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Not Just A Boys' Club: Women Hooking Into Fishing Industry More Onshore

Who caught the last fish you bought for dinner? If it came from Pacific Northwest waters, the fisherman was very likely a man. Commercial fishing remains a male-dominated profession in the Northwest.

But research by Oregon State University and a federal agency shows evolution in women's roles in the industry.

To this day in the Pacific Northwest the dangerous work of hauling in the catch is overwhelming performed by men. Women hold fewer than four percent of the commercial fishery licenses issued to individuals by the Oregon and Washington State Departments of Fish and Wildlife.

Women’s evolving role

U.S. Census Bureau employment surveys peg the percentages of female fishermen higher, but the gender balance is still dramatically skewed. During the past 25 years, overall employment in commercial fishing on the West Coast has dropped significantly due to limited fishing seasons.

Pull back the lens a little bit and there's evidence of change. This was revealed through oral histories that formed the basis of a research project on the role of women in the West Coast commercial fishing industry.

Grad student Sarah Calhoun and Professor Flaxen Conway of Oregon State University along with NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center social scientist Suzanne Russell in Seattle analyzed more than two dozen recent oral histories collected from people in the fishing industry. Their results were published in the journal Marine Policy.

Conway said the fishermen at sea are just one part of a larger social ecosystem.

"I think if you look at the scientists, you look at the processing, you look at the marketing,” Conway said. “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 career, in my 27 year long career.”

"We're seeing an increase on the business side more so than ever before," Russell added. "Women always worked the business side of things, but now with the complexity and all the reporting, trading and bycatch requirements, it's pretty intense.”

Managing the family business

One of Conway's takeaways was that the traditional, behind-the-scenes role of a fisherman's wife has become an increasingly complex and critical job.

"Whether it's regulation, safety, marketing, research, it's all caring for that fishing family business and making those products get to the table that we enjoy,” Conway said.

Taunette Dixon can vouch for that. She comes from a four-generation fishing family in Newport. At a local coffeehouse, Dixon said she started in the family business by helping with net preparation at age eight. She went to sea in Alaska right after high school.

"Being out there on the ocean was exciting,” Dixon said. “It matured me. It was a great experience."

In her early 20s, she got married.

"He was a fisherman, which I had said I would never marry," Dixon said through a smile.

Shortly before, she turned down her grandfather's offer to run her own boat. Life at sea didn't fit with her vision of motherhood.

"For me, I wanted to have kids. It's really hard unless you have a family boat,” Dixon said. “There are tuna boats where families take their kids out during their season, or seiners. But that wasn't what I was going to do."

Dixon remains deeply involved in the business. On shore, she manages the family's current 63-foot fishing boat -- the payroll, bills, hiring and firing of crew, maintenance and staying on top of the permits and quotas.

A fisherman is a fisherman

She also serves as vice president of the Newport Fishermen's Wives organization. Women started this group in 1970 to lobby for safety improvements and to support each other while their men spent months at sea -- sometimes to never came home.

It still has a social and political function, but the present day membership is illustrative. The group now includes female scientists, shore side business owners, boat owners, a fisheries attorney and a hospital staffer.

The Fishermen's Wives group does not have an overt mission to increase female representation in the fishing fleet. In fact, no one interviewed for this story was aware of any interest group that was actively campaigning to get more women into commercial fishing.

There are online forums dedicated to women in fishing and elevating their profile. One in particular on Facebook called "Chix Who Fish" celebrates victories such as getting a boot maker and a foul weather gear maker to add product lines tailored to the shapes of women's bodies.

‘You probably should've hired me’

Sara Skamser provided one of the oral histories for the OSU/NOAA study. She has worked in or around commercial fishing for nearly her entire adult life. In her early 20s, she arrived on the Oregon coast and collected her first paychecks salmon fishing and crabbing in local waters. Then Skamser asked for jobs on bigger boats homeported in Newport -- better pay and bigger adventure and all. But none of those skippers would hire her.

"No. They said no," Skamser recalled. "'Uh, I know you could do the job. Gosh, you're probably stronger than me," Skamser continued while mimicking the voices."'Uhhh, but I don't think my wife would like it.' Or, 'Uhhh. I would feel terrible if you got hurt on my boat.'"

This was in the early 1980s. Skamser went on to found a successful fishing net and gear company, Foulweather Trawl, with her husband. She still deals with some of the fishermen who wouldn't hire her decades ago.

"Bottom line of all of that is that 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 said with a chuckle.

The Alaska fishing fleet has a higher percentage of female captains and crew members according to Northwest fishermen and researchers who have cast eyes to the north.

"It's a bigger industry in Alaska," Skamser said. "There's just more boats and more opportunities and more family-run vessels. There's more women fishing because there is more fishing in Alaska."

Women who fish have no use for gender-neutral occupation descriptors by the way, according to Conway, a sociologist who has extensively studied Oregon fishing communities.

"They don't want to be called a woman fisherman. They just want to be called a fisherman," Conway said in an interview in Corvallis. In the academic paper, the co-authors wrote that fisherman is the preferred term for both women and men who fish.

Sara Skamser runs the commercial fishing net shop Foulweather Trawl at the Port of Newport, Oregon.
Tom Banse / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network
Sara Skamser runs the commercial fishing net shop Foulweather Trawl at the Port of Newport, Oregon.

Copyright 2017 Northwest News Network

Correspondent Tom Banse is an Olympia-based reporter with more than three decades of experience covering Washington and Oregon state government, public policy, business and breaking news stories. Most of his career was spent with public radio's Northwest News Network, but now in semi-retirement his work is appearing on other outlets.
Tom Banse
Tom Banse covers national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reports from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events are unfolding. Tom's stories can be found online and heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.