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International (Fisher)Women's Day

woman in bristol bay, Alaska with a huge dip net and a salmon inside the net

What is International Women’s Day?

International Women’s Day was created as a focal point in the women's right movement and was officially adopted by the United Nations in 1977 where we have been celebrating it ever since. This day brings so many different emotions to surface - a day focused on women and our accomplishments. To be a woman in today’s society is better than being a woman in yesterday’s society. We are continuously progressing forward - and movement forward matters.

What’s it like to be a woman in the fishing industry?

As a little girl, I played with Barbie's and dolls and had a princess-decorated room - “Princess Erin” was labeled on all of my toys. But I also loved to play in the dirt, rough-house with my older brothers, and watch WWE wrestling every Monday night.

I remember my oldest brother, Jake, going to fish camp when he was fifteen years old. I was only eight at the time. He was excited to fish, to learn the ropes (literally), and to have fun. There wasn’t a lot of concern for a teenage boy on a remote Alaskan beach in the Bristol Bay. Why? Thirty-six percent. The overall female population in the fishing industry is only thirty-six percent of the total population. It’s no surprise that the fishing industry is predominantly male. My brother belonged in the Bristol Bay and he belonged in the fishing industry. There was already space for him there to grow and learn and make mistakes; to earn his keep. He was expected to work hard.

So, before I knew it, my time for crew initiation and to work at fish camp came seven years later when I turned fifteen. I was also excited to fish, to learn the ropes, and have fun with my family. I was excited to work hard for something; to be put to the test. But I was also nervous - as a teenage girl on a remote Alaskan beach. My mom suddenly showed more concern for my safety than when my brother had first gone. We enrolled in self-defense classes so I could better protect myself if needed, whereas it was believed my brother had no reason to protect himself the way I would need to. These concerns are real - for women across the world. And yet when I first started fishing as a teenager, I felt like I had so much more to prove than my male crewmates - family or not. As if they felt the need to “come to my rescue” when I was struggling to pull a net in, lift a raft up, or kick start a bike only because I am a woman and viewed as the weaker gender. My brother already had space for him - everyone on the beach knew or assumed he was capable of the work. But I had to carve that same space for myself; I had to prove I was capable and strong simply because I am a woman. To this day, when I tell people “I’m a commercial salmon fisher,” they’re surprised and impressed. Surprised a woman could succeed in a male-dominated industry. Surprised and impressed the way we may feel by a female auto-mechanic, carpenter, or even politician.

But as I said, we are progressing forward; this movement forward matters. As my little sister Gwen says” just being a woman on the beach makes you a badass." At first, I was so worried jumping head first into a male-dominated industry. But, in my experience, they accept you as one of their own if you work hard and know your stuff. Yes, being a woman in the fishing industry is hard work, but it is SO worth it once you become part of the community. We are like a giant family out there. No one is left behind or looked down upon. We share knowledge, skills, and tools. We have each other's backs despite age, seniority, or gender.” It’s not so much that the fishing industry thinks women are incapable of the work - it’s very evident that we are. It’s the idea that we have to work twice as hard to prove ourselves as capable before being accepted as one. Once we prove ourselves as knowledgeable and capable on the beach, we are accepted into the fishing industry with open arms by our fellow beach mates.

Tony Neal, our grandfather and founder of The Popsie Fish Company, has always been our biggest believer. And in this sense, The Popsie Fish Company has supported and empowered women for generations - employing and raising my mom, grandmother, aunts, sister, family friends - giving us a taste of what true empowerment and hard work feels like when held at the same standard as our father, brothers, and uncles. From day one, The Popsie Fish Company has held my sister and I at the same expectation as our male equals, and for that, I am grateful. His expectations of us and holding us accountable have made us into the strong women we are today. When I’m struggling with a task, I can hear his voice in my head. I can do anything I can set my mind to. I am strong. I am capable. I am an equal. And I am a commercial salmon fisher. To be women in the fishing industry has given us… strength.

Written by: Erin Washer

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