Real Challenges of Living in a Small Fishing Community

Okay, so this is kind of a crazy story. We met in Antarctica,” partner of a commercial fisherman Danielle Hall said. And I thought that Danielle running the Smithsonian National Museum’s ocean education website was cool. What’s also interesting are her challenges as a partner of a commercial fisherman, which are vastly different than mine and many other POCFs. The difficulty wasn’t finding community with other fisher families. It was being in a community where everyone is linked to fishing. Though her partner is a Maine lobsterman/day fisherman who is gone for long hours in the day but comes home each night, adjusting to a small fishing community on a remote island was a hurdle. How does a “newbie” immerse themselves into a group of fishing families that are generations deep? Danielle offers some *great* advice, and #4 is one I will implement and pass along. I know you’ll love it, too. Take it away, Danielle!

Real Challenges of Living in a Small Fishing Community

Danielle-hall-POCF

How did you meet your partner, and what does he do/his position on the boat?

Okay, so this is kind of a crazy story. We met in Antarctica.

Before I pursued a career in science writing, I was on track to become a marine biologist. Immediately after I graduated college, I applied for a temporary lab technician position that would work aboard a research vessel in Antarctica for two months. Though he grew up lobstering and is now lobstering full time, my partner went to Maritime Academy and was one of the mates driving the research vessel. I had the night shift (though it was summer, so we had nearly 24 hours of daylight), and my job was to deploy huge nets off the ship to collect zooplankton, tiny ocean creatures like larval fish and krill. Often, the ship would be in transit, and I would spend the downtime on the bridge. And since the night shift had fewer people than the day shift, my partner and I often had many hours where it was just the two of us. At the time, we didn’t pursue a romantic relationship, though we stayed in contact and would regularly touch base with one another. After years of staying in touch and realizing it was more than a friendship, we decided to bite the bullet and commit to a relationship. After a time of dating long distance, I moved to Maine to live with him.

My partner is a commercial lobsterman and fishes in both state waters and offshore in federal waters, so he’s out fishing for about nine months of the year. Lobstering is a day fishery, so he’s never gone overnight, but his hours can be pretty long. When it’s his high season, and he’s hauling far offshore, he can be out for over twelve hours a day. He captains his own boat and employs two deckhands, which is comforting to me knowing he’s never at sea alone (as some lobstermen operate). 

Did you have experience in this lifestyle before you lived together?

I hadn’t, though I had experience with the shipping industry and how that affected relationships since I had worked on research vessels.

How long is he gone at a time?

I am very lucky that the lobster fishery is a day fishery, so he’s never gone for more than a day, and we always get to sleep next to each other at night. While I know that many POCFs struggle with the extended time away from their partners, for me, the biggest challenge has been moving to a small fishing community. I live on an island where the entire community of year-round residents is somehow tied to the lobster fishery. Most people who live here grew up here and have several generations of family members who live just down the road. My partner grew up on the island and can trace his family back several generations. His parents are a three-minute drive away, and we live in the house where his father grew up. It is such a beautiful and amazingly unique place, but as a newcomer, it has been difficult for me to feel at home.

Everyone knows everyone, and since I moved just as COVID hit, it has been a slow process making friends and integrating into the community. Also, I moved to an island (I used to live in Washington, DC) with a limited downtown, so if I want to escape for errands or fun, I have to take a ferry. It’s been an adjustment, and the rural, small-town lifestyle certainly is not for everyone, but even though I’ve spent the majority of my life in the suburbs or city, I love living in the middle of nowhere. I’m still adapting, but now I couldn’t see myself without my flock of chickens or endless hiking trails just down the road. 

Please tell us about your job, how you got into writing, and how it helps you (if at all) when your man is on the job. (Would love to learn how you linked with the Smithsonian. So cool!)

I was one of those weird kids who knew that they wanted to become a marine scientist since they were in preschool. I stuck to that dream all the way through college, and that is when I made the slight career adjustment to become a science writer.

