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A Canadian program, bringing girls and women to the fishing wharf, has inspired a sister program in Japan, and could hold the key to more sustainable wild fisheries

The women unravel their reels, dropping hook-and-lines over the rails of the fishing boat in the northwest Atlantic Ocean. A couple of kilometres off Petty Harbour, a fishing community on the east coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, conditions are choppy for the women’s first fishing trip of the season. But the all-female fishing group, 10 women in total, hold out hope that the cod will take the bait.

Ten thousand kilometres away, in a boat on the northwest Pacific Ocean, another all-female fishing group has similar aspirations, trying a pole-and-line fishing method to catch tachiuo, the Japanese word for largehead hairtail. Tachiuo combines the words for sword (tachi) and fish (uo), reflecting the hairtail’s streamlined body and transparent fins which taper to a thin tip. They are as common to these waters as Atlantic cod once were to Newfoundland waters.

Like their handlining counterparts, the two dozen girls and women hope to catch one fish at a time, although they use fishing poles affixed reel-to-rail on the fishing boat. Anchored just off the coast of Mochimune, a small fishing town at the edge of Shizuoka City, about 150 kilometres southwest of Tokyo, the women await the signal.

Kimberly Orren, founder of the Canadian Girls Who Fish program, navigates the Atlantic on a GWF Sunday fishing trip.

A taut line cues it’s time to wind up the reel, or in the case of handlining, haul in the fishing line by passing one hand over the other. But what these women and girls are after is far greater than a few cod or tachiuo. Launched in Canada in 2016, and last fall in Japan, the women have come together as part of Girls Who Fish, a program that makes room in the boat for girls and women to learn about a male-dominated industry and gain the practical skills needed to change that – all while catching a few fish.

“When you talk about any institution, almost any workplace, it’s been created by men for men. So, why create Girls Who Fish? And what does Girls Who Fish address? Gender equity,” says Kimberly Orren, the founder of the Canadian Girls Who Fish program.

At her fishing stage in Petty Harbour, Ms. Orren is joined by the Girls Who Fish Japan founder, Dr. Yinji Li, now back in Newfoundland for the first time since spending a sabbatical year here in 2019 to learn about the region’s small-scale fisheries. A marine social scientist at Tokai University in Shizuoka City, Dr. Li says addressing gender equality was an enticing hook for launching the sister program.

“In Japan, we don’t have any program that is specialized or targeted at girls and women, but Girls Who Fish is changing that. It’s not just about teaching girls how to fish – it’s about the traditions, the cultures, the communities and gender issues,” Dr. Li says.

In Canada and Japan, Girls Who Fish hosts small groups of women once or twice monthly. Subsidized through various grants – be they research, educational or employment-based funding – the non-profit programs also collect membership fees ($100 for the Canadian program).

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In both countries, gender inequality remains underscored by each countries’ gender wage gaps. Among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, Japan has the fourth highest wage gap between men and women, while Canada has the seventh highest. In Canada, that gap translates, on an hourly basis, to women making 88 to 89 cents for every dollar made by a man.

Globally, women comprise nearly half of fisheries workers, reports the World Bank and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, but their roles tend to be informal and behind-the-scenes work on or near shore, in seafood processing or bookkeeping. Sometimes referred to as the “veiled crew,” women provide essential support for fishing boats to operate and fishing communities to thrive.

The Fishing for Success fishing stage in Petty Harbour, a fishing community on the east coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Pratyusha Akunuri looks out across the water as the boat heads out to catch cod fish. Petty Harbour is where she first stepped onto a fishing boat and filleted her first cod.

For Dr. Ratana Chuenpadgee, a fisheries scientist at Memorial University of Newfoundland, this reflects yet another way women’s labour is ignored. “They’re very invisible, they’re not as recognized, they’re not as acknowledged and appreciated,” she says. Dr. Chuenpagdee is the founder of Too Big To Ignore (TBTI), a global partnership of 500 researchers across 55 countries studying small-scale fisheries.

The program facilitated the connection between Ms. Orren, a member of TBTI Canada, and Dr. Li, who undertook her sabbatical with Dr. Chuenpagdee and has since started a TBTI Japan chapter.

Above, a GWF member casts a traditional hand line hoping to catch cod off of Petty Harbour. Below, a bucket of capelin are examined for male and female anatomical differences.

