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Sea Legs: Learning to Labor on the Water
Charles R. Menzies, University of British Columbia
This article is an autoethnographic account of
growing up and learning to labor on a commercial
fishboat. It explores the intersection of labour and
masculinity in British Columbia’s fishing industry of
the 20th and 21st centuries.
Keywords: autoethnographic, maritime
anthropology, masculinity, labor process
“Don’t run on the boat rails,” my dad would say
when he brought me to his 60-foot wooden commer-
cial fish boat as a child. I spent most of my spare
time tagging along. Boats—wooden boats in partic-
ular—involve a lot of work. I handed him wrenches,
painted things, dragged things around, and just
plain hung around waiting a lot of the time. Through
all of it, Dad would remind me about things to do
through talk, but more often through action. Like
many children, I paid little heed to his cautions until
they reared up and figuratively swatted me on the
I was seven. It was a warm day in Rupert down at
the co-op dock. Dad was painting the boat. I was sup-
posed to be helping, but my attention had wandered.
I jumped up onto the boat’s outside rail and started
running toward the stern. I lost my footing and slipped
on the freshly painted rail. Upside down, gasping in
the water, I flailed about, unsure of up or down, until I
was pulled out of the harbor. Sitting there on the dock,
with a group of concerned men standing around me, I
thought, “Yup, that’s the last time I do that.
Work at sea involves a range of skills that shore
workers rarely need to consider. Getting one’s sea legs
is more than just staying safe. It’s about moving seam-
lessly across the deck. It’s about keeping food down.
It’s about acclimatizing to an environment humans
aren’t built for. It’s about becoming a part of a com-
munity of men.
Growing up on the deck of a fish boat builds
these skills into one’s sinews (see Pálsson 1994). Even
now, when I try to explain how one does things on the
boat, I can feel my entire body shift into position. My
hands move, and I enact more than I tell. But there
is more. Learning to labor at sea is an intersection of
the onboard processes of labor and the political eco-
nomic forces within which this labor is embodied in
the personal life histories of those of us who work at
sea. This paper explores this intersection by drawing
upon both my personal and professional experiences.
My personal life history is one of having grown up
in the fishing community of Prince Rupert (in the
Canadian province of British Columbia), and I have
spent much of my professional academic life studying
fisheries as a sociocultural phenomenon in Western
Canada, France, and Ireland. I draw from these expe-
riences to examine the maritime learning process from
three vantage points: (1) growing up fishing, (2) learn-
ing a new fishery craft, and (3) as a researcher studying
fisheries. In each part of the paper, I take an autoeth-
nographic approach, in which the author applies tech-
niques of anthropology to their own life experience,
to laboring onboard fish boats (see Menzies 1994; see
also Knutson 1991; Reed-Danahay 1997).
As I set off on telling a tale of becoming a mari-
time worker, I also acknowledge —and we will explore
this more as this story develops—that getting one’s
sea legs is every bit as much about gendering our life
worlds as about becoming a worker. Karen Brodkin
Sacks (1989) reminds us that even if the dynamics of
class structure are the fundamental drivers of exploita-
tion, race and gender are co-created in the process of
class formation (Brodkin Sacks 1989). Working-class
fishermen become both men and workers through the
crucible of onboard socialization. We bring ideas from
our wider social worlds onto the boat such that our
development of technical competency as fish harvest-
ers intersects with the reinforcement of a hegemonic
masculinity (McMullen 2018).
Masculinity, Fishermen, and Gender
Although this paper focuses on how aspects of
onboard work are implicated in the reproduction of
masculinity, it is important to note that this repro-
duction occurs within a wider social field (Davis
1993; King 2007; Power 2004; Yodanis 2000). While
much of the early anthropological work on fisher-
ies highlighted either the crew at sea or life in the
onshore village (e.g., Cohen 1987; Faris 1966; Firth
1966; Orbach 1977; Zulaika 1981), a turn to a view
of fisheries through an explicitly gendered lens devel-
oped through the 1980s (see Davis and Nadel-Klein
1988; Neis et al. 2005).
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Narrowly understood, fishing is a masculinist
occupation. Crews and skippers are overwhelmingly
men. In her ethnographic work in Maine, Carrie
Yodanis observed that gender was defined in relation
to the practice of fishing. In that context, “women
are women because they do not fish” (Yodanis 2000,
268). My own work on British Columbian (BC)
fishermen uncovered a similar structural opposition
in which, as Yodanis puts it, “‘man’ is defined as one
who fishes and ‘woman’ is defined in opposition to
that which is a fisherman” (Yodanis 2000, 268; see
Menzies 1991). To be sure, there are women who
fish, but their presence on the boat is constructed
in such a way as to maintain normative hegemonic
masculinity (McMullen 2018; Menzies 1991; Meyer
2015; Wilson 2014, 2016).
