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More women are casting their net into the salmon fishing industry

They used to be considered bad luck onboard, but an increasing number of female crew members are stepping onto boats headed to Alaska.

By Francesca Lyman, Crosscut
Published: July 1, 2023, 6:02am
6 Photos
McKenna Peterson (right) gets moral support from her competitor and friend Camryn Patrick (left) on the deck of the FV Wonderland.
McKenna Peterson (right) gets moral support from her competitor and friend Camryn Patrick (left) on the deck of the FV Wonderland. (Robert Aglow for Crosscut) Photo Gallery

Venturing into deep, often treacherous waters. Winching ropes in gale-force winds. Leaning into waves that whip over the bows of their boats. Commercial fishermen face extraordinary on-the-job hazards. In 2021, the U.S. Department of Labor ranked their profession the second deadliest, behind logging.

Many assume this tough and dangerous profession is a man’s job. That notion is reinforced by the popular TV series The Deadliest Catch, where crabbers brave winter winds in icy waters, or movies like The Perfect Storm, in which fishermen face a monster storm after leaving their women behind.

But winds of change are brewing. A generation of women is heading out to sea, defying age-old taboos about women being bad luck aboard fishing boats. They are entering the field not only as deckhands and crewmates, but as fishing-boat captains and marine engineers. People readying their boats for the summer fishing season at Fishermen’s Terminal in Seattle clearly illustrate this trend.

Breaking into a man’s industry isn’t easy, but “in large part, the industry is welcoming to women,” says Captain Allison Demmert, preparing her boat dockside at Fishermen’s Terminal. Allison is gearing up for the Alaska salmon season on the 58-foot  F/V Chirikof  (named for the Russian navigator who explored the Northwest coast of North America).

Having captained the F/V Ultimo, moored one dock over, with four women out of a crew of five aboard, this year she will co-skipper their purse seiner with her father Captain Guy Demmert and a crew of two men and two women.

Born into an Alaskan family that has fished salmon for generations, she expanded her hands-on training with a maritime-engineering education. Mastering credentials like “advanced firefighting,” she’s in charge of “navigation, route planning and vessel maneuvering in all kinds of weather.” It’s a job that calls for “stamina, agility and above all, calm.”

“In general, women are more collaborative, and in a very team-oriented environment, that is an asset,” she adds.

A few slips down, Captain McKenna Peterson also makes last-minute preparations to the F/V Atlantis, which she has skippered for eight years.

A pro skier based in Idaho, she’s already made a name “big mountain” skiing down steep, rugged terrain in winter. She’s likely the only top skier with a second career captaining a commercial fishing boat in summer.

Peterson took the helm of the family fishing business when her father, Chris Peterson, died in an avalanche in 2016 when she was 29. “I’d been fishing with my dad my whole life, since I was 18,” she recalls. “It was how I got myself through college and made a living.” Keeping the boat going for the family “just seemed like the right thing to do.”

She has witnessed a growing trend of women joining the fishing fleet of some 220 boats assigned to southeast Alaska. Once there were only three female skippers among them; now there are nine.

“It used to be, the only women aboard were girlfriends and daughters,” Peterson says. “Now almost every boat has at least two women on it.” Including herself, she will oversee a crew of three women and two men this season.

Commercial fishing remains a male-dominated trade, but “the percentage of women has increased in recent years,” noted the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development in 2007. While most fishing permits in Alaska fisheries are still owned by men, women are making small but quantifiable inroads as crew members.

Tracking all of Alaska’s fisheries over the past 30 years, Marysia Szymkowiak, a social scientist for the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, found that women’s participation on Alaska fishing vessels went from 13 percent in 1993 to 18 percent in 2017. She didn’t have more recent figures, nor do Alaska state agencies, because they don’t generally account for gender in their datasets in this region.

That may sound like a small increase, but “women are often managing double jobs, as fishermen and as mothers,” Szymkowiak says. Observing fisheries through the lens of gender, she found that women’s roles have been underestimated, with a whole range of shoreside processing and support functions regarded in some cases as simply “an extension of domestic work, and thus largely unrecognized.”

Learning the ropes

Fishing is one of the world’s oldest trades, but for years women weren’t part of it, at least not visibly. In the 17th to mid-19th centuries, women were forbidden even to travel aboard sailing ships. Legends persisted that their presence could anger the ocean gods or make the crew jealous or distracted.

Such superstitious thinking prevailed until modern times, including among some old-guard commercial fishermen in Alaska, recalls Terri Fletcher, a shoreside crew supervisor in the 1980s in Bristol Bay, Alaska, home to the world’s largest salmon fishery.

“Why, you couldn’t turn a coffee cup upside down on a boat because it would jinx the boat – and roll it over.”

Such old nautical superstitions and gender bias were entirely absent at Seattle’s Fishermen’s Terminal on this sporadically sunny June day.

At the wharf around the corner from Peterson’s boat, Camryn Patrick was helping inspect and fix the seine net, a large wall of netting that is deployed around a school of fish from a fishing vessel called a purse seiner.

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“This will be the first time I’ve had two girls aboard,” says her father, Captain Kevin Patrick. A commercial fisherman since 1976, he’s showing his newest recruit, Brigett Cronk, a first-season newbie, how to repair a net as she holds a section taut and he deftly ties a loose strand.

“There are more and more women in our industry every year,” says Camryn Patrick. Statistics show that women make up just under 10 percent of the 5,600 or so commercial fishermen nationwide, and less than 8 percent of boat captains are female. But the female shares have grown gradually since 2015.

The Patrick family’s boat, the F/V Wonderland, a 1942 vessel painted jauntily in circus colors of red, white and gold, was built at a nearby shipyard during World War II. With its boom and crisscrossing lines bearing multiple rings and shackles, the seiner’s one of several types of commercial fishing boats seen in Alaska, including trollers and gillnetters.

