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Heritage center to highlight women’s roles in commercial fishing industry with programs, exhibit

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SouthCoast Today | The Standard-Times

Anastasia Lennon (March 9, 2021)

NEW BEDFORD — Years before the New Bedford Fishing Heritage Center was established, the city’s annual two-day Working Waterfront Festival in 2007 focused on women and their role in the commercial fishing industry. 

Laura Orleans, executive director of the center who was involved in the festival planning, said a man on the planning committee had asked if the festival would be all about fishermen’s wives, as that was what he thought about women in the industry.

Women who are married to fishermen serve an important role, but they have many other roles, Orleans said. They own and captain boats, process fish, study fisheries as scientists, make fishing gear, do the bookkeeping, serve as observers for fisheries management and act as some of the strongest advocates for the industry. 

This reality will be the focus of the center’s new project, “Women’s Work: At Sea, On Shore, At Home, In the Community.” Programming starts this month and will culminate in a new exhibit on women scheduled to open late this summer. 

Mary Stanley, known as "Fish Mary," with a bag of scallops on her head in the 1960s. She worked as a "lumper," meaning she offloaded fish from the vessels.
Mary Stanley, known as “Fish Mary,” with a bag of scallops on her head in the 1960s. She worked as a “lumper,” meaning she offloaded fish from the vessels. Jim Dwyer through The New Bedford Fishing Heritage Center

Women tend to be “invisible” in this industry, Orleans said. “Fishing happens out of sight, offshore or in these mysterious processing places… What we try to do with the programs and exhibits is shine a light and humanize the often mysterious, unknown industry… People just don’t have any sense of ways in which women are involved.”

The executive director said compared to other ports, especially out west in California and Alaska, the Port of New Bedford has fewer women on boats and going out to sea. 

When asked if she would like to see more women in the local fleets, Orleans said she wants anyone, regardless of gender, to get a job on a boat if they have the skills and commitment. 

Orleans said pre-pandemic, the center would have school groups visit, which is one of the reasons they are creating the new exhibit on women.

Sarah Fortin working on nets at Reidar's Trawl-Scallop Gear and Marine Supply.
Sarah Fortin working on nets at Reidar’s Trawl-Scallop Gear and Marine Supply. New Bedford Fishing Heritage Center

“I have been painfully aware of the fact that you see images of men,” Orleans said. “I always have wanted the high school kids, especially high school girls, to see themselves on the walls and in the center… to not just take my word for it.” 

The exhibit, which is still in its early stages of planning, will look at women in each part of the industry, she said. The center will also focus on Mary Stanley, a woman better known as “Fish Mary,” who was the only local woman offloading heavy bags of fish from boats in the 1950s and 1960s. 

Before the exhibit opens, the center will offer many opportunities to learn more about women’s roles in the fishing industry.

This March, during Women’s History Month, the center is offering two programs. On March 11 at 7 p.m., attendees will explore women and the sea through a virtual concert and lecture on Facebook. Then, on March 19 at 7 p.m., the center will stream a documentary through Zoom on women in the fishing industry at Point Judith, Rhode Island. 

Orleans said she and other staff are excited about partnering with local schools and the YWCA to bring awareness to young women in the community about the ways in which women have been involved.

“In particular, for women to see themselves in strong roles,” Orleans said. 

The center is receiving funding for the new programs and exhibit from the National Endowment for the Arts, Women’s Fisheries Network, Massachusetts Cultural Council and the cultural councils of Dartmouth, Mattapoisett, New Bedford and Westport.

For more information about upcoming programs and exhibits, visit

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