It’s been some rough sailing for the commercial fishing industry, but these Rhode Island women are up for the challenge.
Photographs by Michael Cevoli
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Google “women” and “fishing” and up will pop lots of calendar images of smiling ladies in bikinis, cradling impressive marine specimens they probably didn’t catch.
But women have long been part of the seafood industry around the world: mending nets, landing fish, stocking aquaculture ponds, harvesting shellfish, working in markets and processing plants, running seafood companies. Mostly part of small-scale operations in Africa and Asia, women make up nearly half of the 200 million people in the business, according to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
“Despite their crucial contributions to the fisheries industry and to household livelihoods and nutrition, these women are often invisible to policy makers who have traditionally assumed — mistakenly — that fisheries are a male domain,” states the 2012 report.
In Rhode Island, however, women who work in fisheries are not plentiful. That’s in part likely a reflection of the unprecedented challenges commercial fishing has faced in recent years because of declining fish stocks.
“There isn’t the incentive to get in the business that there used to be,” says Andrea Incollingo, who owns the Bait Company in Point Judith. “I blame that on the regulations. There aren’t even young men coming into the industry.”
Still, she and other women in the Ocean State make at least part of their living catching or selling fish. Not cut out for the nine-to-five, they share a wanderlust, the willingness to work hard and a love of the water and the creatures within.
Some hail from generations of fishermen, while others felt a calling as adults. Often, they’re the only female in a group of men. But whether they describe themselves as fisherman, fisherwoman, fishermom or fisherbabe, once they pull on their gear, it’s not easy to tell the difference.
Clockwise from top left: They check their traps often. Eagan’s dog, Luke. Eagan heads out on Mount Hope Bay. Perreira prepares bait for the traps.
Katie Eagan drags crates brimming with bait from her truck down to Bristol’s Rockwell Dock just before 7 a.m. on a chilly morning, her German shepherd, Luke, scampering beside her.
Wearing a flannel shirt and fleece, with a John Deere camouflage cap pulled low over her eyes, Eagan jumps on the Francis E, the thirty-one-foot lobster boat named for her grandfather that she bought with her dad, Dan, three years before. Soon, Dan and M.E. Perreira, a deckhand Eagan has known since elementary school, arrive. They pull on their rain gear and steam out into Mount Hope Bay to go conching.
As they head out to their first trawl, Perreira chops bait with a machete in the back of the boat. Eagan and her dad switch off in the wheelhouse, using GPS, a depth sounder and their logbook to locate their traps.
Soon, Eagan’s hauling traps out of the water, passing them quickly to her dad, who examines the catch, saving the legally sized conches and tossing the rest back. The catch has been a little off, they say, possibly because of the water temperature. Then he passes the traps down to Perreira, who fills them with new bait and shoves them back into the water.
“All right, Dad, what do you want to do next?” Eagan asks, consulting the logbook.
“I don’t know,” he replies. “Try something on this eastern edge here.”
Dan Eagan fished with his father, too. And his daughter has been working on boats since she was young. “For a while, there were three generations on the boat,” he says. “We put everybody to work.”
But Eagan also loved to travel, and her dad didn’t know if she’d return to the family business. A marine affairs major at the University of Rhode Island, she spent two years volunteering in the Fiji Islands, helping villagers preserve their fish stocks.
“I thought she was the one who was going to leave,” Dan Eagan says. “But you always come back.”
When conch season wraps up, they move on to lobsters and crabs and back again. Eagan’s dad will go quahogging, and she’ll go fish trapping.
“To be able to make it in this industry, you have to be able to change constantly,” Eagan says.
Work doesn’t stop once they dock. They take their fish to their dealer, have to file paperwork and keep up with ever-evolving regulations. They read studies on water to try and predict the catch, work with scientists to track different species and serve as a voice for commercial fishermen at town and state meetings.
“You’re not done at the end of the day anymore,” she says.
Eagan recently developed a project that got funded by the Rhode Island Sea Grant which involves fishers in the data collection process for a more accurate stock assessment of shellfish.
As for making a living on the water as a woman, Eagan says she doesn’t see herself as different from her male counterparts. “It’s just like anything else,” she says. “You have to earn respect.”
Schumann heads out to a sandbar to catch razor clams. Schumann looks for moon tides to fish for razor clams.
Sarah Schumann grabs her bucket on a bright December afternoon and kayaks out to a sandbar in Point Judith Pond. Wearing a sweatshirt and rubber boots, her hair is bundled under a baseball hat that announces her opposition to the proposed construction of a copper mine many believe could destroy salmon fishing in Alaska’s Bristol Bay.
A part-time commercial fisher, Schumann has been razor clamming since a friend shared his top-secret method. “Most people have no idea that you can eat them,” Schumann says of the slender shellfish. “I’ve been doing it for two years on this sandbar.”
After catching a bundle, she pulls out a kitchen scale, weighs the clams and gathers them in one-pound bunches, which she’ll sell to Narragansett Bay Lobster. On a good day, she’ll fill her mesh bags with thirty to forty pounds’ worth.
But fishing’s just one of the many activities that make up Schumann’s days — and one that her parents never anticipated. The Washington, D.C., native spent summers visiting her grandmother in Warren, where her father taught her to quahog recreationally on the Kickemuit River.
But it wasn’t until she traveled to Chile that she fell in love with it. Schumann spent a year interviewing artisanal fishermen up and down the coast. Growing up during the 1990s, she was familiar with controversy that pitted environmental concerns against jobs. “I always hated that,” she says. “And when I found fishing, I found a job that depended on the environment, where those two priorities were aligned. It was magnetic for me.”
Back in the United States, Schumann enrolled in the marine affairs program at URI. But she was embarrassed telling her classmates what she wanted to do after graduation.
“They’re going to laugh at me,” she thought. “Here’s a woman who knows nothing about this. Should I really open up, or should I make something up that sounds more professional? But when it got to me, I said, ‘well, to be honest, what I really want to do is become a commercial fisherman.’ And everybody laughed.”
Andrea Incollingo, the owner of the Bait Company, helped her find work aboard a lobster boat. Schumann got horribly seasick her first day, but felt like she had to prove herself. She waited until they got back through the Harbor of Refuge before throwing up over the side of the boat.
Schumann loved the work, and spent the next few years alternating between boats and returning to Chile, working in a salmon cannery in Alaska and earning her master’s in environmental policy from Oxford. Along the way, she applied for a commercial fishing license but learned that getting permission to fish for popular species isn’t easy.
At first she grumbled about her basic license for shellfish. But she’s equally passionate about her activism and has realized she doesn’t want to be a full-time fisher.
In 2011, Schumann started Eating with the Ecosystem, a traveling series of educational dinners at restaurants such as Newport’s Tallulah on Thames that bring commercial fishers, scientists and chefs together to talk about how to eat sustainably. She was also a featured speaker at TEDxProvidence, urging people to eat like a fish.
Last year, as a representative of Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay, Schumann walked the docks in Point Judith, gathering signatures from fishermen and at businesses and organizations, saying that they stood with their colleagues in Alaska.
The organization flew her down to Washington, D.C., where she met with United States Senators Sheldon Whitehouse and Jack Reed. Whitehouse sent a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency urging the EPA to complete its scientific assessment of the potential impact of the mining on the Bristol Bay watershed, which the agency has since done.
“We influenced our senator,” Schumann says of Whitehouse. “And fishermen around here were all too happy to do that. They know what’s up in situations like that.”
Eventually, she’d like to become part of a nationwide network of fishers who are learning from each other to protect the habitat. In the meantime, Schumann’s still checking Craigslist, looking for jobs for deckhands.