All chasing Alaska salmon, the fishing crews feel a deep camaraderie, as Camryn Patrick helps Peterson sort out a mechanical problem, and Peterson helps her with the lines.

As the sun breaks out, crewmates’ faces, too, break into smiles as they look forward to their journey north.

“Fish are jumping, we hear!” says Camryn Patrick.

Then it’s back to work. “Somebody’s gotta be organizing these hooligans,” she jokes, jousting with one of her crewmates. She likes to be considered first mate, she says, as one her male crewmates gently ribs her about being the captain’s daughter.

Fastening some netting that’s become second nature to her, she jests that “girls get a ‘leg up’ because we always loved making ‘friendship rings.’” She also takes credit for picking this season’s crew: “A good crew makes all the difference.”

Two male deckhands pull a seemingly endless quarter-mile of netting through a giant pulley on deck, creating a mountain of nets with cork floats. Cronk, the newbie, climbs with the men to the top of the wobbly pile. As it shifts, she’s suddenly forced to leap backwards onto the hard cement dock – a drop of perhaps six to eight feet. A Mt. Baker snowboarder in winter, Cronk’s versatile athleticism has prepared her for this strenuous task.

“Oh man, some of the best fishermen I’ve seen are women,” says Chris Medearis, down a gangway at another end of the terminal. He stands on the wharf before the F/V Halcyon, soon headed to Sitka, Alaska.

“They’re badass!” he says, “They’re beasts, walking into a male domain, working so hard. They can run circles around the men, maybe because they feel that they have more to prove.”

Men operating boats are known for brawny arms and upper body strength, but women have lower body strength, Medearis reflects. Their smaller stature enables agility in a boat’s tight spaces.

Technology helps

Commercial fishing today is far safer than in past decades, and deaths are down; 2022 was the first year without a reported fatality. But yes, say these fisherwomen, people “occasionally lose fingers.”

A big plus for women is that improved technology makes work easier, especially heavy lifting, says Captain Allison Demmert back on the Chirikof.

Nevertheless, men naturally revert to using their bodies. “We’d just bought a new fridge and we were bringing it on board. We thought we’d use our hydraulics. But two male crew members wanted to [physically] lift up the fridge themselves!”

In fact, says Demmert, “There’s not a lot of heavy lifting that requires sheer brute strength anymore. But there are lots of heavy, moving parts and pieces, so it requires a lot of skill in using this machinery properly.”

As for life-threatening hazards, she acknowledges that crabbing in winter is far more hazardous than salmon fishing in summer, while scoffing at how some dangers can be overdramatized on TV.

Still, fishermen shouldn’t be fooled by the generally fairer skies and calmer seas of summer. “The salmon fishery is still very dangerous,” she cautions. “There are long days of work, and many stressful moments. But I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t love it.”

“When weather gets bad, there are bigger swells, heavy winds,” says Captain Peterson. “When nets are in the water, the current can take control, and it can be more powerful than the boats. There have definitely been times when I felt the fear that things could go wrong. It’s pretty important to calm down and get yourself situated.”

Apart from stormy weather and perilous machinery, how easy are the men in this trade on women, and how welcoming?

“It depends on your captain,” says Janine Kerr, who’s joining Demmert as a cook aboard the Chirikof.  Kerr, who also works as a cook in a school system, exemplifies the dynamic roles women have in this industry, as fishers but also as mothers – running households, managing pregnancies and children, and earning wages to supplement family incomes and cover insurance.

Regardless of their position on a boat, fishers face long, arduous hours on the job. “I have no problem going to sleep when I hit the bunk,” she laughs.

Kerr, raised in Hoquiam, has fished since she was 17. She says she took a break only when she decided to have kids, and then returned only when they stopped saying “Mommy, don’t go.”

In this business, says Kerr, women often fight their own battles. While generally well-treated aboard boats, they are sometimes cornered into warding men off. Said one female crewmate, reporting an unwanted advance: “Some guy may say to you, ‘Wanna mess around?’ So I’ll say, ‘If I’m in a bar and having fun, that might be fair game. But don’t you ever come into my bunk; don’t you ever stick your nose in my stateroom.’”

Women on commercial fishing boats have faced sex discrimination, harassment and even sex abuse. But the young women newly joining crews at Fishermen’s Terminal say they’re treated fairly.

“I’m treated no differently than a man,” says Grace Taylor, a college graduate interested in journalism, crewing on the Christa G.

“Having women on board often helps,” says Taylor, who fished Prince William Sound last season, “because it creates more of a balance of energy on the boat. It definitely helps to have a balance of all the testosterone when you’re on a boat for three months!”

Since, in the two seasons she’s fished, her crewmates have all been 28 or younger, Taylor finds it has been easier than working for older captains, where she felt more of a need to prove her strength. “I think that shines [a] light on my generation’s views on gender equality – how women are being viewed more so as equals than in the past.”

Fishing on a small boat with a tightly bound crew entails intense teamwork, give-and-take, versatility and strength, but it brings many rewards.

“Commercial fishing is a rich experience and good adventure,” says Captain Allison Demmert, “There are so many things to learn and beautiful places to see – and jobs are more accessible to women than they’ve ever been before!”

One of the best things about fishing? “The ocean at sunrise,” says McKenna Peterson, glowing. “The beauty of the scenery is unmatched.”

As salmon season begins, one by one their boats head north into the open sea off the coast of Alaska, as they savor sunrises and hope for a bountiful catch.

Crosscut is a service of Cascade Public Media, a nonprofit, public media organization. Visit crosscut.com/donate to support nonprofit, freely distributed, local journalism.
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