As Julianne Meyer notes in her work with Bristol
Bay setnetters and at fisherpoet festivals in Oregon,
women fishermen/fisherpoets “must show they are
prepared to engage in the hypermasculine culture of
commercial fishing” (2015, 18). While not explicitly
excluded, “women have a difficult time breaking into
and remaining in the occupation” (Meyer 2015, 19).
She further notes:
[W]orking in a male-dominated industry,
women often struggle to keep their jobs if they
are not involved in a relationship. Women often
find work in industry through familial or roman-
tic relationships and those women who chose to
enter the occupation without relationships face
additional struggles. … Men in the occupation
occasionally expect women to have sex with
them, based solely on the demographics of the
occupation…In addition to this, women must
also be ever vigilant in their activities in the in-
dustry because of the looming threat of sexual
violence. (Meyer 2015, 22)
Building on Meyer’s work, Bradford McMullen iden-
tifies a wider sense of hegemonic masculinity, rooted
in how competency and credibility are defined and
valued. He defines these two attributes as follows:
Competence in the context of the fishing in-
dustry is the ability to perform well, succeeding
as a fisherman by doing one’s job and surviv-
ing the stresses that accompany it. Credibility
in fishermen speak could also be called trust-
worthiness: one’s credibility resides in other
people’s belief that fishermen will live up to
their promises and accomplish the things they
are expected to do, no matter their difficulty.
(McMullen 2018, 17)
Becoming a man, in the fishermen’s world, means
demonstrating one’s ability to do the job and do it
reliably. That women might also do the job doesn’t
necessarily take away from this masculinist concep-
tion, since women frequently must take on the at-
tributes that reinforce the ideological maleness of
fisheries (Meyer 2015).
In the early 1980s, I was part of an anti-por-
nography campaign to remove magazines like Hustler
from a campus bookstore. Our campaign was inspired
by writings in the edited collection Take Back the Night
(Lederer 1980). Thinking that this might be a good
way to approach the pervasive sexist attitudes onboard
fish boats, I made copies of several chapters of Take
Back the Night to use as educational materials during
the herring season that year.
In the 1980s, the commercial herring seining sea-
son lasted from late February into early April. There
were a hundred or so boats in the fleet. We would travel
from opening to opening, waiting for a week or more
at remote fishing grounds for a chance to load up that
might last a little as a few minutes. After having waited
for weeks on anchor, a season could be made or lost
in ten minutes. Aside from waiting, there wasn’t much
to do but socialize, do a bit of sport fishing, and share
food, booze, and other stuff. Pornography was a major
item circulating among the fleet. I thought I might do
a little bit to change things.
I periodically placed the copies of Take Back
the Night chapters on the galley table. It looked like
crew members had been picking them up and read-
ing them, but I was mistaken. About three weeks into
the season, our boat cook sat down at the galley table
across from me. He seemed to be reading one of the
pamphlets. He glanced over at me, looked back at the
pamphlet, then asked:
“So, Charlie. What is this miss-ogg-ah-knee?”
“Misogyny,” I corrected.
“Hmm,” he said.
“It means women hating.” He looked me directly
in the eyes.
“So, what man hates a woman?” He tossed the
pamphlet onto the table and returned to his
cooking. It was clear that eradicating androcen-
tric pornography from the boats would involve
more than a pamphlet or two.
Male-centered ideas of sexuality, as presented
in onboard pornography and male-to-male ship-
board discourse, are intimately part of making the
boats a male-centric space. Unlike the more polite
and public spaces ashore, the display of pornography
and sexualized images of women on the boat are ex-
plicit boundary markers. Among the crews on which
I worked, onboard spaces were felt to be private male
worlds within which women were not expected to
enter or to participate without permission and only
on male terms. Shoreside, when wives, girlfriends,
or daughters were expected to visit our boat, the
Anthropology of Work Review
© 2019 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. 3
skipper (or more often, the cook) would make cer-
tain that the more explicit materials were swept away
out of sight—though the calendars of partially clad
women would almost always remain untouched. The
inclusion of a few women in the occupation serves
to underscore, rather than alter, the masculinity of
fishing labor and the process of becoming a fisher-
man (Menzies 1991; Meyer 2015; Yodanis 2000).
British Columbia's Fishing Industry
I grew up hearing stories about my grandfather
fishing at K’moda, about oolicahn fishing on the
Nass, and about abalone picking along the outside
islands (Menzies 2016). When I was an adult, I real-
ized that a lot of people thought my Indigenous an-
cestors weren’t engaged in long-distance trade in fish
and fish products. As a child, I marveled at the sto-
ries of my grandfather and my ancestors fishing and
traveling along the west coast of North America. The
creation of the industrial capitalist fishery in British
Columbia, beginning in the late 1800s, involved
a dual process of the expropriation of Indigenous
lands and the subsumption of Indigenous and settler
labor to a capitalist logic of production (Menzies and
But ler 2008).
