Fish Talk: Women in Seafood
There are all kinds of jobs, for all kinds of people. The month of March is Women’s History Month. In honor of women, let’s take a look at women in seafood. Come along and learn about the ways women are a living, breathing, vibrant part of the great tapestry of seafood. A crucial component of the industry, women hold many of the vital roles that help bring the treasures of the ocean to your plate. Currently, at Catch Sitka Seafoods, 75% of our staff are women and our COO, and co-owner is a woman. Historically, women have been underrepresented in roles of authority, but that is slowly trending in a positive direction in the United States. There are organizations out there, like Women in Seafood, who advocate for and amplify the voices of women in the seafood industry. Ensuring that women are part of the solution to maintain sustainability, so that seafood is available for all Americans, is an all hands on deck job. We encourage women to jump right in and take part in shaping the future of seafood! And don’t forget your Xtratufs, or "Sitka Slippers," as we like to call them.
For inspiration we want to tell you about some women we’ve known who’ve worked in Southeast Alaska. Women in this industry are usually free spirited, intelligent, and willing to get their hands dirty and their feet wet. When we started thinking about writing this, we didn’t know where to begin. We have seen all girl tender vessels out of Prince William Sound, and power trollers with pink-painted bow works out of Sitka. There are so many talented, impressive, and awe-inspiring women who work in seafood and make Sitka home. We interviewed several of them, and there are so many more out there we haven’t spoken to yet. We ended up with more stories than we have room to share. We will give you a broad introduction to the subject here, and go more in-depth in the future to highlight some of their incredible tales.
Women living in Sitka and working in the seafood industry have varied backgrounds. Some of them grew up here, fishing with their families and naturally continued on with the family tradition. While others found themselves here while out searching for something else entirely. Still more were “imported” here by partners who convinced them to join them on the adventure of a lifetime.
Hans Olsen, our resident fisherman, turned occasional Fish Talk guest blogger, has had several women crew over the years. He believes that they are just as valuable - if not more so - than their male counterparts. He shared a few of his favorites for this article. One began her own CSA in North Carolina, has ridden trains, fished for years (still does), and now is enrolled in the Wooden Boat School in Port Townsend, WA to take classes between seasons. We will be tapping her knowledge to learn all about the incredible wooden boats that fish our waters in a future Fish Talk blog. Another, currently does a little fishing down in Florida in the winter and tried out fishing in Sitka on the Alaskan Bounty for a year. Captain Hans said she didn't have the staying power for Alaska, but she was a great crew when he got her out of town. Hans’ last gal is now a barista in Washington, but worked in Bristol Bay the last few years, and trolled with him in 2020. She is really fun, smart, and is settling down now with her fiance. She's not sure if she's going to fish again, which is a decision many women make once they establish roots on solid ground. Still another, teaches school during the year but went out on the boat during summers, where she met her husband. They now have a couple of small kids so she’s taking a break on land for a bit.
Speaking of land, there are many roles that women can take that have nothing to do with fishing at all. In fact, most of the women in seafood work on the shoreside of the operation. There are women that work in administration, politics, research and development, the government sector, inspections, quality assurance, seafood processing, marketing, media, art and design, environmental activism, fisheries management, the list goes on and on. Many women in Sitka fill various other necessary and vital roles in the industry. There is a woman who has a business that does all the canvas work and sewing for the boats on the island, keeping everyone safe on the water. Several women in town specialize in photography and do beautiful work for the many businesses in the industry here. A few women own and operate marketing and design businesses in town that have the purpose of helping our fishing industry extend its reach. Two very talented Sitka women designed and built the Catch Sitka Seafoods website.
For Catch Sitka, Mindy, our co-owner, is responsible for all of the marketing, media, graphic design, customer service, social media, email, newsletters, public relations, and writing this blog! This suits her just fine, since due to her severe sea sickness, she’s the designated land captain! Unless it’s a bluebird day with not a wave in sight, that is. Then, she loves to fish for King Salmon. Catch Sitka also has many wonderful women who we employ to artisanally filet your fish with skill and precision, ensuring we make the most out of each of the ocean’s gifts to us. In fact, Issam prefers to hire women because he believes they possess finesse and attention to detail that result in the most premium cuts for you. What’s more (and we aren’t trying to start any family arguments here), from his time as the captain of The Commander for Catch Sitka Sport Fishing, he swears women are consistently better fisherfolk too!
Catch Sitka’s wonderful Freezer Manager, Marita, keeps our plant running smoothly and all of our artisanal filet staff on track. She grew up in Sitka and has spent her time in Southeast Alaska working in many male dominated industries. She says, “I feel it takes a personality that isn't afraid to speak up. Even if you think there's a stigma about women in the workplace, I don't take that into account when I'm making a decision or communicating a task. If you're not going to listen to what someone has to say you may need to find a different place to work. I believe everybody has a voice.” If there is ever an issue, she is never afraid to speak up and do the work necessary to not only get the job done, but to get it done right. She shared, “I've gained an immense amount of knowledge from the experiences I've had. Luckily, I've had some great teachers along the way. My mother told me from a young age, "The more you know the more you're worth." When somebody takes time to show me something I'm a big believer in taking time to stop, pay attention, and get any questions out of the way so that I fully understand to show the next person in line.” This attitude of respect for the resource and those who have come before us is something that is passed down, in Sitka, from generation to generation.
Oftentimes, entire families are interwoven into the fabric of the business. In Sitka, girls grow up going out fishing with their parents when the season rolls around, sometimes for entire summers. They start out toddling on decks, providing comic relief to the crew, more than anything else. Then, as they grow they earn their keep alongside the same people they used to entertain. Their role evolves as they grow and temperaments begin to strengthen. Whatever their job they are learning the value of hard work and giving up access to all the technology and conveniences their peers can’t survive without. They show up to school late in the Fall with a grin on their face and a faint smell of seaweed and saltwater in their hair. Sometimes though, during the teenage years, they aren’t that happy about their role on the boat. We know of one such kid where this is the case. She goes begrudgingly, she makes them sandwiches and cuts bait. We’ve heard this attitude is usually one that is reversed once a few years have passed and the allure of the ocean calls again.
Once you are out there on the ocean, or grinding away shoreside, it doesn’t matter how you identify or how big or small your role is. What matters is that you’re worth your “salt,” that you can be counted on to do what needs doing and do it right. There is some sort of magic about being able to go out and do something considered “man’s work,” that some wouldn’t or couldn’t do, and do it just as well if not better than anyone else on the job. That is one thing all of the amazing women that we spoke to have in common. They have unwavering confidence in their own two hands and their know-how. The seafood industry isn’t one that is well known for being safe and secure, and they are ok with that. Because they have tested themselves, they know that they can weather any storm. One (Xtratuf) step at a time. No matter how they got their start, whether they stay in for a summer, or a lifetime, there is no doubt that women play a vital role in the success of the seafood industry in America.
If you enjoyed this article, we think you’ll love reading, The Time Saving Benefits of Seafood!