Women in the Fishery (Part 1)

Women in the Fishery (Part 1)

Nancy Smith

I recently retired from fishing my own lobster license. It is a pleasure for me to share some of my experiences in the fishery, as well as some facts concerning women in the fishery.

Can I say at the very beginning that I didn’t get into this business to make a fashion statement? You soon learn to wear whatever keeps you warm and dry, regardless of what it looks like. However, when browsing through a Helly Hansen store, Sydney Ship Supply, Vernon d’Eon, or a Fishing Industry Exhibition, you find yourself taking a peek at what’s new and hot in water-repellent wear!

In other parts of the world, more so than in eastern Canada (Newfoundland is an exception), women have been a part of the fishing industry for many, many years. Men would go out and catch the fish and the women would be waiting on the wharf or the waters’ edge. The women would take possession of the harvest and begin the process of preparing the catch for home consumption or for market. They would take their product to market and get what money they could, or trade for something else they need.

Once the boats set sail, women were on shore; that was their place.

“The sea is no place for a woman”. That sentiment has echoed down through the years. The romantic side of me says it was a genuine concern for their safety. Not that they couldn’t work hard, they certainly could, and that was evident in the way they shouldered the chores around the farm. The fishing industry is a very dangerous industry, it was in the past and continues to be. We can imagine what it was like out on the stormy sea, small open boats with no shelter from the cold pounding waves (and that was on a good day), very limited space to work, the only power “man” power, rowing and later small exposed engines, hauling traps by hand. Women were and are still the heart of the home and the community; the men cared too much to expose them to, at times, such a violent environment.

Here in Eastern Canada, and particularly in this area, women worked in the lobster factories and helped process other species such as cod. More often than not, the women would be the ones who would turn the cod on the flakes in the drying process. Since the cod could not be allowed to get wet, women made sure the fish were covered before they could get soaked with rain. It is very likely they helped with pickling the winter’s fish.

Women would pitch in and help with fixing the fishing gear; some would knit “heads” for the lobster traps, paint the boat, and take on extra responsibilities at home during the fishing season. They were considered the shore crew. This is a quote from an article I read recently; “An unpaid woman’s services are not measured in financial terms, and are not fully acknowledged in fishing communities around the world.” And that was the way it was!

Women in Newfoundland have a longer history in the fishing industry than women in our area. Those women led the way in policy change.

In 1956, the federal Unemployment Insurance Act was amended to include fishing as insurable employment, even though fishermen were not the employees of any other person. Fishermen became eligible in April 1957 for benefits. These regulations, however, stipulated that women married to fishers could not collect benefits, even if they fished every day of the season. The assumption was that women who fished with their husbands were only “helpers” and, therefore, their work was not considered valid – the same as housework. It took a few more years for women to be able to apply for unemployment insurance benefits.

In the early 1980s, a woman fisher named Rosanne Doyle from Witless Bay, Newfoundland successfully challenged in the Supreme Court of Canada the Unemployment Insurance regulations which denied benefits to wives of fishers. Ms. Doyle’s win meant that women who worked with their husbands on their boats became eligible to collect unemployment insurance benefits, just like their male counterparts.

In the 2006 Statistics Canada report on the self-employed fishing industry, 20% of workers were women.

Here in this area, it wasn’t until the eighties that women could be seen boarding boats and going out to sea. One main factor that led women to start fishing was a severe down-turn in the economy. This practice allowed more of the fishing income to remain in the family. The eligibility for “stamps” (employment insurance) was based on the dollar value of the day’s catch, and not on hours worked. So, if a woman was out for three days per week and sold the catch in her name, she could theoretically accumulate enough to qualify for unemployment insurance benefits later in the year. There were a few women who went out for three days a week, others were out every day.

My personal story began with similar circumstances. In 1984-85, I started fishing. I was not a morning person, so this decision to get up at three o’clock in the morning didn’t come easy for me. Three mornings a week, well, I would see if I could handle it. I never did go out for just three days a week! The weeks leading up to the start of my first season were wonderful, sunny, and warm. Great weather to work outside on the boat and gear. This was pleasing to me. On setting day – (opening day of the lobster fishery, when all the traps are set into the water for the season),- the weather was remarkable for the middle of May.

Then came my first encounter with horrid weather, a rough morning. The wind had come up, producing higher waves, the bilge pump stopped working, water started to fill the bilge, our c.b. radio was not hooked up yet, boats were circling around us, and I thought this was THE END!

My husband Dennis and our helper patiently showed me how everything was done (as Steve would laughingly say, “Let’s show Nancy Bye the ropes”), but had never thought to tell me that something like this could happen. I went into the cabin and got sick. I am pleased to say that was the first and last time that happened, getting sick, that is. I never forgot what our helper told me that day; he said, “before you know it, if something like this happens again, you will shrug it off as just another inconvenience”. He was right, I didn’t freak out again when something out of the ordinary happened. Years later, when I reflect on that day, I think of how naïve I was to think that was a rough day.

It was a swift transformation from reluctantly giving it a try to “I LOVE IT; why didn’t I do this before?” Some of what really gets you hooked are the mornings that are so breathtaking. The sun that is a huge reddish orange ball on the horizon, right there so close that if you were to steam down a ways you could touch it. No offence to Jim Steele’s sunrises, but you can’t capture the magnificence of such a sunrise from the land. There are times you are at the mercy of Mother Nature, who can rear her ugly head in a very short time. The times of tranquil peace and quiet that can’t be found too many other places cancel out the negative ones. This was the life for me. I loved it. The early mornings, hard work, learning how to build or fix gear, helping to haul in the nets, and trying to absorb as much as I could. The cold, windy, rough, wet mornings were not the greatest, but that was all part of the experience. There was something different to be found each day. The glorious days and the wicked days were all part of the package, if you jumped in with both feet. There is absolutely nothing glamourous about this life, but it can define equality, and it is a place where you have your brothers’ or sisters’ backs, even if this is not the case on land.

I obtained a lobster fishing licence of my own in 1986, formed a partnership with my husband Dennis, and we fished together for twenty-five years. Also in 1986, I was successful in getting my Class IV Fishing Masters certification.

I really liked the introduction of wire traps; they weigh the same the last day of the season as they do the first, and the plastic crates are a far cry from the wooden ones that seem to weigh a ton when they are wet and filled with lobsters. I have seen other changes to gear over the years of my career that improve work aboard a boat. One of the most significant improvements was in the direction of care of the catch, so consumers were getting top-quality product for their dollar. This brings pride not only to the fisherman but to the community as well. I believe that women played a key role in bringing this improvement to the industry.

We were part of a scientific project for several years; this instilled in me the value science plays in the fishing industry. We were given a special permit, along with special wire traps with no escape hatches, and a special digital thermometer that recorded the water temperature every half hour. The traps were placed in the exact same place each year, and every time they were hauled they were put back in the same place. Every day, each specie was recorded and all lobsters measured. A count was taken of everything that came up in the traps: perch, flat fish, crab, etc. The bait used was recorded. All documentation, including temperature records, was forwarded to the Bedford Institute of Oceanography at Dartmouth, and later in the year we would receive some of the results.

In the off season, I found myself attending meetings. There, you learn from others and hear other people’s thoughts on policy.

See Part 2 with lobster fisherman Amy MacInnis.

About Jay Rawding

Jay is a local graphic designer, archer and nature enthusiast living in St. Ann's Bay.