My foray into writing began on a snowy April day at a winery. It was a freak storm while I was in college in Virginia, and since my cousin was visiting, we decided to do something fun off-campus. There was one other couple in the tasting room, and we were making small talk about the crazy weather when I off-handedly said something about how “that’s climate change for you.” I was really surprised when the man had a very confrontational response about how he could hardly see how this had anything to do with this climate change nonsense. As a science major interested in climate science, it was clear to me, but this incident made me realize that my positive experience with science was not the norm. I love science. My mom is a biochemist, and she integrated fun science into my childhood upbringing. I knew that I was a strong writer and communicator, so I decided to switch career tracks to help make science more accessible to the general public. It’s really an important mission of mine because I feel that a lot of the issues facing society today must be combatted with science. Yet, there is a deep-seated fear of science and misrepresentation of who scientists are. 

Today, I manage an ocean education website at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Though I once worked in the museum and lived in Washington, DC, I now work full-time remotely. I write about ocean science, history, culture, and careers (that includes fishermen!). I do most of the writing on the website, though I have an editor and often host interns who also contribute. While in graduate school, I needed a science writing internship to graduate, so I reached out to the website’s managing editor (now my boss) to see if there was an opening. She agreed to have me as an intern, and later, as luck would have it, just as I was graduating, the writer at the time left the position. Apparently, I must have done something right during my internship because I got the vacant job. 

I love my job, but it actually has been pretty isolating now that I work remotely. Writing is solitary, and though I’m an introvert, I enjoy some social interactions with others. When my partner is busy with work, I actually have to make a point of getting out and seeing other people. If I spend all day working, I’m way less productive than if I go for a walk with a friend and our dogs and then come back and focus intently for a short amount of time. I do like that my job gives me the flexibility to work remotely. My career and education are really important to me, so doing something I love while living on a remote island has been amazing. I am very lucky.

What do you like to do when he’s out on the boat?

On weekdays, I work a standard 9 to 5, so I have to get creative on weekend days and in the evenings when my partner hauls and goes to bed early. I’m NOT a morning person and am most awake and lively in the evenings. Often, my partner taps out at 6 PM, right around the time I free up and want to do something. It has been a learning process to figure out the balance of going to bed when my partner does so we can have quality time at night and doing things on my own, so I don’t go stir crazy mad. On nights when I go to bed early, I’ll read with a book light (game-changer), and on nights when I stay out and about, I take my dog on walks and longer hikes. My dog is the most important reason for my saneness since he is my companion when my partner is busy, and I have only begun to make my own friends. I’ve also gotten into gardening, I love cooking, and I recently got chickens. 

Danielle-hall-POCF

What projects are you currently working on? (Would love to learn about your writing process here! Like, are you a morning writer or night? Do you write for hours at a time each day or graze over a piece for a while?)

I just wrapped up a graphic that shows all the different species of penguins and what makes them different. In addition to writing, I sometimes produce multimedia and graphics, a process that I taught myself on the job, and I love being able to take a break from writing and use a different part of my brain. I’m also helping produce a multimedia story related to shipping routes and whale migrations, as well as an interactive timeline highlighting female ocean scientists and their accomplishments at the Smithsonian. For writing projects where I am the lead author, I’m currently writing about some research related to a specific pod of killer whales and how they likely can target specific fish species just by using echolocation. In my personal time, I’ve been reading the published diary of a 1940s fisherwoman called, A Fish Out of Water (per the recommendation of Megan), and I’d love to write something for work about women’s contribution to the fishing industry. I went down this long wormhole recently one night (I think it was midnight by the time I forced myself to stop), where I was even reading academic literature about women in the fishing world and how they have been so integral to its success. I love writing about invisible heroes, especially when the stories involve women.

As for my writing process, I really love the research process and find it’s like a treasure hunt or challenge. I’ve traveled down some really long wormholes in the pursuit of just a small piece of information. I also really need to immerse myself in a project. When I sit down, I’m in for the long haul, which has been tough as I’ve transitioned to working from home. There are many distractions, so I’ve had to double down on staying focused. I’m also still making the transition (even though it’s been over a year!) from the 9-to-5 work schedule that was pretty strict when I worked at the museum to working from home, where I think I would benefit more from writing at night. I still feel the pressure to stick to the 9 to-5-time frame, but I know from college and grad school that I do my best writing right after dinner. I think it’s a matter of building a structure and schedule and sticking to it.

