The image is classic: The sharp, proud prow of a Maine lobster boat slicing the inscrutable dark water, rumbling through the sea-smoked dawn. At its helm is a weather-etched lobsterman, sturdy and iconic in his boots and independence.
Classic, maybe, but not, anymore, predictably accurate. Because more and more these days, that boat may well be in the hands of a woman. And even though the boots, sturdiness and independence still fit, women are redefining much of the rest of that image. They are building followings on Facebook, sharing camaraderie through Instagram, and sounding their voices in regulatory and legislative domains.
“It takes a special breed of woman to be able to do this, but I think more want to take that chance,” says Julie Eaton, 55, who runs the 28-foot Cat Sass out of Stonington, Maine. “Women have sterned on boats for a long time, so being on a boat isn’t exceptionally rare, but that 3-foot step from the bait box to the helm, that’s a big step. Now, more and more women are deciding they can take that step. And I’m really proud of them.”
Women have long been a key element in Maine’s lobster industry, but more are running their own lobster boats now than ever before. According to the Maine Department of Marine Resources, between 2008 and 2013 the number of women holding lobster licenses ran steadily in the 200s annually, averaging a little more than 4 percent of the total number of licenses. By 2017 and 2018, that number had jumped to the 500s, reflecting nearly 9 percent of the total.
Granted, the numbers come with caveats: Just because someone holds a license doesn’t mean she’s using it. Nor do the numbers reflect the hundreds of women who are crew. But coupled with what women are seeing on the waterfront, the anecdotal evidence seems to match the statistics. “I’ve seen an increase in the number of women in the fisheries industries at large in the last decade,” says Genevieve McDonald, 36, who fishes the 32-foot Holland Hello Darlings II out of Stonington and has been running her own boats for 14 years. She’s also newly elected to the Maine House of Representatives, representing District 134, “the heart of the commercial fishing industry,” and four years ago was named the first woman to the Lobster Advisory Council. “Some of it is societal change,” she says. “You’re seeing more women in male-dominated industries across the board.”
McDonald, who’s the mother of year-old twins, started fishing in her early 20s. Though a first-generation fisherman, she grew up in Bar Harbor, Maine—then still predominately a fishing community—and was always drawn to the water and the local pier, where she would “ask about the catch and generally be a pest.” She was doing brightwork on sailboats in a boatyard that also stored workboats in the winter when one of the lobstermen mentioned he was looking for crew.
“I jumped on board and never looked back,” she says. “I fell in love with it immediately.” Completing her required apprenticeship while sterning for licensed captains in two years, she earned her license and bought her first boat, a 20-foot skiff. Now, she fishes 600 traps during the inshore season, roughly June through November, with her sister-in-law, Leslie Rice, as sternman.
Yvonne “Beba” Rosen, 53, came later to the job, growing up in Vinalhaven, Maine, as part of a fishing family, but never really thinking that fishing could be her career. She’d gone away for college and worked in a variety of fields for many years (admittedly “floundering around”) until she returned home and started sterning on a friend’s boat. “I accidentally fell in love with it,” she says. “I knew this was it, that I had found it, that this was what I wanted to do.”
Working through her apprenticeship, she got a skiff first. Then, after getting her license, she grew into bigger boats. For the past four years, she’s been running her 30-foot H&H Marine Gimmie A Hulla. Now in her 11th season, Rosen fishes 720 traps with help from her sternman, 22-year-old Ruby Hopkins. “Women have been doing this a long time. This is not a new thing, but there are more captains now,” says Rosen. “You prove yourself, you work hard. It doesn’t matter if you’re a woman running a boat or a guy—it’s what you’re doing that matters. I’m not messing around, I’m not being disrespectful, I’m working hard, and that’s all that matters. We’re busting our ass just like everyone else. It’s not an easy industry to be in, and it’s a lot of work.”
No one can argue with the basic truth that the water—especially Maine’s cold North Atlantic water—demands the same from everyone, regardless of gender. Though the lobster industry has long been and remains primarily a man’s world, these women see the playing field as fundamentally level, and therefore full of opportunity, as long as you can take the financial responsibility of running your own business and are willing to work hard.
