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The Entangling Net: Alaska’s Commercial Fishing Women Tell Their Lives, by Leslie Leyland Fields (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996), is the story, based on the author’s own experience and interviews, of some of the women who worked as commercial fishers in the waters of the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Alaska surrounding Kodiak Island and the Aleutian Islands. The following excerpts capture some of the flavour of these women’s experience, why they chose this line of work and what it entailed.
The last black cod season started May 15. It was two gals and two guys. The skipper wanted a crew that could bait gear fast; that was what he was looking for. ... To start out, all we were trying to do is turn hooks. Its a numbers game. Ideally you run 18,000-20,000 hooks a day. And so we’d have four people baiting at all times and one person hauling gear. The people baiting would rotate coiling the gear. We went back to the traditional way of fishing. Most Kodiak boats will let the gear fall into a tub, kind of on its own, then you bring that tub back and bait it. On the old halibut schooners they hand coil everything so they’re able to offspin every hook. They try to make a really nice coil so when you take it back you can bait it twice as fast. The first couple of days we looked at the time it was taking to bait the messy skates (the long lines on which the hooks are attached). I refuse to bait another skate like that, so then we all started hand coiling our own. When you do that you’re able to move from your baiting station. We really worked long hours, often twenty-four hours, then we go into the next day and work through that night until about 2:00 A.M. and the next day another twenty hours. Then we’d lie down for about three hours. Then we’d get back up and go another twenty-four hours and a couple of hours down. The first week we averaged ten hours of sleep all together—we figured it out. So we joked, twenty-four on, one off.
I had never fished that hard before. When it opened, we fished Saturday, all through Saturday, all through Sunday and half of Monday. So well over fifty-six hours with no sleep, working as hard, as fast as high paced as you can push yourself. Then we laid down for like three hours. You get up. You are so stiff! Then we brought in a trip, just over 40,000 pounds in four days, so we virtually had been up those entire four days. That was a good load. It was really motivational. I make a thousand dollars a day. ... It’s the shorter seasons, the shorter longline seasons, are what are driving the boats back to these schedules. ... with a three-week season, you’re almost forced to unless you can rotate a person down (let them sleep) (pp. 31-33).
But the reason I feel lucky is because we were out there, a woman running a boat with an all-women crew, and we were doing it. And we were doing it as well as anybody else in the fleet, so I never felt intimidated in thinking, “Oh, a woman can’t do this, can’t figure it out, or is not capable of it” because the first job I ever had was with women and we did fine. So I had that confidence factor from the beginning of my deckhand career... (p. 35).
When you’re on a boat, you don’t have a life, you don’t have any physical space, you don’t have any time to yourself. It’s all the boat, the fishing, for four months straight...(p. 36).
I have a little bit of protection on some of the winds but pretty much I’ll get all of it. ... There’s also a lot of tide here. You dump these anchors off; you’ve got fifteen or twenty anchors, some of them three hundred pounders, to try to hold one net in place. And every time you go out there the net’s twisted in some different shape and you have to drag these anchors around. And the weather is not very nice most of the time. You’re always fighting the wind. It’s a challenge, a physical challenge instead of a mental challenge... (p. 37).
Beating the docks (going from boat to boat seeking a job) was the worst thing. After I did it for a while I realized that probably there’s only 15 percent of the boats that you even have a possibility of being hired on because the rest of them will not hire women. Mostly because their wives won’t let them or there’s another woman on the boat already or they are just flat out sexist—they don’t want women. But between those three factors, the number of boats you could get hired on was so slim that it was discouraging. But you had to find out which boats those were. That means walking the docks...(p. 81).