What advice would you give a new POCF just starting in this lifestyle?

Oh, boy. I’ll try to limit myself and be brief, but I’ve learned so much in the last couple of years.

  1. Find a hobby or activity completely removed from fishing or your partner that is also social. It’s important to have people to rely on for support and do fun things when your partner can’t. 
  2. If you often get lonely, get a pet. My dog is my best friend, and I don’t feel so lonely doing activities with him in tow.
  3. If you find spending quality time with your partner difficult, help out with some of the work. Some of my best memories are helping my partner with his gear work. I’ve painted the hull of his boat, updated the bumpers on his skiff, painted lobster pot buoys, and even built traps. Often the work is monotonous, so your partner will appreciate the company, plus it’s almost like stealing extra time that otherwise wouldn’t exist. Free time is almost nonexistent in fishing since there is never-ending gear work that can always be done. It’s also super gratifying when you see your efforts put into good use.
  4. Set a limit on “fish talk” and communicate that in advance. At the beginning of our relationship, my partner would just run on and on about fishing. He love’s it, and I get it. What do they say about a fisherman and his first love, the sea? But although I enjoy hearing about his day and updates about the state of the lobster fishery, I can’t talk about it nonstop. It became a problem where I just let him continue to talk while I checked out and just nodded, which isn’t sustainable in a long-term relationship. I was constantly bored, and my partner would get upset when I wasn’t listening. Now we’ve communicated, and there’s an understanding that at some point, we have to switch topics. Usually, when I find myself checking out, I’ll interrupt him and either say, “my fish talk limit is getting close” or “my fish talk limit is up,” which is an indication to my partner to wrap it up quickly and he does.
  5. Be deliberate about house responsibilities and, if economically feasible, consider paying for a cleaner. This is something we’re still working on. I’m very cognizant of how traditional female roles are still upheld even in modern, forward-thinking households, and often neither partner is even aware that it’s happening. Housework is one of those nerve-hitting topics. It has always been my belief that household chores should be shared between two partners in a relationship when both have full-time jobs. But in a fishing household, this is really tough to do since fishing is such a time-consuming and laborious job. Sometimes it’s necessary for me to pull a little extra weight, and sometimes he acknowledges that he could be doing more. Any time we’ve run into issues, it’s because we weren’t communicating (didn’t I read somewhere that communication is key in a relationship?). 

What writing advice do you have?

Know who your audience is and tailor whatever you’re writing to that audience. I work in science communication, where this is super important, especially when scientists want to convey their research to a lay audience or science enthusiasts rather than subject experts, but it applies to any type of communication. For example, I know that POCFs will read this post, so I’ve tailored my message with that in mind. If I were writing for people who had no experience in the fishing industry, I would rephrase content or change what I include. This advice can also work for writing scenarios as varied as job cover letters and novels. I’ve read many cover letters where it’s evident that the prospective employee has done zero research on the organization for which they are attempting to work. 

Anything you’d like to add?

I guess just that I hope this helps others feel less alone. I didn’t realize that a lot of the challenges I’ve faced in adapting to this lifestyle are shared by others until I came across Megan’s blog and then related Facebook group. Some of the things I’ve shared are pretty personal but knowing that it may help someone else convinced me to be as honest and open as possible.

Also, even though I focused on a lot of the struggles of this lifestyle, there are a lot of really awesome perks. There’s nothing better than going on a sunrise or sunset cruise with your partner or getting unstructured time in the offseason to use how you want. Plus, cooking an awesome meal with fresh lobster/fish that your partner just caught is simply priceless. 🐟

If you liked this interview, you’ll love Life Hacks from a 3rd Generation Fisherman’s Wife here!

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Feature image by Daniel Vargas 

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