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Voicing The Stories Of Women In Alaska Fisheries

October 01, 2019

Women work to keep fisheries sustainable, communities resilient, and traditional knowledge alive in Alaska. A NOAA Fisheries study documents women’s experience through their own stories.

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Alaska women's experience and knowledge are fundamental to the social, cultural, economic, and ecological sustainability of Bristol Bay salmon fisheries, a NOAA Fisheries study finds.

This study used oral history and visual ethnography methods to provide a means for women to voice their stories about the importance of fishery resources in their communities. We used this approach to capture their knowledge to inform fisheries management, preserve cultural diversity, and share with communities. The interview audio and video shorts are available on NOAA’s Voices from the Fisheries website.

In Clark’s Point where I fish, my family has fished from the beginning…the entire beach is still people whose parents fished there, whose grandparents fished there…. So I think the dedication to… protecting our fishery—first and foremost for our Alaska Native traditional way of life, but also for a sustainable economy in a commercial fishery—is very, very strong, and I don’t think I see that changing any time soon.”

— Alannah Hurley, Dillingham, AK

The study, a collaboration with the Bristol Bay Native Association (BBNA), is focused on the daily life and fishing practices of Alaska Native fisherwomen in the Bristol Bay area. 

“Bristol Bay is an ideal place to explore women’s roles in fisheries because women are highly engaged in its salmon fisheries,” said Anna Lavoie, a former scientist with NOAA Fisheries who led the research. “Women own more than 30 percent of commercial set net permits there. In Alaska women are very proactive in promoting conservation and sustainability. There should be avenues for incorporating women’s knowledge into resource management. They are actively engaged in fisheries but there is very little information available about their experience and contributions."

NOAA Fisheries scientists Anna Lavoie and Jean Lee interviewing Connie Timmerman in front of her smoke house in Dillingham, AK (photo by Kim Sparks)

NOAA Fisheries scientists Anna Lavoie (formerly NOAA) and Jean Lee interviewing Connie Timmerman in front of her smokehouse in Dillingham, AK. Photo Credit: Kim Sparks.

Capturing Knowledge

The team applied oral history and visual ethnography (the study of everyday life through video or photography) research methods, recording video interviews. They documented individual women’s experiences in commercial and subsistence set net fishing. “We wanted the work to be participatory. This open approach captures perspectives and cultural meaning that might be missed by other methods, like surveys or directed interviews,” Lavoie explained.

During 2017 and 2018, the team recorded the stories of 24 women, (the vast majority were Alaska Native women) ages 20-70 in the Bristol Bay fishing communities of Dillingham, Naknek, and Togiak. Four broad themes emerged from the women’s fishing stories: climate change; social cohesion; a sense of place; and central in all of these, women’s leadership and knowledge.

Women’s roles in fisheries are often unrecognized. Women are actively involved in Bristol Bay fisheries, and women carry traditional knowledge and pass it on to future generations. “They play major roles in communities,” said Lavoie. “Hopefully this project will help inform our understanding of traditional knowledge."

Local knowledge and traditional knowledge (L&TK) are increasingly recognized as critical to assessments of environmental change and social resilience in Alaska. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which manages U.S. fisheries off the coast of Alaska, is taking steps to incorporate LTK into the fisheries management process. “The project allows us to capture valuable traditional knowledge through the rich stories of fishing women, over generations. Many of these women are still fishing with their mothers, daughters, and granddaughters,” said team member Sarah Wise.

As part of the project, the team trained BBNA staff in oral history and video ethnography methods so they could continue similar work. The BBNA is using these techniques to document stories from community elders. “It was important to us that we leave something of value to our project partners, who were essential in connecting us to people and places in Bristol Bay,” said team member Jean Lee.   

Carla Harris preparing to set her subsistence salmon net in Naknek, AK (photo by Sarah Wise)

Carla Harris preparing to set her subsistence salmon net in Naknek, AK. Photo Credit: Sarah Wise.

Alaska and Beyond

Increasingly, women's roles in fishing, fishing communities, and fishing policy have gained attention, not just in Alaska, but at a global level. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has been leading initiatives to increase the focus on gender issues.

Still, the team especially hopes the research will have a local impact.

“We feel so privileged to be able to go to Bristol Bay and meet these wonderful women and hear their stories. They were so welcoming. They shared salmon with us,” says Lavoie. ”I hope this project will advance inclusive fisheries management and help promote sustainability.”

We conducted the research in collaboration with the Bristol Bay Native Association, with support provided by Gayla Hoseth and Cody Larson. It was funded by the NOAA Heritage Program (formerly NOAA Preserve America), and the Alaska Fisheries Science Center.

Members of the research team were Anna Lavoie, Jean Lee, and Kim Sparks (Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission grantees to NOAA Fisheries; Lavoie is currently at Colorado State University) and Sarah Wise (NOAA Fisheries, Alaska Fisheries Science Center). BBNA intern Kitty Sopow participated in the research in 2017. BBNA staff member Christopher Maines assisted in conducting oral history interviews in 2018.