Editor’s Note: Genevieve McDonald, 33, of Stonington, ME captains her own lobster boat and is the first woman to serve on the Maine Lobster Advisory Council. She’s a University of Maine student and is collaborating with Grundens, the fishing gear company, to produce a line of gear for women in the fishing industry. She also founded an online community for female fishermen called Chix Who Fish.
BTF: Why ‘Chix Who Fish’?
GM: Chix Who Fish was born out of a need for foul-weather gear specifically fitted for women. The current gear on the market is [designed] for men, but we can all agree that [women] are not built the same as men. So there is a need in the market for gear designed specifically for us that would allow us to do our jobs more safely and efficiently. It has kind of a silly name because it started as just an online photo album on social media. I was going to create a photo documentary to send to Grundens. I sent out a request asking for photographs of women and their thoughts about their gear, and I thought I would maybe get 20 or 30 photographs locally. Instead I got submissions from all over the world. Like immediately. It’s turned into a diverse community of women in the industry: captains and crew, but also women in management, policy, fisheries leadership, seafood distribution, and women involved in commercial fishing through non-profits. We are currently in the process of forming the Women’s Commercial Fisheries Alliance, a professional network of women working in the industry. But for now, Chix Who Fish is working.
BTF: Pretty Sassy.
GM: It is kind of sassy. We don’t want to alienate anybody with our silly name, but it is fun. Our mission statement is recognizing the important role women hold in all aspects of the commercial fishing industry. And I really enjoy communicating with women all over the world that fish. I didn’t realize that there were so many women in the industry.
BTF: All over the world?
GM: Predominantly New England, Alaska, Maritime Canada and Australia.
BTF: What’s your official title or role with Chix Who Fish?
GM: We’re not really official and so I’ve gone with founder. I’m not the only one working with Grundens—there’s a group of us that are testing up prototypes from both coasts, so to say that it’s a singular effort would be misleading. There’s definitely a lot of really great women involved.
BTF: Are you at still in college?
GM: I took this semester off to concentrate on fishing. It’s difficult because the fall semester overlaps with my fishing season so much. I went back to college at 30 to better facilitate collaboration between the commercial fishing and scientific communities, as an advocate for the fishery. My first two years I went to school continuously, into the summer, in order to be full-time and then I kind of burned out. It was too much. I already have a career and so am attending college primarily in the pursuit of knowledge, so it’s not vital that I finish in four years.
BTF: What’s your degree?
GM: Psychology and Community Studies with a minor in Maine Studies. It’s really an awesome program.
BTF: Are you from Maine?
GM: I was born in Bar Harbor, on [Mount Desert Island] and I lived there until my parents moved to Blue Hill during my high school years. Just after high school I started fishing. I’ve always worked off of Deer Isle/Stonington but I didn’t live here until I met my husband. I moved down here 3 years ago.
BTF: How do you break into fishing? It seems daunting.
GM: It was a little bit daunting. So my first fishing job was in Blue Hill Bay. I lived next door to a girl who fished with her father and one of his friends was looking for a fill-in. I started fishing out of Stonington on a bar bet. One of the offshore fishermen down here bet me that I couldn’t keep up and handle fishing off the Island. I accepted that challenge, jumped onboard and have never looked back.
GM: I fell in love with it. When I was younger I wanted to be a marine biologist. I was poking around in tide pools, and I’d go clamming with my dad. I’d be at the docks just getting in the way, asking fishermen questions and watching them unload. In Bar Harbor we used to dive for starfish at the end of the pier and sell them to tourists. We were always on the water. I was 21 when I actually got my first fishing job. Before that I sailed and I worked at boatyards so [fishing] is kind of just the next step. In that first season I knew that I knew that I wanted my own boat.
BTF: How long is the apprenticeship usually?
GM: It’s a two-year program consisting of a minimum requirement of 24 months, 200 days, and 1000 hours. So I fished for one season and then the next year started my apprenticeship.
BTF: So once you were done with your apprenticeship is that when you got your own boat?
GM: Yes. I’m in Zone C – Maine has seven fishing zones, and they vary on their entry-exit ratio. In Zone B for example, 5 licenses have to retire before one new license can come in but Zone C, coincidentally and fortunately for me, is an open zone. So when I finished the apprenticeship program I was able to immediately get a license and buy a boat.
BTF: So basically someone literally has to die for you to get a license?
GM: Yeah, really and truly. Not a lot of people retire. But right now Maine is working on overhauling the licensing system to make it more permissive. Some areas are more open to that than others. The recommendation is to go to a 3-to-1 [ratio] statewide and that will allow a few more people in than is happening now.