Krista Tripp, 33, from Spruce Head Island, Maine, has been wading around in lobsters for as long as she can remember. “I used to go with my dad when I was just a kid. I’d watch and bait some bait bags or band lobsters when I was really young. I went sternman with my grandfather when I was 13,” she says. “I got my student’s license, and me and my brother shared a boat when I was about 15. I had 150 traps, and I loved going out to haul. I used to stack my study halls when I was in high school so I could go home early and haul my gear.”
But after leaving home for a while, when she returned she had to start pretty much from scratch to get her license as an adult. Buying her grandfather’s boat, Shearwater, even after she got her license, she could start with just 300 traps—not enough to live on. “My first couple of years, I had to go sternman all day and then go haul my gear,” she says. “I was working 12- to 14-hour days every day so that I could make it.
Now, she sterns for her father offshore during the winter and during the inshore season works 600 traps with her sternman, Raven Meklin. She finds herself part of a community of women on the water and through social media. “Everywhere you look, especially online, you see a lot of girls that fish. Through Instagram and Facebook, I’ve realized how much the women’s population in the indusry has grown since when I was a kid,” she says. “Social media helps you stay connected and gives you a sense of empowerment knowing there are women out there.”
The physicality of the job, she says, is part of its attraction, and what makes it more egalitarian than it appears. Hard work is hard work, regardless of gender.
“It’s very important to me to be sure I do my job as well as a man would do my job,” says Virginia “Ginny” Olsen, 46, who holds her own license and sterns for her husband on their 30-foot North Shore, Virginia Dawn, out of Stonington. “I don’t want to be perceived as doing this as a woman would do it; I want to be seen as doing as well as any gender would do it. I don’t see any captains saying that women perform that job less than a man would perform it.”
McDonald says part of the reason women find acceptance is because they have long been part of the lobstering trade, from daughters working with their fathers to husbands and wives teaming up. “Here and there have been older fishermen who thought I was a curiosity, but no one has been outright rude to me because I’m a female,” she says.
McDonald has dealt with some sexism when it comes to getting bank loans, though, and she was so tired of not being able to find foul-weather gear that fit, she started an advocacy project “with the objective of gaining the attention of Grundéns and having them create a women’s line, and they did it. So now we have a commercial line of women’s foul-weather gear that allows us to do our jobs more safely and efficiently.”
Unequivocally, each of these women says choosing this path has empowered her in ways she couldn’t have imagined. In some cases, the job has saved their lives, giving them purpose and independence they couldn’t find elsewhere.
Eaton, who is chair of the legislative committee for the Maine Lobstering Union Local 207 and who plans to run for the Maine House in 2020, was nearly killed at age 23 in a traffic accident. When she emerged from a months-long coma, everything she knew—including her college education and commercial pilot’s training—“was gone.” A local lobsterman who also knew her through being a pilot invited her to come out on his boat.
“I had the mental ability of maybe a 3-year-old, and he never made me feel anything but loved and accepted, and that was huge for me,” she says. “I was safe on the water. I wasn’t judged. It was where I was OK. It was my safe place. Working on the water isn’t a job. It’s who I am. It’s every part of me.”
Colleen Francke, 33, sterns on her husband’s 50-footer Linda Kate, out of Falmouth, Maine, lobstering throughout the winter. She finished her apprenticeship and is on the waiting list for a license, but in the meantime, she’s started Summit Point Seafood, a kelp aquaculture company that just got its first 10-acre lease approved, with 200 more acres in the permitting process now. Francke says working on the water gives her the autonomy she needs.
“I love being outside, and I love being on the water,” she says. “I don’t think for my personality type that I could function in an office setting.”
Olsen, who’s also on the executive board of the Maine Lobstering Union, says her advocacy and legislative work during the winter season “is a lot of mental stimulation, and fishing is a lot of soulful stimulation, so I think between the two, that it’s all pretty fulfilling.”
“I can’t really imagine doing anything else ever again. I’ll do this until I can’t do this anymore,” Rosen says. “Just being outside and being physical, being on the water every day, it’s kind of a dream job if that’s what you like. There are many things that are hard about it, but the good stuff, when it’s good, is really good. You get a beautiful summer day and the traps are full? There’s just nothing better.”
This article originally appeared in the July 2019 issue.