The shame of the fishing industry

Back when I was a young man, the thing many college students chose to do over summer break was to sign on to a fishing boat (or a fish processing plant, which was less romantic) and spend the summer making great money at hard, cold, rather dangerous labor. I knew several of my fellows who did that at least once; I was tempted myself, but veered away at the notion of “hard work”. Physical labor? Me?

I think my younger brother might have been trying to show me up, because he signed on for a career in the North Pacific crab fishery. No, no way. That’s cold and scary.

But you know who I would not recommend such a job to? Any woman. It turns out the fishing boats, even the Canadian fishing boats, are hellish dens of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault.

You might not want to read the article at that link if you’re at all sensitive. Women who wanted to make the world better by signing on as observers on fishing boats — the people who tracked bycatch and were making sure the regulations were being followed — were being horrifically abused and pressured to ignore criminal activity, and often came back with absolutely no interest in continuing a career in fisheries biology.

There. Now you know what’s in it and don’t need to read it.

I will say, though, that there are a bunch of fishermen and fishing captains who need to be arrested and prosecuted, and there are laws that need to be changed to protect observers.


  1. says

    I read it, and I agree your summary is accurate enough that I needn’t have done that.

    It makes me wonder about legal observers of cops–to what extent it’s been tried, and what kind of results it gets. Clearly there are some pitfalls.

  2. jrkrideau says

    The Canadian government denies it is responsible for ensuring the companies protect their employees.

    I would love to see the actual reply. DFO may be trying to dodge with some weasel wording but the Canadian Gov’t, overall, has the responsibly to protect people from harassment.

    The RCMP, with its sterling reputation and experience in the area, should be investigating.

  3. brucegee1962 says

    Hey, and let’s not forget — these are the fine folks whom we are entrusting with the long-term viability of the largest ecosystem on the planet, in the midst of the largest mass extinction within the last few millenia.
    I keep thinking of the children of the twenty-second century watching videos of those extinct creatures called “tigers” and “sharks” and “butterflies” and “whales” and cursing us for doing nothing to save them while we had the chance.

  4. David C Brayton says

    Yup, that was just as hellish as imagined. Archipelago should be driven out of business and its CEO should be in jail for a long, long time. Placing one young women on a boat filled with frat boys (but without the desire to attend college) that are far away from any witnesses, and then give her the obligation to report on the illegal behavior of such cretins…holy smokes, what a terrible idea. I might consider placing a former Navy SEAL in that job alone. But a recent college graduate. Not in a million years, regardless of gender. Really, I would have expected many more observers would have vanished at sea.

  5. sarah00 says

    I was an observer for a couple of years in the late 2000s. Fortunately I was a government employee and the observer programme was well funded and well managed. I was the sole woman on boats of 40-60 male crew but was treated with nothing but respect (the only times I was limited in doing my job was out of concern for my safety). I heard about observers in other fisheries being intimidated or threatened but not sexually assaulted. I don’t know whether that was due to people not talking about that back then, or if it was because those fisheries mostly had male observers, or because those fisheries actually didn’t have issues with sexual assault. I honestly don’t know.

    I do know I loved being an observer and learned so much. It was an invaluable experience and to read that article and see so many women not get that opportunity but instead have their careers and lives destroyed made me incredibly angry. I’m also outraged at the Canadian government’s dismissal of responsibility for their observers. It highlights how outsourcing is not just about cutting costs but removing responsibility.

  6. KG says

    I keep thinking of the children of the twenty-second century… – brucegee1962@3

    You’re clearly an optimist!

  7. hillaryrettig says

    This is far from the worst problem, see for instance:

    There is an excellent argument to be made that, given the pressures on marine ecosystems, fish should be the very FIRST thing any caring person gives up, not the last. Something like half of all the plastic in the ocean is fishing industry detritus, for instance. Also, the bycatch #s are ridiculously high to start with.

    Gardein’s Fish Filets – available in the freezer section – are truly excellent substitutes for fish sticks (or fingers, whatever they’re called).

    Also, various places are experimenting with lab grown, or plant-based fish, which will help, too.

  8. hillaryrettig says

    Sorry – I wrote in haste as leaving to teach. I don’t at all mean my comment to sat that the suffering of the women observers is trivial by comparison. I don’t believe that – and recognize that these women are trying to do good – and it’s just one other reason the fishing industry stinks.

  9. JustaTech says

    Way back when I was a wee biology intern at a biotech company some of the other interns and I were discussing career options at lunch. Someone mentioned that being a fisheries observer pays really well (compared to other jobs). An older woman scientist at another table looked over at us and said she’d done it for one summer, and wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. “You’re all alone out there.”
    She didn’t say anything more, but the girls in the group knew exactly what she meant.

    Fishing is a dangerous job.
    Being an observer is a isolating job at the best of times.
    Being the only woman in a male space is virtually always fraught.
    Being the only woman on a boat and also the thing that stands between the crew and a profit? It’s amazing that every single observer doesn’t end up at the bottom of the sea.

    People ask about the “leaky pipeline” in biology? This right here is one gigantic hole.