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Women Fishermen in Alaska: "It's a Small But Incredibly Strong Pocket of Amazing Women Up Here"

Women Fishermen in Alaska: "It's a Small But Incredibly Strong Pocket of Amazing Women Up Here"

By Danica Lo

If you're a fish fan, chances are you've eaten wild-caught Alaskan salmon. With one of the most robust (and sustainable) systems in the world, the Alaskan fishing industry is home to more than 78,000 jobs — and brings in more than $5.8 billion each year. Earlier this summer, I took a trip of a lifetime to Juneau, spending four days aboard the MV Sikumi where we (me, our group, and our hosts from Alaska Seafood) learned as much as we could about commercial fishing and even had the chance to board a tender boat (where fishermen offload their catch) and tour processing and canning plants.

Before heading up to our northernmost state, though, I'd heard all about the legendary Alaskan male-to-female ratio—remember when the Washington Post sent two single women reporters to Homer to look for love? — so I wasn't surprised that during our four days at sea, almost all of the fishermen we met were, well, men. Confirmation bias aside, according to the most recent numbers from the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, women account for only about 14 percent of commercial fishermen — both skippers and crew — and about one-third of processing workers.

But after spending time talking with locals — and industry veterans who've grown up in families where fishing has always been a way of life — I learned about countless women fishermen who've built their own businesses, innovated and evolved business development in the industry, and strengthened and sustained multi-generational family fishing legacies. So I wanted to find these women and talk to them. Here are three of the most inspiring women I've ever encountered.

Claire Laukitis Neaton had been fishing with her family since she was "a baby — we spent entire summers on the boat," she told Glamour. After earning a business degree in marketing and accounting, she returned home where she launched a community-supported fishery and started marketing her catches to consumers all over Alaska and the lower-48. Neaton and her sister Teal also started Salmon Sisters, an apparel and accessories brand that's sold in stores across the state.

"The Alaskan seafood industry is an incredible community of hard-working people — commercial fishing families that span multiple generations," Neaton says. "It's such a rewarding thing to be a part of — everyday you're both mentally and physically exhausted from working outside with your family. It's incredible. I know what we do on a daily basis — every fish I touch, I know where it's going. I know what we're providing people — the traceable aspect — it's a superfood we're feeding America. And I know what my children are able to do to provide for the next generation."

As for being a woman in the fishing industry?

"The main issue is that in a lot of fisheries, there's an incredible amount of physical exertion required — and due to my physical limitations as a smaller woman, there are a lot of jobs I can't efficiently do and need help with — that's my main obstacle," Neaton says. "That's why it's so important to have a great crew work with you. For example, I have great mechanical skills, and my husband can help me lift a heavy object."

Growing up in a family of fishermen, Neaton admits she may have had an advantage in entry. "The challenges come more from being a woman outside the fishing industry and coming in and finding a job," she says. "That can be intimidating. But there's an incredible amount of skills and knowledge that go along with the industry that women can learn before trying to find a commercial fishing job. I've always felt accepted, comfortable, and equal as part of the industry. It's Alaskan fishing culture — there are an incredible number of avenues you can go into — everyone is a jack of all trades."

Melanie Brown was born into the fishing business. "I represent the fourth generation in my family," she says. "My great-grandfather is still fishing and the fishing sites he established in the sailboat era in Bristol Bay My mother and I fish there to this day."

"I put myself through college and graduated debt-free — I paid for my education with fishing — and now, with fishing, I support my family," Brown told Glamour. "I fish in Bristol Bay — it's a very high-volume fishery with huge run, tens of millions of fish every year. They come en masse — and we make most of our season in a matter of a few days. The rest of the year I live and raise my kids in Juneau — my children and my nieces represent the fifth generation of commercial fishers in my family."

As for the fishing culture in Alaska, "I definitely think there's a strength and independence that all people who fish feel," Brown says. "It's a way of feeling connected to your surroundings — you're doing something where you're working your body hard, you get to feel your own strength, and you get to be in tune with the wonder of salmon and their return. To feel the strength in that — how they live their lives — to be in close contact with that is pretty remarkable."

"I'm just going to say this," Brown continues. "I think that I feel the most beautiful when I'm fishing. I'll have slime on my face and fish parts — but when we're picking really hard and getting the fish out of the gear and we're racing against the tide — to feel something where I get to feel my strength; to be out in the open air and on the water; to feel the power of the water and the tide-there's something really amazing about that. And it's something I get to return to every year. Other things in my life continue to change, but I get to have that return, that reference point. It's a really great way to check into a bigger perspective."

Nelly Hand's family has been commercial fishing since her dad first starting going up to Alaska during summers in the 1960s. "I grew up working with my two brothers on our family boat," Hand told Glamour. "Every spring we'd come up from Santa Cruz and spend the whole summer out on the water together. It was definitely challenging with a family on a small boat all the time — but it was wonderful."

She fished with her father on the family boat all though her college years (where she majored in art history) before having an epiphany — "This is what I want to keep doing," she said. "This is for me." So after school, she took jobs on a couple of different boats — "I wanted to experience more of the fisheries — and that's when I fell in love with it. I fell in love with the hard work, being at home on the water. That's when I decided this is what I want to do."

Six years ago, Hand met her now-husband, who's also a fisherman. "His boat was on the same float on the harbor as my dad's boat," she says. "We got married two years ago. Both of us were like: 'This is for us.' I think we found that in each other — we bought a boat together — I love having someone to share this with."

Hand and her husband recently launched Drifters Fish. "I'm selling my own fish now — I have my own website, which tells stories about fishing — and I can connect chefs and grocery stores to my catch," she says. "I love telling the story of fishing on Instagram and Facebook and through visuals on my website. I'm really excited that I've found a creative, artistic connection with fishing — it's totally changed fishing for me."

Being a woman in the industry, for Hand, has been "definitely challenging," she says. "But I feel like it's not that challenging at the same time. If you can show up and if you are dedicated — do the work and get it done — you're respected. Even though I'm not as strong and I can't lift things the same way, I'm really dedicated and I really love hard work. At the end of the day, everyone's tired, everyone's mentally and physically exhausted — it's how you deal with it that matters."

Along with so many women in Alaska, Hand is building an independent business that's not only supporting her family but also a larger, sustainable American industry.

"It's exciting," Hand says. "It's a small but incredibly strong pocket of amazing women up here. I'm inspired everyday — to look out and see them across the water. We wave at each other, we encourage each other. Women in Alaska are amazing."

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Photo Credit: Getty Images