BTF: Are there other female fishermen in Stonington?
GM: I’m definitely not the only one. As a female in the industry I always tell people that the job doesn’t know your gender. It doesn’t matter who you are. If you’re male or a female, as long as you put in your time, and take care of your boat and you’re a hard worker, the industry will accept you for being a fishermen. I won’t say I haven’t experienced sexism, but not as much as people would think. I don’t think that other fishermen think that women aren’t capable of doing the job. There are plenty of female fishermen in Stonington and in Maine. It’s prevalent to have female stern men now. There aren’t as many women captains, but that’s definitely changing. There’s a new boat right next to me, a couple moorings over from me, and she’s 15 or 16, maybe.
BTF: How would you describe what you do, to a five-year-old?
GM: Advocacy. Well, that might be a big word for a five-year old. Information sharing. I like to make sure accurate information gets out to the (fishing) industry about a variety of topics. I’m pretty tuned in to what’s going on. One of the things that I really stress to people is to know your agencies and organizations. It’s okay to point fingers if you’re upset about something but make sure you’re pointing fingers at the right people. You can’t blame everything on DMR (Department of Marine Resources) if it’s actually a decision controlled by ASMFC (Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission) or you can’t blame something on the legislature that’s actually being done by the zone. It’s okay to have an issue and represent yourself but just make sure you’re talking to the right people.
BTF: Educate yourself.
GM: Yeah. Educate yourself so that when you have an issue and you want to talk to somebody about it you’re talking to the right person.
BTF: You must hear a lot of grumbling.
GM: There is a lot of grumbling. I think it’s important for fishermen to step forward. I do not expect for people to be compliant and just roll over and play dead.
BTF: How would you describe Stonington to someone who’s from, say, California?
GM: It’s a commercial fishing village—working waterfront, all the way. We’re one of the last outposts on this part of the coast that is really dominated by commercial fishing, not tourism. We certainly have some tourism, we have some summer residents, but we are very much a working waterfront, which is why I love it here. You can tell a lot by who’s allowed to park on the pier. If you go to Bar Harbor you can’t find a parking spot and you don’t see any Maine plates on the pier, but here you have to have a permit and be a commercial fisherman to use our pier.
BTF: What time do you get up, what time do you go to bed?
GM: I get up around between 4 and 4:30 and I try to be on the boat between. 5-5:30. I fish in-shore so I don’t have very far to go. My first trap in that direction is five minutes from my mooring.
BTF: How did you get your fishing area?
GM: Kind of the luck of the draw. My husband’s family owns the shipyard (Billing Diesel and Marine Services)and I had a mooring there when I first started, so I just worked my way out. With most people you start inshore and then you work your way offshore.
BTF: Is it better to be farther out?
GM: Well, it’s not always better but it’s a longer season because lobsters come in shore to shed and mate and do all their warm-weather activity and then they move out. I don’t want to be a year-round offshore fisherman, at least not now. I would like to work my way out into the middle of the bay certainly but I’m not there yet.
BTF: And what time do you go to bed?
GM: That’s a good question, between 8 and 9 usually.
BTF: That’s early.
GM: Yeah, pretty early. When the insomnia doesn’t kick in and keep me up until midnight, I usually go to bed by 9 or 10. I’m trying to break my bad habit of bringing electronics into my bed.
BTF: I’m terrible at that.
GM: I’m awful. I check my email at 10:30 at night in bed.
BTF: Can you tell me about your boat?
GM: Oh yeah, sure. So it’s a 32 Holland, built in Belfast, Maine, and it’s the Hello Darlin’ II.
BTF: Where did the name come from?
GM: It was a name I came up with. I like that way it sounds over the VHF because my name is Genevieve and some people struggle with that, so it’s always, “Hello darlin’, you on this one?” I get called darlin’ a lot as a result my boat name, which I don’t mind. It’s also the title of a classic country song. My dad was a big classic country fan so it’s a little bit of a nod to him, too. He was always my biggest supporter when I decided I wanted to be a commercial fisherman. Unfortunately he passed away before he ever got to go on my boat with me.
BTF: Sorry to hear that.
GM: I bought my first boat that spring and I had it for like a month then he had a stroke. He saw me realize my dream.
BTF: So he was very happy and proud of you, I’m sure.
GM: Yes, he was very proud and very supportive.
BTF: Did he fish?
GM: He was a leather craftsman and he was from the Ukraine. My parents actually moved to Bar Harbor in the ‘70s as part of homesteading movement. My mom is from Maine.
