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Can Aquaculture Help Women Secure a New Foothold in the Seafood Industry?

Women’s Work

On a warm spring day, I catch up with Moeser and Selinger doing gear and tackle prep in Selinger’s driveway. While we measure out floating line lengths and repair gear, I ask them what people think about women as aquaculture farmers. “A lot of the coverage I see has the same theme, which is, ‘Hey, there’s a woman,’” says Selinger. There is a perception that more women are going into both aquaculture and fisheries. But despite this common narrative, the little available data suggest otherwise.

In Maine, the available data suggest that while more women are enrolling in Maine’s aquaculture training programs, the owners of aquaculture leases that provide long-term rights to farm are overwhelmingly men. Dr. Meryl Williams, who has spent her career studying gender and aquaculture around the world, says that globally, more women may be going into aquaculture, because women tend to have more access when an industry is new. But because of the gendered division of labor across the value chain, and the barriers they face, “as aquaculture scales up—and it’s the same with fisheries—women disappear,” she says. Dr. Joshua Stoll of the University of Maine suggests that as the industry grows, and competition and private investment increase, “those people who are getting in now, in generation two and three, will likely not have access to it.”

In Alaska, for instance, Dr. Marysia Szymkowiak, a fisheries scientist at NOAA who uses software to analyze name trends as a proxy for gender, has found no evidence that more women are doing the actual fishing. But when she broadened her consideration of the different ways women participate in fisheries, her findings changed. Although Szymkowiak has been studying fisheries for years, it wasn’t until she had her first child that her perspective on labor in fisheries shifted. She realized that she too had been thinking about fishing as an individual endeavor. “We think about individuals, we think about vessels, but we don’t think about the family unit,” she says. “And within that, what is the role that women play?”

When Szymkowiak asked that question of women from fishing families, she adds, “There was instantly a downplaying. There would be women saying things like, ‘Well, I’m not really the fisherman in the family, he does all the work.’” When she asked women what they did do, she says they’d respond, “Well, I get the bait, and I set up the fuel, I set up the paperwork, and I do the laundry and the meals, and when he needs me I crew on board, and I sell our fish.”

Many women also support their husbands’ fishing operations during lean years, with their income. “There were discussions about how women often have shoreside jobs that allow men to ‘play the game,’” says Szymkowiak. Women are also often responsible for the emotional labor of buffering “the inherent stress component” of fisheries. Fishing, she found, is a relational set of activities shared across a family and a community—activities that rely on the invisible labor of women.

Emily Selinger, who runs Emily’s Oyster, relocates oyster cages at low tide in Maine’s Casco Bay.

Emily Selinger relocating oyster cages at low tide in Maine’s Casco Bay.

Fishing and aquaculture policies currently do not collect gender-disaggregated data and do not value all the forms of labor that are a part of fisheries systems. Because of this, management practices are still largely gender-blind. For example, policies that allocate privileges based on consistent experience can disadvantage women whose domestic responsibilities require them to work more sporadically. Many current fishery and aquaculture policies and practices are not gender-inclusive even though, as Szymkowiak says, “women are making the show go on.”

Challenges Women Face in Aquaculture

In addition to resisting the myth that more women are going into aquaculture, Moeser and Selinger have had to work around other, more harmful attitudes and ideas about gender, as well as a culture that doesn’t often welcome them. They have been told they are too nice or too cute to work on the dock. The fact they don’t go out drinking with “the boys” after work or talk with them about duck hunting further highlights their “outsider” status.

Moeser has dealt with paddleboard stalkers, suspicious wives, unwelcome touches from co-workers on the dock, sexually explicit email and text messages, and even had to implement a six-foot buffer around her workspace to prevent one fisherman from touching her.

Both women have also found themselves in uncomfortable situations. Moeser has dealt with paddleboard stalkers, suspicious wives, unwelcome touches from co-workers on the dock, sexually explicit email and text messages, and under-the-breath comments about her body. She says she has lost potential work partners because they couldn’t separate her gender from her work. She even had to implement a six-foot buffer around her workspace to prevent one fisherman from touching her. “He literally said, ‘You don’t have to worry about me, I would never rape you,’” she says. “And I replied, ‘That’s a really low bar.’”

For her part, Selinger pushed up against the hierarchical and largely male culture on ships for years before setting up her business so she only answers to herself. “I copied Amanda’s model so that I could work by myself or with people of my choosing,” she says. “I have my own boat, I set all my own moorings.” Selinger also sells directly to consumers through a community-supported oyster share model, which allows her to build relationships directly with her community.

While the seafood industry can be a difficult place for women in general, it is even more difficult for women of color. In May 2020, after working in aquaculture for four years, Imani Black realized she had to make a change. A Black woman from coastal Maryland, she has continually faced assumptions about women not being strong enough (she was a former college athlete) or knowledgeable enough (she graduated from a well-respected training program at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science) to work in aquaculture. Even in settings where she worked with other women, the pressure to be respected and prove themselves often bred competition with one another, rather than allyship.

“There is this boys club that we are all aware of,” says Black, and when there are a handful of women trying to thrive in a male-dominant setting, “it’s survival of the fittest and at least one woman feels like, ‘I wanna be the alpha and be in the boys club because it’s better than being outside,’” she says.

In 2020, after looking around and realizing that she didn’t know any people of color—let alone women—in aquaculture leadership roles, Black founded Minorities in Aquaculture, which aims to foster an aquaculture community that includes and supports women of color. “I said to myself, ‘If I really love the environment, if I really love this industry and want to be impactful, then I need to step into that space and see what happens, really trying to remove some of those obstacles.’”

Woman in aquaculture Imani Black of Minorities in Aquaculture.

Imani Black. (Photo © Caroline J. Phillips)

Black knows that the barriers to people of color seeing aquaculture as a viable career are many—from unequal access to the outdoors, to lack of support in school—and she wants to change that.