Exploring Women’s Engagement in 30 Years of Alaska Fisheries

February 06, 2020

A new look at historical data through the lens of gender illuminates the dynamic role women play in Alaska’s commercial fisheries.

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Women play an integral, multifaceted—and until now, largely invisible—role in Alaska fisheries. The first comprehensive study of women’s participation, incorporating gender into 30 years of existing data, shows women participate in Alaska fisheries differently than men.

“Women are really important players in Alaska's commercial fisheries. They're key  in contributing to family adaptability and in turn to community resilience,” said Marysia Szymkowiak, the scientist who conducted the Alaska Fisheries Science Center study. “Knowing how women participate directly in fishing and within fishing families and communities is critical to predicting and understanding responses to fishery changes—from individuals, to families, all the way up to communities.”

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Gender-Blind Data

Linda Behnken fishes out of Sitka, Alaska. Credit: Josh Roper, Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

Historically, fisheries data on participants have not included gender. Such a gender-blind approach limits our understanding of access, mobility, and empowerment issues and can  actually lead to gender biases.

“Not examining fisheries participation for women and men separately implies that there are no differences between them in our fisheries. That's a flawed assumption with potentially negative social and ecological implications if women and men participate differently—and this research shows that they do,” said Szymkowiak.

Beyond direct participation in the harvesting sector of commercial fishing, women perform many other jobs that are vital to fishing success. Women step in where needed to adapt to changing fishing and family situations. This includes shoreside employment, working on family boats, direct marketing, and engaging in the political process. This essential but “invisible” work is not captured in fisheries statistics.

“We cannot ignore the critical role that gender plays,” Szymkowiak said. “Understanding when, how, and where women fish, and what limits their participation, is essential if we are to maintain and promote community resilience in the face of huge ecological, market, and management changes in our fisheries.”

Genderizing Fisheries

Szymkowiak set out to explore women’s engagement across Alaska fisheries over time, and under dramatically changing environmental, management, and socioeconomic conditions.

To accomplish this she took a two-pronged approach. The study combined quantitative estimates of women’s direct participation as harvesters with focus group discussions. This provided a deeper exploration of women’s overall engagement in fisheries.

The quantitative estimates were made using an innovative method to “genderize” more than 30 years of Alaska fisheries harvest data. Alaska fisheries records include the name of the permit holder making each landing, and their birth date. Using only this information, the free R software package Genderize predicted harvester gender with a high degree of accuracy (greater than  90%).

“A key contribution of this study is demonstrating how readily gender can be added to existing fisheries data,” said Szymkowiak.

These genderized data were combined with results from focus groups conducted across seven Gulf of Alaska fishing communities with the most fishing activity. Focus groups discussed the many dimensions of women’s participation in fisheries, including gender norms, changing fishing conditions, and the future of fishing families.

Linda Behnken and family on a boat in Alaska.

Linda Behnken fishes with her family out of Sitka, Alaska. Credit: Mim McConnell/Shelter Cove Publishing.

Patterns of Engagement

  • Women’s participation in Alaska fisheries is influenced by gender norms, stereotypes, taboos, and harassment. For example, focus group participants noted that the persistent superstition that women are bad luck on fishing boats continues to be a barrier. “Don’t whistle in the wind, no women. I thought a lot of it had died, but it hasn’t,” said one Sitka female participant.
  • Study participants perceived an evolution toward increased fishing opportunities for women. “In my mom’s generation, and my aunts’, I would see people that crewed for years and were a huge part of the support system and a huge part of the workforce, but never bought the permit, never bought the boat or did the mechanics. I feel like I’m seeing more of that in my generation,” said a Homer female participant.
  • This perceived evolution toward increased opportunities for women was only marginally evident in the data over the last three decades. Men continue to be highly dominant in the industry in terms of the number of participants and their earnings.
  • Women are key to the adaptability of Alaska fisheries through their dynamic roles within fishing families. They are financial buffers who supplement family income, crewmembers, marketers, shore support, and political representatives. They enter and exit fisheries in response to changing fishery and family conditions. As a result, women’s direct participation in fisheries is more intermittent than men’s.
  • Women use different gear types in different areas than men. Fishing activity is largely constrained to nearshore fisheries that are favorable for navigating both fishing and childcare duties. More than half of women’s fisheries revenues in Alaska in the last 30 years are concentrated in nearshore salmon fisheries, mostly a single species: sockeye salmon. The importance of women’s contribution to the Bristol Bay salmon setnet fishery has been documented in previous Alaska Fisheries Science Center research.
Graphs depicting the total fish revenues for women and men in the Alaska fisheries.

Women in Alaska fisheries are highly dependent on salmon. Women’s participation remains much lower than men’s overall—note the different scales for women’s and men’s revenues.

Policy and Economic Implications

Understanding women’s participation is essential to an overall understanding of commercial fisheries dynamics. Ignoring gender can lead to unintended consequences in the event of economic, environmental, or policy changes. Women may be overlooked in policy considerations and disproportionately affected by regulatory actions.

For example, the responsive nature of women’s participation, while critical to fishing community resilience, may marginalize women in fisheries. Intermittent participation can put them at a disadvantage in catch share and limited entry programs that entitle participation on the basis of fishing history.

A lack of opportunity to diversify may make women especially economically vulnerable.

“I think one of the key findings of this research is how dependent women are on a single species,” said Szymkowiak. “That kind of economic dependence really makes them tremendously vulnerable to changes in prices and fish returns from year to year. Fishermen are used to fluctuations, but when they don’t have a buffer with earnings from other fisheries, that can make even one year a complete game changer. This research indicates women are more susceptible to those types of effects. So while women support the adaptability of Alaska fisheries through the many roles they fill, they are highly vulnerable to changes in this one resource.”

Theresa Peterson and family catching salmon in Alaska.

Theresa Peterson and her family haul in a catch of salmon off Kodiak, Alaska. Credit: Charlie Peterson.

In a separate upcoming study, Szymkowiak found that Alaska fisheries parallel global trends. Women around the world perform jobs that are critical to the success of fishing operations and communities, but remain largely unrecognized in official fisheries statistics. This, together with the lack of gender in fisheries data worldwide, means women’s participation is poorly understood. Ultimately this contributes to the continued ignorance of gender differences in fisheries engagement, which are exacerbated by gender-blind policies.

“This research is just the start of what needs to be done to understand how gender affects fisheries participation in Alaska. My hope is that gender will become a key variable in fisheries data across various levels of access and ownership so we can understand how it shapes economic vulnerability and resilience,” said Szymkowiak. “By showing how gender can be incorporated into our fisheries data, this study moves us in the right direction.”