There’s No Crying on a Fishing Boat

Guest post by Stephanie Boudreau.

My father likes to joke that he comes from a place where “the men are men, and the women are men too”.

Both of my parents are from Yarmouth County in southwest Nova Scotia.  My mom is a townie, and my father from a small fishing village twenty minutes away.  Dad became a soldier in the Land Forces rather than follow in his family’s footsteps of becoming a fisherman. While we worked “away”, our holiday vacations were at “home” in Yarmouth where most of my family’s history is in the small-scale fisheries. In fact, my Grandpère bought his lobster licence back when they first became available for “twenty-five cents – just in case”, or so the old story goes.

Wharf at Little River Harbour, Yarmouth County Nova Scotia

The wharf in Little River Harbour, my dad’s home community.

While my folks moved away from a life on the water, at least during their time with the Armed Forces, I moved towards one. As I was completing my MSc and looking for work, I applied to be a fisheries observer in the North Pacific. An observer lives aboard the fishing vessel and samples a portion of the catch, collecting data on the target species and bycatch and monitoring compliance of regulations: pot tags, mesh sizes, size limits etc. I spent most of my time aboard snow and king crab vessels but also worked on groundfish vessels using trawls, longlines, and pots. These fisheries are not necessarily considered to be small-scale but as a fisheries ecologist from the Maritimes, I was so excited to see the big pots, big crab and big boats.

Me, measuring a red king crab in the hold during a delivery

Me, measuring a red king crab in the hold during a delivery

There were stories about what conditions used to be like for female observers on board the boats before sexual harassment laws were taken seriously. My approach to being on board was that I was just a person doing a job and most of the time that’s exactly how I was treated.

While about half of the fisheries observers were women, seeing women aboard the catcher boats was rare. During my three years in Alaska, I worked with only two women who weren’t observers like me. One was catching a ride home down the Aleutian chain – she cooked and measured crab to pay her way. The second was a crew member on a pollock trawler out of Kodiak, AK. That trawler was known around town as, “Yeah! The one with the woman deckhand!”

Sometimes being the only girl around was weird. On one particularly long trip I missed having a girl-friend to chat with so much that I started talking to a bikini model on a poster (and was busted because I shared the room with three of the crew). Then there was the time I slammed my thumb in a door, and instead of asking me if it was still attached, one look at the tears in my eyes and the crew member panicked and blurted out, “there’s no crying on a fishing boat“!

My bikini-clad pal

My bikini-clad pal

Vessels are required to take the assigned observer by law, whether male or female, but there are a couple of seagoing superstitions associated with having a woman aboard; most commonly that a woman on a boat is bad luck. One of the reasons for this is that they claim women distract men from their work and bring about jealousy and fights. Another is rooted in mythologies around mermaids and sirens luring vessels onto the rocks and causing shipwrecks. This superstition didn’t include the bare-breasted figureheads painted on the bow or the other images of bare-breasted ladies that were often on board *ahem*.

While they had no choice but to take me on, I was occasionally asked to do things to counteract the bad luck I was bringing with me. It usually had something to do with me urinating. I was asked to pee in the bilge on one boat and on another I was asked to pee in a cup so that they could sprinkle it on the crab gear. I’m a good sport but both of those requests went against my “just a person doing a job” philosophy so… I declined. There was, however, one request that I couldn’t decline. Inevitably, the poor vessel engineer would pull me aside to give me the tampon talk – “only human waste and paper get flushed” because the system couldn’t handle foreign objects. I found it seriously appalling the first few times. It’s really bizarre to be made aware of your gender in such plain language while at work.

But, I really loved waking up and getting to work, looking out at the Pacific, and waiting to see what was going to come up in the next pot or tow. As a marine scientist, it really helped me accumulate practical knowledge of how fisheries take place, the people involved, issues around bycatch and sampling methodologies for fisheries-dependent research programs. I also made a lot of really good friends.

Alaskan scene in Dutch Harbour

Alaskan scene in Dutch Harbour

To any young-career marine scientists who might be reading this, I often think that being a commercial fisheries observer laid the path for most of my subsequent jobs. You are outside on the water, learning about fisheries, marine species, on the front lines of data collection, scientisting, and meeting the people whose livelihoods depend on the sea. When I finished my MSc, I swore I would never go back to grad school; in the end, the lessons I learned out there are what changed my mind. If you’re interested, here is a list of Canadian observer companies.

I eventually came home from observing to study Canada’s owner-operator lobster fishery and dove into a very different world – the world of academia. I was brought up in a masculine environment and have worked in male-dominated spaces, so I’ve come to expect a certain level of sexism. In a lot of ways, I anticipated that my time in academia would be less about my gender and more about scholarship. The ivory tower is a very privileged place to be but there’s still work to do here. I am definitely hyper aware of gender ratios in university departments, in conferences, meetings and in who does the talking. Sometimes you really are one of the only women in a group of men, particularly in fisheries research. You experience a range of attitudes – from those you treat you as any other researcher and appreciate your contributions, to those who talk over you or to tap you on the knee and call you “dear”.

Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, September 2002. Arts and Administration Building, now the Henry Hicks Building, Photographer: Thorfinn Stainforth

Dalhousie University in Halifax, NS

While I’ve worked for and with many women in both academic and non-academic workplaces, we’re still underrepresented as directors, managers, principal investigators, and tenured professors. We’ve been hearing for the last 15 years or so that once the men start retiring we’ll all have the opportunity to move in and up. This is particularly frustrating for friends and colleagues who have put in the work and become experts in their field and are ready to run a research program only to encounter closed doors.

But I can’t help but be earnest. It is a useful outlook to have when you work in marine conservation because, well, it can be quite grim.  In the natural sciences, particularly in marine fields, the lecture theatres and labs are almost entirely young women and I feel that there is a regime shift coming in both academic and non-academic spaces. I must say, I for one am really looking forward to seeing it.

There is no mistaking that women are a huge part of fishing communities. While I may not have encountered very many women working about the boats in Alaska (aside from other observers and my friend in the bikini), they were still an integral part of the operations, working in fish plants, in the offices, as taxi drivers and so on. Most of my aunts and cousins, if they’re not the daughter of a fisherman, are partnered to one. When they want a wall moved or wood brought in while they’re home alone, they get it done.  I’m so fortunate to have these women as role models – they have taught me that women are so much more than what is defined by traditional gender roles.  Growing up watching these women has helped me to approach my work with the understanding that being a woman is not, and should not be, a limiting factor to living my life. I will be forever thankful to the women and men of the fisheries (and the military) for embodying these values, and for instilling them in me.

Sunset over Little River Harbour, NS

Sunset over Little River Harbour, NS

Stephanie Boudreau grew up on Canadian Military Bases and spent family vacations having her base-kid boundaries pushed while discovering her Acadian roots. Her research interests encompass invertebrates, community ecology, marine conservation and ecological knowledge, specifically with respect to commercial fishing practices and coastal communities. She is presently the Postdoctoral Fellow with Fish-WIKS, a research project housed within the Marine Affairs Program at Dalhousie University. Her folks have recently retired “down home”.



3 thoughts on “There’s No Crying on a Fishing Boat

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