BTF: Was he a first-generation immigrant?
GM: Yes. He had a very interesting life story. He came over from a DP [displaced persons] camp after World War II – he was older when I was born – so he was seven when they came over. There was one sibling who stayed behind, my uncle Michael, and he was the youngest. So I have older aunts and uncles that are bilingual, full accent, the whole shebang. My grandparents never learned English.
BTF: Your dad had an interesting life.
GM: He was a really cool guy. We had a farm when I was a kid along with big gardens with goats and sheep. I have a cool family. My mom has retired and moved down to Florida like every person does when they turn 70.
BTF: I hate to see that. At least you can visit if you want to.
GM: I don’t—it sucks down there.
BTF: How do you handle everything you do?
GM: I don’t know. I just do it. It’s great. My husband’s really supportive. I’m really social. I like talking to people. I eat, sleep and breathe commercial fishing and when I’m not actually fishing I’m going to a meeting. When I go on vacation it’s usually to go fishing, or we put some component of fishing into it—this fall we attended the Pacific Marine Expo in Seattle. I like the camaraderie in the industry and the information and the people. I embrace it. It’s just kind of one thing that kind of flows in to the other – the only thing that overwhelms me is my email. A lot of email.
BTF: Sounds to me like fishing is a good stress reliever.
GM: It is. When I get to actually go fishing, it’s good. I love being in the water. I love everything about it. I like the sunrise, I love the marine life. I like all the seals, the sea birds. Every once in a while something really funky gets in the trap, like an albino eel, or weird-colored lobsters. Every once in a while I get to pet a seagull. It’s the little things.
BTF: Why do you like fishing so much?
GM: Well, all those things. I love the people, I love the culture and I love being on the water. I’ve always been fascinated with the marine ecosystem and now I have to opportunity to see it live in person everyday.
BTF: Where are things going? What’s your prediction for the next five or 10 years?
GM: So for five years, everything is going to be great. I really feel like the industry’s going to hold on. When you start to look at like 15 or 20 years out, I think we’re going to see significant environmental changes happening. The timeline might be a little bit longer maybe so I don’t like to look at everything negatively. Climate change is a change—it’s not the end of our oceans. As the lobster habitat may shift to the north, other fisheries are going to shift up from the south. There may be some opportunities. Long fin squid is going to be one of those things. Black sea bass may be one of those things. I really try to paint everything with a silver lining because I don’t like the doom and the gloom. There’s no fun in that. I love being a fisherman. I want to keep fishing.
BTF: It’s about changing, evolving and adopting?
GM: Changing and shifting. Fishermen are very adaptable. We’ve seen lots of different fisheries have come and gone. Many fishermen have participated in multiple fisheries. We’ll see what happens. I’m looking forward to it.
BTF: Do you feel like you’ll stay in this career?
GM: I do, very much so. One of the reasons that I stay so involved is so that I’m on the cutting the edge of when things happen and I know what’s coming down the line. If an experimental fishery opens up, I want to know about it. I want to be there to try it. I think squid is going to be one of those things. A few years ago we had a lot of squid in shore—one of our really warm summers—and squid have a pretty quick reproduction cycle. A species has to be to present for a little while before it can support fishing pressure so it will be interesting to see what comes. In 50 years we might be blue crab fishermen, I don’t know.
BTF: Or we’ll be eating jellyfish.
GM: Who knows? Hopefully Asians will develop a taste for jellyfish. We’ll be millionaires. Nobody foresaw glass eels, urchins…There are all kinds of interesting things out there. I wish somebody would develop a taste for starfish.
BTF: Why are you successful?
GM: My positive attitude is part of the reason that I’m successful. It sounds so cliché but the whole ‘find something you love and you’ll never work another day in your life’, it’s very true. Even though it’s wildly cliché, I enjoy what I do immensely. Even when the fishing isn’t that great or the weather is not that good, it’s still good overall. Positive outlook goes a long way.
BTF: Do you have any last words of advice for young women trying to get into fishing?
GM: Absolutely, I do. My biggest piece of advice—and not just for the commercial fishing industry—is that if you’re a woman considering a career in a male-dominated trade, reach out to other women already in that industry. I have found great support and camaraderie from other women in the industry and I would highly recommend that. For the women already in the industry, I really think one of the best things we can do is lead by example and be welcoming to young women that are interested in what we do and show them that it can be done. Fishing can be a bit intimidating but it’s certainly possible.
BTF: What’s a good resource for them you can recommend?
GM: Chix Who Fish. You can find us online.