Dec 4th, 2018, 12:00 PM

Out To Sea: A Woman In Alaskan Commercial Fishing

By Signi Livingstone-Peters
Julia Vorsteveld geared up in Bristol Bay, AK. Image Credit: Julia Vorsteveld
Julia Vorsteveld is part of the growing female participation in a male-dominated industry.

“It’s not like you’re working from eight to five. You’re working whenever the fishing is happening. You never know what’s gonna happen. There were times when I was woken up at four in the morning to put on all my rain gear and go out on deck. It's very sporadic," Julia Vorsteveld says. She's talking about commercial fishing in Alaska, USA. The 21-year-old from Ketchum, Idaho, spent the summer after sophomore year of college in a different scene than most girls her age: on numerous commercial salmon fishing boats around Bristol Bay, Alaska.

The Alaskan seafood industry is arguably one of the most prosperous and sustainable systems in the world – creating an estimated 99,000 jobs, $5.2 billion in annual labor income and $12.8 billion in economic output. If you've eaten salmon, or even if you're a fan of seafood, there's a good chance it's from the northernmost state. According to AK-Seadfood-Impacts, the industry catches and processes enough seafood each year to feed everyone in the world at least one serving of Alaskan seafood. "I didn't know a lot about it before I started," Vorsteveld admits, "but I did know that commercial fishing is taken very seriously, and is a way of life for a lot of people." But, like many manual labor jobs, the industry is male-dominated. According to the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, women account for only about 14 percent of commercial fishermen—both skippers and crew—and roughly one-third of processing workers.

One of Vorsteveld's vessels docked near Bristol Bay, AK. Image Credit: Julia Vorsteveld

"I did feel like I needed to establish myself as a strength on whatever crew I was on. But I never felt like I was being treated differently because of my gender."

"Apart from one boat, I was the only girl,"  Vorsteveld says. Most crews require a captain, engineer, deckhand and a cook. Some boats have more than four, some boats have less– regardless, they're predominantly male. "So yeah, I guess the male to female ratio was about 4:1 most of the time," she laughs. Vorsteveld worked as a Quality Control Technician, a job that requires technicians to test materials before, during and after production to measure the characteristics of materials and ensure that they conform to specifications, as well as meet required levels of quality. She would hop from boat to boat – moving to the next when the previous had a full load of salmon, as well as, later on, being hired by different crews to work as a deckhand. As a deckhand, she would perform a variety of manual tasks including catching lines on deck fittings, working lines at locks, casting lines free when getting underway and assisting in the navigation of the boat. Throughout the summer, Vorsteveld never spent more than two nights on the same boat. 

Bristol Bay, Alaska: The Life Of A Deckhand

The U.S. Census Bureau employment surveys have found the percentages of female fishermen to be higher than in the past, but the gender ratio is still quite strikingly skewed. Particularly in the past two decades, commercial fishing on the West Coast has dropped significantly as a result of limited fishing seasons and a decline in the wild salmon population. Some researchers believe that climate change is a contributing factor, as Alaska's temperatures are rising. During a salmon's life, it is important that the temperature of their habitat (the ocean) be at very specific levels. If they are warmed, even slightly, the salmon can become vulnerable to disease. In more dramatic cases, the temperature can become so warm that it becomes lethal for the salmon, resulting in a significant impact on the species as a whole.

Regardless of the toll environmental impacts have taken on the commercial salmon industry, "the Alaskan fishing fleet has a higher percentage of female captains and crew members according to Northwest fishermen and researchers who have cast eyes to the north," reports Sara Skamsker in Not Just A Boys' Club: Women Hooking Into Fishing Industry More Onshore. "It's a bigger industry in Alaska. There's just more boats and more opportunities and more family-run vessels. There's more women fishing, because there is more fishing in Alaska," Skamsker says.

"That alone was enough that any expectations they might have had about me being female didn’t really matter.”

“I did feel like I needed to establish myself as a strength on whatever crew I was on. But I never felt like I was being treated differently because of my gender – rather just my lack of experience and knowledge in the beginning. I mean, I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing at first,” Vorsteveld mentioned. As the only woman on almost every crew she worked with, she felt that her presence and credibility was established by showing interest and wanting to learn more about what was going on. “That alone was enough that any expectations they might have had about me being female didn’t really matter,” she says. “I guess I kind of had the expectation myself that I would be treated differently being the only girl. So that kinda put me in a spot where I had this 'Yeah, I can do whatever you guys are doing and it doesn't make me weaker'  kind of mindset," she says. Vorsteveld threw herself into the job.

