In August, Chris said he was interviewing a few deckhands for the spiny lobster fishing season in Santa Barbara, CA, and one happened to be female.
At first, I didn’t sweat it. What’s the point of getting worked up for something that may not happen? So, being supportive (because you have to as a partner, let alone a partner of a commercial fisherman), I said, “Whoever will do the best job, I fully support you!” I didn’t think it’d go any further.
But when he mentioned he wanted to hire her, the first words out of my mouth were, “Is she hot?” In one second, my support transformed me into the insecure women I thought I no longer was. He assured me that if hiring her was going to affect our relationship, he’d find someone else. I couldn’t jeopardize his career because of my shortcomings. (Honestly, I don’t think I would if the situation was reversed.) So, for a full afternoon, I wigged and wondered if this was the beginning of the end; that all the work and time we put into our relationship could end with hired a woman deckhand. A deckhand he’d sleep in the same cabin with several nights a week — a woman who would spend more time with him than I for the next six whole months.
I asked Chris why he decided to hire her.
“I hired Emily because she had a lot of previous fishing experience, which is a huge plus. She had fished in Alaska, which is definitely one of the more demanding fisheries out there, and she came highly recommended by a buddy of mine who said that she was tough and reliable.”
Trusting our relationship, I quickly realized how hard it could be for a woman in a male-dominated profession. I not only wanted to ease stress to her situation; I wanted to be a friend, too.
Emily is the kind of girl you always want to be around. She’s just…cool. Chill AF. A girl’s girl and a guy’s girl, who I admired through her funny Instagram stories and photos that pop on my feed. (She’s currently taking a break from commercial fishing.) Not sure that she knows it or not, but Emily taught me a big lesson I’ll never forget: That commercial fishing brings us together, whether we’re badass women who fish or badass women supporting those at sea.
Commercial Fishing Woman, Emily Ekbom
How old are you and where are you from?
When did you first learn about commercial fishing, how long ago did you start, where did you fish, and what kind of fish?
I learned about commercial fishing after relocating to San Francisco when I was 24 and feeling burned out by the big city. I was a small-town Midwestern girl-at-heart needing something more than a chaotic city and a never-ending party at the local bars.
A friend of mine called me and told me he was heading back up to Alaska to work on a boat, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I rented out my apartment, sold my car, quit my job, and moved all my stuff into storage. I randomly found a girl captain on Craigslist, of all places, looking for girl crew members to help her catch salmon on her seiner in Kodiak, Alaska. Five years later and four different fisheries spent working all along the west coast, here I am!
What are some of the most challenging parts of the industry?
I would say the most challenging part of the industry is the inconsistency of it all.
You head out to sea with big dreams of a big paycheck, but it’s not guaranteed. A lot of stars have to align for a safe, successful, lucrative, and enjoyable season.
When you sign up to be a fisherman, you’re signing up for a future of unknowns, taking things as they come, expecting the unexpected. Nothing is a sure thing, and nothing is promised. It’s definitely more of a lifestyle than a job. It’s a gamble, and sometimes it pays off. It’s a definite adventure along the way! And that’s all you can really count on.
As a woman being around a bunch of dudes, do you experience any sexual harassment at all?
There have been a few moments of some inappropriate comments in my years of working in male-dominated industries, but I’d like to think I put out a ‘don’t mess with me energy,’ and the guys know better than say anything they wouldn’t say to the other guys on deck.
I haven’t had problems with guys being inappropriate but, more so, problems with guys being able to comprehend they’re on an even working field with a chick.
It seems a bit difficult for them to take direction/work alongside me and to understand that we’re crewmates, and I’m there to do the same job they’re doing. I don’t think they realize this even occurs, but miscommunication happens, and resentiment seems to creep in.
There are some aspects of the job that I’m fully aware I can’t do, but that’s when you have to pull your weight in other areas. Everyone works together to succeed, and sometimes the men can’t grasp that concept, and they don’t see the big picture.
Though I’ve learned that a full-size salmon thrown across deck straight at a male crewmate seems to get the point across that you’re done taking his shit.
What do you miss about commercial fishing and why?
I miss the simplicity of being locked on the boat for months at a time. Where all you have to worry about to get ready for the day is a splash of cold water to the face and quick teeth brushing all while watching some Orca whales cruise by. I miss the lack of cell phone service.
I miss the slow life, being able to unplug and just being able to live in every moment, good and bad.
We overcomplicate our lives with so many unnecessary things and distractions being locked up in “boat jail,” as I call it, brings your right back to that raw place of sweet simplicity.
To some, going without a shower for a month and being covered in fish scales is a living hell. But to others like myself, it’s nothing short of a magical paradise.
Do you plan to do it again? Why or why not?
I hope so! I struggle with the pros and cons of seasonal work and being away from my loved ones for months at a time, but fishing is a passion I can’t deny. There is a reason I left the city in the first place, and there’s a reason I keep going back to the sea. I would love to see fishing be apart of my long term big picture career choice, but we will see how life plays out.
Advice for other women thinking of this line of work?
- Ain’t nothing to it but to do it! The scariest part about it is the anxiety of thinking about doing it. But once you’re out there, Girl! You’re doing it!
- You have to have tough skin, determination, and a whole pie of humility.
- Be ready to work hard and be willing and ready to learn. There are definitely physical parts to the job, but it’s more of a mental game. Keeping your chin up when you’re cold and wet and so sleepy is much more challenging than the physical challenges.
- There’s no “clocking out.” Your head has gotta be in the game for months at a time.
- You’re living on someone else’s schedule the moment you fly in and hop on that boat. What your captain says goes, and whatever schedule you’d like to be on goes right out with the ebbing tide.
- Appreciate the small thrill of hot coffee, dance parties on deck, and enjoying fresh seafood right from the ocean on the BBQ during the most epic sunset you ever did see.
Along with dreams of where you’re going to blow your money after the seasons over, those little blessings will get ya through the tough days. 🐟
Are you a commercial fisherman or woman? Please share your favorite part of commercial fishing in the comments below!
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