Here All Along

Women’s contributions to the seafood industry are often overlooked. Can small scale aquaculture change that?

This article was produced in collaboration with Civil Eats.

AT 5:00 A.M. on a warm morning in April, Amanda Moeser docks her boat in Freeport, Maine, and beckons Emily Selinger and me in. We load up in the darkness. Although it has been an unusually windy spring, this morning is placid and the water parts gently as our boat moves through it. Moeser steers us quietly past an island, Pound of Tea, while Emily Selinger changes into thick, black waders. Moeser and Selinger each own and operate small oyster farms in southern Maine’s Casco Bay. Although they work independently — Selinger runs Emily’s Oysters, a community-supported oyster operation, and Moeser has a wholesale business called Lanes Island Shellfish — they often collaborate and support one another.

As the sky warms from blue to pink, Moeser cuts the motor and Selinger hops out into the chilly, shallow water and wades around. She grabs two large, thick plastic bags full of oysters from the mud and drags them to the boat. The oysters are packed into these mesh bags and sit on the bottom of the bay in the winter, while they are dormant.

Moeser and Selinger carefully transfer the oysters into new bags for the summer growing season, where they will have more room to grow as they float in the water. The area they work in is relatively small, about 40 by 40 feet, yet it will produce 100,000 commercial oysters this year. We pause and admire a sea star Moeser finds; it’s as big as her hand. After several hours of dragging, hoisting, and bagging, we pile back into the boat now packed with bags of mature oysters. We weave our way toward the harbor, and the two women talk quietly, their laughter reverberating across the cove. As we unload, I realize how rarely I have heard female voices on the working waterfront. I wonder: Could small-scale aquaculture be a way to fill that void?

Emily Selinger started her own business in 2018 after years of working as a professional mariner and sea captain aboard boats where she faced a male-dominated culture.

Moeser (in orange waders) has a wholesale business called Lanes Island Shellfish. Though she and Selinger own separate businesses they often collaborate and support one another.

Aquaculture — the farming of fish and other aquatic animals and plants — is the fastest-growing food sector in the world. In the United States, 75 percent of seafood is imported, and just under 50 percent of that imported seafood is produced in an aquaculture setting. The industry is growing stateside, producing $1.5 billion worth of seafood in 2018. The type and scale of aquaculture varies immensely (from boutique kelp to industrial salmon), but small-scale aquaculture requires little equipment, has few startup costs, and is manageable for a single person. For that reason, it represents a potential growth sector for women in the US. It may also have the potential to shift the gender bias built into the global seafood supply chain. Yet many who study the industry, and many inside it, are doubtful that US aquaculture will ultimately be any different than the rest of the global seafood industry, where women’s contributions are undervalued and often overlooked.

WOMEN PLAY a crucial role in fisheries and aquaculture, comprising nearly half of fisheries and aquaculture workers worldwide. Yet their roles remain largely invisible, due to policies that continually obscure their contributions by focusing only on the most visible part of the value chain — the harvest — and ignoring the labor that happens before and after it. Although women participate differently in offshore, near-shore, and aquaculture work, they are often given precarious, low-paying, and low-status roles — or they are not paid at all. This perpetuates a cycle of gender bias across a growing industry.

Although women are essential to viable fisheries worldwide, data on gender in fisheries and aquaculture are notoriously poor.

Although women are essential to viable fisheries worldwide, data on gender in fisheries and aquaculture are notoriously poor. In the US, fisheries agencies do not even collect data on gender. Moreover, fisheries and aquaculture policies often favor larger-scale, capital- and equipment-intensive operations, which are less accessible to women than smaller scale aquaculture.

So why is women’s participation in aquaculture and fisheries often so invisible? According to Dr. Danika Kleiber, a research scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) based in Hawai’i, it goes back to how we define fishing.

“Usually the narrative of fisheries is people on boats catching fish. And in many measures, people on boats catching fish is male-dominated. But what that misses is the work that goes on before, making up the nets, after the boat comes back, and processing of the fish, which is heavily female-dominated. We simplify this entire industry to one part of it,” says Kleiber. It is a simplification that obscures the ways women, and families, contribute to fisheries and aquaculture. As Moeser says, “When I look at a boat, in my mind, I see a family.”

GLOBALLY, WOMEN’S ROLES in fisheries and aquaculture are often more fluid than men’s. Women enter and exit fisheries adaptively, as their families’ and fisheries’ needs change. They may be caring for children and maintaining non-fishing jobs in addition to other fisheries-related activities.

Barb Scully, a veteran oyster grower based in Maine, started an aquaculture business, Glidden Point Oysters, because it was possible to build alongside a family. When she was growing up on the New Jersey Shore in the 1960s, her grandfather used to tell her that she could be anything she wanted. Her family owned a gas station, so one day she said she wanted to work for him and pump gas. “Anything except that,” she recalls him saying.

