"At the beginning of my fishing career, all the world told me that the trade was for men," says Chrifa Nimri, "but now all my colleagues respect and call me captain."
The 69-year-old Tunisian fisherwoman is one of a very small female minority in a very male-dominated profession – commercial fishing.
Around the world, the dangerous work of hauling in the catch at sea is overwhelmingly performed by men. But if you expand the definition of fishing to include processers and marketers of seafood, workers in small-scale and artisanal fisheries, and collectors of clams and other shellfish, women account for a substantial part of the global industry.
No women on board
Sara Skamser 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 home-ported in Newport -- better pay and bigger adventure and all. But, she recalls, none of those skippers would hire her.
"No. They said no.” She mimics them. “'Uh, I know you could do the job. Gosh, you're probably stronger than me. 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. To this day in the Pacific Northwest, women hold fewer than 4 percent of the commercial fishery licenses issued by Oregon and Washington state. Elsewhere in the world, social norms helped to keep the gender disparity in place. For example, in Mexico, Peru, Senegal and Vietnam, which all have major marine fisheries, 4 percent or fewer of the workers on fishing boats are women.
Changes on shore
But pull back the lens a little bit and there's evidence of change. Skamser provided one of many oral histories that formed the basis of a research project on the role of women in the northwestern U.S. commercial fishing industry. Grad student Sarah Calhoun and Professor Flaxen Conway of Oregon State University along with the NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center researcher Suzanne Russell in Seattle analyzed the results, which were published in the journal Marine Policy.
Conway, a sociologist, says they found women are playing a larger role on the regulatory and business side.
"I think 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 career, in my 27-year-long career."
"We're seeing an increase on the business side more so than ever before," added social scientist Russell. "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."
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."
An international look
A separate research team cast a wider net – examining women's contributions to the fishing industry in Mexico, Peru, Senegal, South Africa and Vietnam. Sarah Harper of the University of British Columbia led that study, whose results appeared in the latest edition of the journal Coastal Management.
"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 subsistence fishing by women to feed their families is easily overlooked. So, she says, is who goes crabbing in Vietnam or fishing from boats in lagoons.
When harvest by women is overlooked, Harper says that makes it harder for governments to accurately gauge the pressure on a seafood resource and 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."
Harper says she is encouraged to see United Nations bodies take an interest in gender equality in fisheries and be more gender-inclusive when making policy and management recommendations.
Hooking new opportunities
Sara Skamser is still involved in the industry, but not on a fishing vessel. She makes her voice heard on several local advisory boards, and founded a successful fishing net and gear company called Foulweather Trawl with her husband in Oregon. She also 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,'" she says with a chuckle.
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.
American “chicks” who fish have no use for gender-neutral titles by the way, according to Flaxen Conway. "They don't want to be called a woman fisherman. They just want to be called a fisherman."