I was thinking about the question you asked earlier. Why women are increasingly drawn to this. I don’t know. You wonder if there are increasing numbers of women coal mining or trucking. I don’t know if it has something to do with Alaska and the whole lure of being able to partake of something that formerly was withheld from you, or maybe its a breed of women who have been raised or somehow have been grown up to understand that certain barriers that supposedly were there are not legitimate. Even withstanding all the dangers, it’s an important experience and it’s very viable, very—I hate to use the word “fulfilling,” but it is very fulfilling. I loved, I loved getting a string of pots over perfectly and not having to ask anyone to help me with one of the doors once and getting all the massive wads of bait that you sort of swoop under the pot in the middle. ...There are elements to it you can’t find in any other type of experience. It’s almost like farming. It’s so elemental. It calls on such an elemental process. Since biblical times we’ve been talking about these kind of people. There’s this ethos surrounding it that’s very ancient. And to be able to go to that and draw on it. It gets into this whole mystical realm (p.44).
It’s very lonely being the only woman on a boat. I make a point of never getting involved with guys on a romantic level or anything. Friends. I’m always open to friends, but you always have to be careful that they don’t think it’s more. See, there are so many different levels of guys. I don’t want to be friends with the drunkards and cocaine addicts. But definitely the more respectable people I became friends with. And I have maintained male friendships and female friendships. There’s a lot of loneliness though. I found out that laugh therapy helps. I go out on the back deck and just laugh to myself and feel better (p. 61).
Leslie Leyland Fields
Each (woman) asked only for equal treatment and equal opportunity. This doesn’t come automatically in a job where you need the strength to land a swinging 130-pound crab pot, the endurance to withstand thirty-six straight hours of work without sleep, the moxie to run a 150-horsepowered seine skiff at full speed near reefs, and special hands-on skills like diesel engine repair and maintenance, net mending, operating hydraulics. These are the powers that win the day and the fish; these are the powers fishing women must prove to disbelieving men. And not least of all, there is active resistance from an unexpected quarter—other women, the wives of men who fish (p. 53).
This is part of what I know of being a skipper. ... You alone hold the lives of two, three or four people in your hands. Your boat payments and insurance costs run you in the tens of thousands every year—you must catch fish. You manage a potentially volatile mix of personalities and work habits. You must have extensive knowledge of navigation, weather patterns, fishing regulations; you must be able to operate and repair to some degree the array of high-tech electronics that are the brains of the boat. ... The list goes on.
Why does anyone willingly hoist and carry such a load? There is another side, of course. To state it positively, there is independence in skippering, a degree of autonomy seldom found in other professions. You alone control the life within your ark. You can decide where you are going to fish, when the boat goes, how fast it goes, how long and hard the crew will work, how long everyone sleeps, the weather conditions you will work in, the degrees of risk you will take, the kind of food you eat... (p. 75).
In 1992, forty-four vessels in Alaska sunk, eighty-seven people were rescued from sinking vessels, thirty-five died. In Spring 1988 forty-four died after ice fog moved in and consumed boats and crew. To put those numbers in perspective, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reports that the annual death rate for all U.S. Occupations is 7 per 100,000 workers. For commercial fishing in Alaska, the rate jumps to 200 per 100,000, making it the most deadly job in the country. For crab fishermen, whose season runs through the winter, the rate climbs to 660 per 100,000, or almost 100 times the national average (p. 98).
I’m only five feet tall and I weigh one hundred pounds and so men have a protective instinct toward me. I’ve had to surmount that my whole life to actually get in and do anything. The only way I’ve been able to get past is by being quicker and knowing what I’m doing. It’s about leverage. ... You have to slow down. You have to use your head in a different way and your body in a different way. I think its important that people know how small I am because if I can do it, it means any woman can do it... (p. 86).
I really believe in the North Pacific Vessel Owner’s Association, they offer some really good courses, one of which is Medical Emergencies at Sea. I think anytime you take any kind of marine tech class you’re doing yourself a favor (p. 106).
Developed such a sense of independence and strength. Things I thought I could never do I learned I would do out here. It’s just opened a whole new world for myself as a young woman. becoming a woman, I don’t know. There are so many possibilities now because I know I can do “a man’s job,” you know? There’s a lot of power that comes with that (p. 129).
Copyright 1997 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with the permission of the University of Illinois Press.