Girl Rules the Waves
Photography by Tim Rider
Fisherwoman Kayla Cox catches fish and lands community connections
Dawn breaks over choppy seas as the engines of the F/V Finlander II go quiet. The fishing vessel drifts into position somewhere over Fippennies Ledge, about 65 miles off the coast of southern Maine. Sporting blue vinyl crew gloves with the words “GIRLS RULE” spelled out over the fingers, 25-year-old Kayla Cox slides some cut squid onto four jig flies and lets the rig drop 300 feet from her fishing rod.
Cox, Captain Tim Rider, and the rest of the mostly male crew of the Eliot, Maine–based boat fish hard for haddock, cod, pollock, Acadian redfish, and scallops for at least nine hours at a stretch, stopping only to reposition the boat and steal a bite to eat.
Rider and Cox run New England Fishmongers, which sells seafood landed on the F/V Finlander II to customers from Portland to Boston. Rider says Cox works as hard as anyone else on and off the boat and rides out rough weather without complaints—unlike one or two of her male counterparts.
On the pier, however, Cox has encountered remnants of patriarchy that hover over the commercial fishing industry. Once, a grizzled lobsterman jammed his finger in her face, yelling “You shouldn’t be here! You know nothing!” She yelled right back at him.
Cox admits she used to get upset about the occasional stare from older fishermen, but now she lets it go, choosing instead to focus on the work. “I have a job to do and can’t be bothered by what they think,” she says. “I’m … hustling every day, all day long, and don’t need to prove myself to any of them.”
Gender imbalance has historically been a fact of commercial fishing across geographical areas. Globally, women account for about 14% of commercial seafood harvesters (including those working in aquaculture, which as a newer facet of the industry attracts women in higher numbers), according to a 2016 United Nations Food and Agriculture report on the status of fisheries. That percentage holds true for women in Alaskan fisheries, according to the Alaska Department of Labor.
Comprehensive statistics here in Maine are harder to find, but there are encouraging signs that more women are entering the state’s commercial fisheries and making their voices heard. For example, Representative Genevieve McDonald (D-Stonington) brings a powerful voice to the discussion as the first fisherwoman elected to the state legislature.
As more women enter fisheries along U.S. coasts, they can tap into moral support from organizations like the International Organization for Women in the Seafood Industry (WSI) and Slow Fish North America, as well as regional groups like Strength of the Tides based in Bellingham, Washington.
Cox takes heart in that kind of advocacy, hoping others will follow her nontraditional path. “For the most part, people are nice. I have had a pretty positive experience,” she says.
Fishing was not a lifelong ambition for her. But, growing up in Newbury, Massachusetts, she loved being on the ocean. She spent college summers working on her roommate’s dad’s lobster boat out of nearby Gloucester.
Cox met Rider at a farmer’s market in Newbury. “I kept buying fish from him, and the fish was amazing. I asked if they needed a deckhand.” She joined the crew for the same reasons a man would: She loves to be on the water, relishes in the ocean’s bounty, and enjoys providing good food to customers. And, of course, she takes pride in bringing in a good day’s catch.
Several months prior to the coronavirus pandemic, New England Fishmongers shifted from selling primarily to restaurants and participating in farmers markets to connecting directly to consumers through either home delivery service or coordinated retail drop-off locations.
Cox garners satisfaction meeting customers, sharing the story of the seafood, and hearing how customers prepare the purchases. Demand grew so much during that time that the crew was selling out of seafood a week before they even hauled in the catch.
For Cox, strengthening customer relationships and contributing to wider community efforts, like dropping off donated seafood to local food pantries or delivering rain slicks and face masks to health care workers to use as personal protective gear—motivates her to fight for a better system that has thrown up so many barriers to small-scale, independent, community-based seafood harvesters like her and Rider.
In her view, if you’re not doing what you love—even when you have to rise before dawn to do back-breaking work—then why do it?
Her advice to young women who want to enter the industry: “Demand to be treated as an equal. Work very hard. Don’t complain. You’ll find the men are usually the ones that complain on deck. And have fun!”
For more info visit New England Fishmongers.
Colles Stowell is president of One Fish Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit that brings the sustainable seafood message into classrooms (from elementary through college) and communities.