.” I said “Well, maybe it’s true but it doesn’t indicate nothing.” If the people remember, up to 19th century, the women were not allowed to the colleges. So if we think that way, it’s the same in fishing. They wasn’t (sic) allowed because it was kind of tradition. The men took the effort to go on the sea, and make the living, from the sea. And the women stay home, take care about family.

Eva Liput, Former Scallop Captain
New Bedford, MA
Photo by Markham Starr

 

I got a license in the spring, and a man gave me five wood traps, and another guy gave me five wood buoys, and the kids who are now in their fifties taught me how to put the warp on the traps and I had a rowboat. I would row outside there and I’d set those five traps. I could not wait each morning to get down here and go out there and haul those traps. It was like Christmas, you know? “What’s going to be in it?” I was addicted to it right from the beginning. I caught the disease or something and I never looked back. From there it was a little bigger skiff and more traps, and then a bigger boat. I retired from teaching in ’99 and now fish 600 traps.

Jean Symonds, Lobsterman
Correa, ME
Photo by Markham Starr

 

Click to watch Moe Bowstern’s piece, “What It’s Like.”

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