Although Quality Control's only job is to was to grab five to 10 fish, take their temperature, write it on paper and throw the fish into the bigger hold, Vorsteveld didn’t just sit around. Instead, she learned what knots the fishermen were tying, and how to tie them. “I could have just sat around and done only what was expected of me, but I found out pretty quickly that if you express your curiosity and willingness to try new things, people respond to it really positively and want you to learn,” she says,  “I actually had three different boats offer me jobs as a deckhand because I was so present in everything that was going on, and taking care of things that weren't necessarily related to fishing.” 

Vorsteveld (middle) with the crew. Image Credit: Julia Vorsteveld

Vorsteveld started kicking around the idea of commercial fishing after a conversation she had with a friend she skis with in Salt Lake City, Utah, where she currently attends Westminster College. Alaska was a place she had always wanted to go. "He told me how well fishing in Alaska could pay. That kind of triggered me in the direction where I was like, wow, I can get paid and travel at the same time," she says. Not only this, but it was a combination of needing to make more money than she would if she were working a full time minimum-wage job. It was a win-win situation, and a revolutionary idea: apart from water skiing and tubing, Vorsteveld had never even been on a boat before. "I didn't go into the job with any expectations because I really didn't know much about it," she says, "I knew it was a legitimate pursuit, but I had no idea what it would look like, or who I would meet." 

"Less women actually feel the pull to go up there and fish."

Vorsteveld first stumbled across the idea on a website that published regular articles about commercial fishing in the Pacific. One piece in particular stood out to her: an article focusing on the future of female fisherman who ran a boat. At the bottom, there was a short blurb about the author. Vorsteveld found the authors personal website, a social media account called Strength Of The Tides. It is a project that works to support, celebrate and empower women working in maritime industries. By this time, she was already looking for a fishing crew to get on. "So I was kinda like, cool, I fit into this category," she says,  "so I ended up talking to the author on the phone and trying to get on a crew." Unfortunately, due to their small size, crews fill up quickly. "She did tell me that there are definitely more men than women in the industry," Vorsteveld recalls. "But that's just kind of how it is. It's not really a product of gender discrimination, it's just that fewer women actually know about this – or more so, that fewer women actually feel the pull to go up there and fish." That's not to say gender discrimination doesn't play a role on some boats – some fishermen simply don't hire women because they don't think they're suited for the work. "I was also treated more cautiously than males on boats because most of the other male crew members didn't want me in dangerous situations and felt 'protective' toward me," Vorsteveld says. She grew up on a dairy farm in Idaho, and then Vermont, which gave her some experience in how men would regard her in the workforce: "my Dad has said the same thing when working on the farm. I think that's one of the biggest differences between male and females aboard fishing vessels."

She eventually got on a crew through a friend-of-a-friend. A friend from Westminster gave her the number of his friend that had a job doing quality control work. From there, she was able to get in touch with whom would soon be her future employer.

Alaskan purse seiner lifting a catch of herring to the deck. Image Credit: NOAA's Fisheries Collection/J.M OLSON

"That’s your whole world - that 100 feet of boat, and that’s it."

“When you live on a boat with three or four other people, you’re kind of in this little world of your own," Vorsteveld says.  She describes the experience as a kind of psychological bubble. "That’s your whole world - that 100 feet of boat, and that’s it. You're floating in the middle of the ocean," she recounts. Vorsteveld stresses how important it is to learn to work with people and treat them how they want to be treated, rather than how you think they should be treated. "That's what makes one crew a well-oiled machine, as opposed to another where people can't get past their own expectations which makes them dysfunctional," she explains. 

Vorsteveld working on deck. Image Credit: Julia Vorsteveld

Vorsteveld is no stranger to remote, rural, wild places. Having spent her life between Idaho, Vermont and Utah, she was surrounded by National Forests on all sides. “But there are still fences, cattle, telephone lines, signs of humanity,” she says. “In Alaska, at least what I saw from the shoreline, it’s just nature at its original state. No human involvement, infrastructure, anything. It struck me how important it is to respect that and conserve it. I’ve always cared about the outdoors, but I had never felt such a strong desire to protect or conserve wild places until I saw what it’s like to see nature on its own course. It’s so true. When you see a snow-covered glacier and eagles flying in front of it, and bear tracks… it’s wow. This is what it's like when we don't involve ourselves. The world is a beautiful place and we have to learn how to live more in harmony with it, rather than always conquering it.”

Although the Alaskan commercial salmon industry is one of the most sustainable industries in the world, human impact has had a huge impact on their ecosystems. It justsoo happens that fisherman like Vorsteveld are the that ones up there experiencing it firsthand. "It's a small but incredibly strong pocket of amazing women up here," reports Danica Lo in Glamour. Perhaps, with more women like Vorsteveld up north, the industry will not only change gender stereotypes, but inspire others to recognize and conserve wild lands in Alaska but across the globe. 

"A big ass salmon!" Image Credit: Julia Vorsteveld

Read more about Vorsteveld's experience in Alaska and other "insights, nonsense and adventure" on her personal blog, Strawberryappreciationday.