Dr. Chuenpagdee says women play more leading roles once fishers land their catch at community fishing wharves, including processing catch, bringing fish to market and holding down their households when the men return to fishing for days and weeks at a time. When women serve formal, recognized fishing roles, as crew, for example, Dr. Chuenpagdee says they often face greater safety issues than men, including workplace gender-based harassment. Women’s work often doesn’t garner the same level of pay as men either.

“It’s hidden work and if that work isn’t taken into account, then it’s not valued,” Dr. Li says.

But without the hidden work, fisheries in both countries would suffer. Historically, Newfoundland and Labrador’s saltfish cod fishery relied on women and children tending the fish flakes – raised wooden platforms for salting and drying cod on beaches. In Japan, female free-divers called ama (Japanese for “woman of the sea”) collected shellfish while holding their breath for long periods, often in freezing-cold waters (too cold for men, by some accounts).

Beyond recognizing women’s work in fisheries, Ms. Orren says the program aims to elevate women’s voices.

“It’s about gender equity in the workplace, but it’s also about providing women the confidence to speak up about climate change and conservation issues. If we’re going to tackle these big tangly issues, then we’ve got to have everybody’s voices at the table – or in the boat, getting women and their children back to the ocean,” Ms. Orren says.

Back in the boat, 10-year-old Mai Kawaguchi beams with pride as she holds a sharp-toothed, silvery-blue tachiuo. From her recollection of that fishing trip – her first, and the program’s too – it’s clear she’s caught a dose of confidence along with the day’s catch.

“Before I went fishing, I was very nervous, but when we went on boat, my nerves became excitement,” she says later, speaking in Japanese alongside her mother, Kazue Kawaguchi – both are members of Girls Who Fish Japan. With Dr. Li aiding translation, Ms. Kawaguchi says she hopes participating in the program will expand her daughter’s palette from cooked fish to sashimi. But the young Ms. Kawaguchi has been paying attention in her lessons, and has bolder ambitions. She says she wants to learn about gender equality, small-scale fisheries and how the combination can help toward conserving and sustainably using the oceans. Dr. Li laughs and says Ms. Kawaguchi remembers everything she’s taught.

“There’s a really high level of awareness among women when it comes to conservation because they are the ones who tend to think about the future,” Dr. Chuenpagdee says. “That’s the role of caring for children. That’s not to say that men don’t have it, but it’s integral to the way women see and connect to nature.”

Even the pole-and-line fishing methods the women use are more sustainable than industrial techniques.

Fished for food and eaten grilled or raw as sashimi, hairtail are an abundant fish in temperate and tropical oceans commonly caught commercially by the school using large nets, such as bottom trawls or purse seines. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization ranks the largehead hairtail among the 10 most-harvested aquatic animals, with Japan among the countries, after China and Taiwan, with the largest catches.

Members of GWF Canada with Yinji Li and her daughter Ami convene on the fishing stage in Petty Harbour for an evening meeting.

In the same way, nets are the gear of choice for commercial cod fishers in Atlantic Canada. Gillnets constitute the greatest share of catches for what remains a critically depleted fish species.

With a one-hook one-fish approach, handlining and pole-fishing offer a gentler, more conservation-minded fishing method compared to nets (where one net hauls in many fish). Hooks and lines do not disturb the environment, leave no risk of lost fishing gear, called “ghost gear,” and reduce the chances of catching unintended species, or “bycatch.” But hook-and-line approaches also require greater effort than other methods.

Kimberly Orren and GWF member board their boat for an evening of fishing.

“It’s not an easy task to get fish. It’s possible that we don’t get fish like what happened that day,” says 25-year-old Pratyusha Akunuri, a Girls Who Fish Canada member, referring to the women’s recent cod fishing trip.

“The current was really strong that day, so that’s why the fish weren’t biting,” Ms. Akunari says. Petty Harbour is where the Memorial University of Newfoundland graduate student from Brampton, Ont., first stepped onto a fishing boat and filleted her first cod. She says the program has shown her one shouldn’t have to be born into the fishery to learn about fisheries.

“Fishing knowledge is very patriarchal, and it’s always passed down father to son. Girls who Fish is a thought-out teaching process amongst women. We learn by doing – and every day is something new.”


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