Barbara Scully invented much of her own aquaculture equipment over the years, first because it simply didn’t exist, and later because mass-manufactured products weren’t ergonomic for her. She currently raises wild oysters along the banks of the tidal Damariscotta River.

Scully harvests an oyster. Although there is a perception that more women are going into aquaculture, in reality, women have always been crucial to both aquaculture and fisheries.

“That’s how things were framed,” says Scully. “And in some instances, not a lot has changed.”

Scully was one of few women in Maine involved in the nascent industry as it was forming in the 1980s. While holding down a job at the Maine Department of Marine Resources and raising two young children on her own, Scully spent her weekends and evenings exploring aquaculture. She knew people had tried (and failed) to grow oysters in the Damariscotta River before, but she began experimenting, bringing her kids along to the waterfront. At the time, the equipment to grow oysters — without also growing algae and barnacles, and collecting oyster waste — had not been invented. So Scully collected mesh, old window screens, sports netting — whatever she could find — and built her own. When flotation was a challenge, she started using swim noodles.

Soon, the manufacturing industry started producing equipment for aquaculture on a larger scale, but much of it was not ergonomic for Scully, so she created her own. “Honestly, women in aquaculture come up with some of the more creative ideas because we don’t have the brute strength … When you don’t have that as your go-to, you have to think,” she says.

“Women in aquaculture come up with some of the more creative ideas because we don’t have the brute strength.”

Scully didn’t get much respect, but she kept growing her knowledge and skills, showing her kids how to take apart outboard motors and fix things when they broke, solving problems together. As her kids grew, she hired them and their friends to work for her in the summers. She eventually grew a successful and influential business, but she measured success in nontraditional ways. “It’s not about aquaculture,” she says. “I mean, that is the vehicle. It’s just about being a good mom.”

Scully recently sold Glidden Point to downsize into a smaller shop up the road and open up more time for experimentation and innovation. She has come full circle, developing a new culture method for growing oysters in the intertidal zone, which is more exposed to air and sun. She has more time, now, to be present and meet the customers who stop in, including those who still ask to speak to her husband or direct their questions to her male employee.

“There are always assumptions and there always will be. But that’s their problem, not mine,” she says, shaking her head slightly, her wire-rimmed glasses shining in the sunshine. Thinking back, it was her grandfather’s insistence that she couldn’t pump gas that set her on the path to pioneering a new industry.

ON A WARM SPRING DAY, I catch up with Moeser and Selinger doing gear and tackle prep in Selinger’s driveway. While we measure out floating line lengths and repair gear, I ask them what people think about women as aquaculture farmers. “A lot of the coverage I see has the same theme, which is: Hey, there’s a woman,” says Selinger. There is a perception that more women are going into both aquaculture and fisheries. But despite this common narrative, the little available data suggest otherwise.

In Maine, the available data suggest that while more women are enrolling in the state’s aquaculture training programs, the owners of aquaculture leases that provide long-term rights to farm are overwhelmingly men. Dr. Meryl Williams, who has spent her career studying gender and aquaculture around the world, says that globally, more women may be going into aquaculture, because women tend to have more access when an industry is new. But because of the gendered division of labor across the value chain and the barriers they face, “as aquaculture scales up — and it’s the same with fisheries — women disappear,” she says. Dr. Joshua Stoll of the University of Maine suggests that as the industry grows, and competition and private investment increase, “those people who are getting in now, in generation two and three, will likely not have access to it.”

In Alaska, for instance, Dr. Marysia Szymkowiak, a fisheries scientist at NOAA who uses software to analyze name trends as a proxy for gender, has found no evidence that more women are doing the actual fishing. But when she broadened her consideration of the different ways women participate in fisheries, her findings changed. Although Szymkowiak has been studying fisheries for years, it wasn’t until she had her first child that her perspective on labor in fisheries shifted. She realized that she too, had been thinking about fishing as an individual endeavor. “We think about individuals, we think about vessels, but we don’t think about the family unit,” she says. “And within that, what is the role that women play?”

When Szymkowiak asked that question of women from fishing families, “there was instantly a downplaying. There would be women saying things like, Well, I’m not really the fisherman in the family, he does all the work.” When she asked women what they did do, she says they’d respond, Well, I get the bait, and I set up the fuel, I set up the paperwork, and I do the laundry and the meals, and when he needs me I crew on board, and I sell our fish.

Both Moser and Selinger say they have had to deal with harmful ideas and attitudes about gender at work, such as being told they were too cute to work on the dock.

Moeser has dealt with paddleboard stalkers, suspicious wives, unwelcome touches from co-workers on the dock, sexually explicit email and text messages, and under-the-breath comments about her body.

