Gillnets and green smoothies

Setting gillnets at dawn with a green smoothie in hand, is standard fishing-season practice for Scotia Siider, a 24-year-old, fifth-generation fisherman based in Sointula. Light comes early to the B.C. coast during the summer and the salmon gillnet fishery – open for only a few days each week on a good year – makes up a big part of her livelihood.

Stress and excitement are part of what keeps drawing Siider back to sea despite the challenges of her chosen livelihood. Low stocks or bank accounts, a challenging regulatory landscape that’s weighted against independent fishermen, and mediocre public support for the essential marine stewardship work carried out by fishermen like her –these difficulties disappear on the water. It’s an experience she’d encourage other women to seek out.

“It’s just having that feeling of being out on the water and working hard, and even if you don’t make any money you still have that satisfaction of working hard at something a lot of people don’t do. People keep coming back because it’s the good seasons that have hooked you,” she said with a laugh. “It’s rewarding.”

Fishing is to dance with the unknown. Each fishery only runs over a few, all-encompassing months each year. Fishermen like Siider will spend these frenzied days on the water, chasing openings, harvesting their catch from dawn to dusk, and steaming into the nearest harbour to offload the catch and refill their larders. On a good year, this effort pays off.

“I find a lot of younger women are in it because it gives you the freedom to do what you want. You have the time off; you work really hard for a few months and then the months that you have off you nap, you travel – it gives you the financial and time freedom.”

Low market prices or bad catches like those that plagued B.C.’s salmon fishery this year can make the slow months more difficult. Siider is quick to note that aspiring fishermen need to be prepared for a not-great season, especially if they need financial stability. If possible, she recommends fishing alongside family, or working to build a community with other fishermen to help weather tough times. Finding work on a good boat with a supportive skipper and crew is particularly important for women entering the industry. Misogyny and discrimination remain a challenge in the male-dominated industry.

“We’re always working two times harder to prove ourselves,” Siider said. However, she’s quick to point out that the men she works alongside are very supportive, as are many of the younger male fishermen on the B.C. coast. This supportive family is part of what keeps her on the water.

“It’s like a dance,” she described the feeling of fishing with friends and family. “It’s a ritual that makes you feel really good and warm and happy inside.”

Siider recommends women who want to start fishing reach out to others who, like her, already work in the industry. While there is an online platform and Facebook groups designed to link prospective fishermen with work at sea, it’s a good idea to rely primarily on personal relationships to ensure the boat and skipper are trustworthy for comfort and safety’s sake.