Humpback whales dancing through a glassy sea at dawn convinced Kate Gillette she’d found her calling—two days into her first commercial fishing trip.
“We were salmon trolling,” said the 31-year-old fisherman as she recalled the experience in a phone interview. “It was super early in the morning, and Mike (her partner) woke me up. There was this huge pod of humpback whales surrounding the boat, these massive black creatures. It was pretty amazing.”
Gilette was born and raised in Smithers, B.C., a mountain town several hundred kilometers from the sea. It was only after meeting Mike Roh, her life partner and a fisherman, that she got to opportunity to go to sea.
“I had zero experience and just took a chance,” she said.
She hasn’t looked back. The lifestyle and meaning she finds in her work keep her in the challenging industry.
“If you have a strong will, a love for nature, and a general idea of what physical labour is like, it’s such a good job. You’re in nature, providing sustainable food for coastal communities, and then you get long periods of time off instead of just having a weekend here and there.”
The day-to-day work might appear simple—setting the lines, processing, freezing, and cooking at sea—and Gillette says that for someone who’s committed, it’s not hard to learn the basics. It didn’t take her long to become an essential part of the crew.
“I’m a pretty small girl so sometime my strength isn’t there in terms of boat maintenance and I can’t do certain physical aspects that a guy could, but in terms of fishing and being able to bring in big fish I’m able to bring in what the other crew can bring in.”
The work’s reliance on local and intergenerational knowledge also keeps her coming back.
“It’s something that matters more than sitting at a computer. You’ve been handed down this information from people that have been fishing for so long to support their families—and you're keeping on this tradition.”
Still, fishing isn’t always easy.
“Being on the water for a long time has a huge psychological impact. It can be a bit of a struggle to be away from friends and family, looking at the same thing over and over, and when the fishing is bad it can be really hard on your mental strength. You have to be able to manage your thoughts and put the bad days behind you.”
Working with her partner helps, as they support each other on the harder days. They also take time to enjoy the fish they catch, anchoring up in a beautiful coastal nook to trap crabs, make sushi, and recuperate after a difficult day at sea.
Gillette’s advice for other women who want to fish?
“Anything you want to do in life you have to take a chance and just do it.”