Many women also support their husbands’ fishing operations during lean years, using their income. “There were discussions about how women often have shoreside jobs that allow men to ‘play the game,’” says Szymkowiak. Women are also often responsible for the emotional labor of buffering “the inherent stress component” of fisheries. Fishing, she found, is a relational set of activities shared across a family and a community — activities that rely on the invisible labor of women.

Fishing and aquaculture policies currently do not collect gender-disaggregated data and do not value all the forms of labor that are a part of fisheries systems. Because of this, management practices are still largely gender-blind. For example, policies that allocate privileges based on consistent experience can disadvantage women whose domestic responsibilities require them to work more sporadically. Many current fishery and aquaculture policies and practices are not gender-inclusive even though, as Szymkowiak says, “women are making the show go on.”

IN ADDITION TO RESISTING the myth that more women are going into aquaculture, Moeser and Selinger have had to work around other, more harmful attitudes and ideas about gender, as well as a culture that doesn’t often welcome them. They have been told they are too nice or too cute to work on the dock. The fact that they don’t go out drinking with “the boys” after work or talk with them about duck hunting further highlights their “outsider” status.

Both women have also found themselves in uncomfortable situations. Moeser has dealt with paddleboard stalkers, suspicious wives, unwelcome touches from co-workers on the dock, sexually explicit email and text messages, and under-the-breath comments about her body. She says she has lost potential work partners because they couldn’t separate her gender from her work. She even had to implement a six-foot buffer around her workspace to prevent one fisherman from touching her. “He literally said, ‘You don’t have to worry about me, I would never rape you,’” she says. “And I replied, ‘That’s a really low bar.’”

For her part, Selinger pushed up against the hierarchical and largely male culture on ships for years before setting up her business so she answers only to herself. “I copied Amanda’s model so that I could work by myself or with people of my choosing,” she says. “I have my own boat; I set all my own moorings.” Selinger also sells directly to consumers through a community-supported oyster share model, which allows her to build relationships directly with her community.

While the seafood industry can be a difficult place for women in general, it is even more difficult for women of color.

While the seafood industry can be a difficult place for women in general, it is even more difficult for women of color. In May 2020, after working in aquaculture for four years, Imani Black realized she had to make a change. A Black woman from coastal Maryland, she has continually faced assumptions about women not being strong enough (she was a former college athlete) or knowledgeable enough (she graduated from a well-respected training program at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science) to work in aquaculture. Even in settings where she worked with other women, the pressure to be respected and prove themselves often bred competition with one another, rather than allyship.

“There is this boys club that we are all aware of,” says Black, and when there are a handful of women trying to thrive in a male-dominant setting, “it’s survival of the fittest and at least one woman feels like, ‘I wanna be the alpha and be in the boys club because it’s better than being outside,’” she says.

In 2020, after realizing that she didn’t know any people of color or women in aquaculture leadership roles, Imani Black founded Minorities in Aquaculture. She wants to facilitate the entry of more Black people into the field and support women in becoming aquaculture leaders. Photo by Caroline J. Phillips.

In 2020, after looking around and realizing that she didn’t know any people of color — let alone women — in aquaculture leadership roles, Black founded Minorities in Aquaculture, which aims to foster an aquaculture community that includes and supports women of color. “I said to myself, If I really love the environment, if I really love this industry and want to be impactful, then I need to step into that space and see what happens, really trying to remove some of those obstacles.” Black knows that the barriers to people of color seeing aquaculture as a viable career are many — from unequal access to the outdoors, to lack of support in school — and she wants to change that.

“There is a perception that minorities aren’t interested in marine science,” she says. “It’s not that there’s a lack of interest; there’s a lack of support. I’ve had people say, You’re not smart enough, you don’t have what it takes to be in this field, or you’re only going to be the hatchery help.

Black notes that for centuries in coastal Maryland, where she grew up, it was Black people who most often worked on the waterfront. “Back in the early 1900s, you could look out on the Chesapeake Bay and all of the people operating boats, crabbing, fishing, getting oysters — and four out of five were Black,” she says. Meanwhile, Black women commonly worked in the packing and shucking houses. Black’s great-grandfather oystered on the bay and her grandmother picked crabs in a packing house. So for her, facilitating the entry of more Black people into aquaculture and fisheries is not about connecting them to a new career path: It’s about reconnecting them to their lineage. “We’re just bringing them back full circle,” she says, adding that she wants to help Black women in particular return to roles as leaders on the shore, not just in processing. And she believes women can build success in the industry by supporting one another.

“I want to give women of color the opportunity to have these experiences. I want them to be able to showcase their skills and teach the future women coming behind them what people wouldn’t teach us and wouldn’t show us.”

What Black is primarily advocating for, and what she shares with Moeser, Selinger, and Scully, is her love of working on the water, and her certainty that she belongs there as much as anyone else.

“It’s just the most overwhelming peace that I can ever feel,” Black says of when she’s out on the water. “Everything is quiet, it’s just like glass … I literally feel like I was meant to be here.”

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