The fishery in BC thus reflects Glen Coulthard’s
(2014) description of how settler workers were en-
trapped by capitalism through theft of labor time,
while Indigenous peoples were entrapped through the
theft of our land. The owners of BC’s industrial fishery
were Euro-Canadians drawing finance capital from
Montreal, while managerial know-how and produc-
tion machinery came from the mid-nineteenth-cen-
tury Californian industrial canning industry (Menzies
1996). Unlike working-class settlers, the settler busi-
ness class stood in an antagonistic relation to all but a
minority of Indigenous people.
BC’s fishery was a highly flexible enterprise. The
early fishery was based on salmon but soon included
halibut and other species. The early canneries were
“just in time” facilities purpose-built at harvest sites. As
Douglas Harris has documented (2009), the early can-
ners often leased fishing sites from Indigenous leaders
and recruited labor forces for processing and fishing
through these same Indigenous labor brokers. Because
the abundance of salmon varies from year to year, and
because destructive fishing practices could decimate a
run in one season, the early canneries had to be mo-
bile. The mobility of the canneries was facilitated by
a peculiarity in the industry: the industrial machinery
was rented seasonally. As my good friend and mentor
Gerald Sider exclaimed when I told him about this
many years ago: “Post-Fordism before Ford!” As the
industry developed, the processes of concentration and
rationalization inherent to capitalist enterprise took a
toll, and the number of individual canneries decreased.
Capitalist fisheries development was facilitated
by government regulatory regimes that favored con-
centration, settler ownership, and expropriation of
Indigenous rights and access. Early fisheries were li-
censed in such a manner that allocations of fishing
rights were granted directly to canners. These were
initially geographically based licenses that granted
exclusive regional control to the canners. This was
complemented by legislative restrictions impacting
Indigenous fishers (Menzies and Butler 2008).
For millennia, Indigenous fishers harvested
salmon at rates equivalent to the developing industrial
salmon canning fishery. Settler capitalists realized
that, if unchecked, Indigenous harvests would limit
the settler capitalist sector’s success. In response, the
federal Fisheries Act (passed in 1858, and applied to
BC in 1871, when the province joined confederation)
created a “food fishery” for Indigenous communi-
ties and a commercial sector that severed Indigenous
household production from commercial activities
(Harris 2009; Newell 1993). The commercial fishery
was divorced from Indigenous practices and regulated
in accordance with capitalist principles under the au-
thority of the Canadian government.
This is the backdrop to my own coming of age
as a young Indigenous man learning to labor on his
father’s fishing boat. By the time I was on my father’s
boat, settler and Indigenous fishers shared a common
experience of labor. While there were significant racial-
ized distinctions within the fishery (Menzies 1996),
the onboard labor practices and experiences of work
were very much the same on the multi-crew vessels
on which I worked. We all were subjected to the same
regulatory regimes, economic forces, and technical
processes of production. We were fishermen together.
Born into Fishing
I didn’t realize it until I was an adult. Figure 1,
of my father holding me as an infant, shows that I
was on the boat long before I could walk. The boat
and its marine environs were constant features of my
childhood. My sisters and I spent hours playing along
the waterfront. As my sisters aged out of childhood,
the ideologies of gender took precedence over their
desires, and they found themselves left behind at the
dock as my father, his crew, and I set sail.
One of my sisters really wanted to go on the boat.
Our father didn’t agree that she should. Years later, my
mother came on the boat as cook. That didn’t seem to
challenge gender ideologies in quite the same way as if
a young woman were to join the crew. “Where would
she sleep?” the older men would ask of young women
who wanted to join. My mother slept in the skipper’s
stateroom with my father. All other crew slept in the
shared fo’c’sle. The men saw the boat as a male space
and women as interlopers.
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As I boy, I heard the men complaining about
feminists (circa 1970–1975). I had no idea what they
meant. I got to know one such feminist in the person
of one of my elementary school teachers in 1975, the
International Year of the Woman. She put up posters
in our classroom with slogans like “Why? Why not!”
All around the room, she had images of a dove with
a stylized women symbol and an equal sign. We had
great fun singing “women we are strong” in class
while coloring the doves. The men I knew were not
of similar minds.
The sexual-political ferment of the 1960s and
1970s provided a backdrop to my childhood experi-
ences on the fish boat. The deck was a political space,
not in the sense of big political issues, but rather in the
politics of everyday life. I observed a male-centered,
working-class world in flux. These men were trying to
come to terms with new possibilities of gender and
sexual expression. Old-guard hegemonic masculinity
was struggling to hold its own.
The shipboard debates and stories about gender
I grew up hearing ran counter to the ideas I heard in
town and at school. From graffiti shouting “No Atomic
Tests” to Remembrance Day memorials with anti-war
folksongs to my elementary school teacher teaching
us about the International Year of the Woman, change
was in the air.1
In the breaks and spaces between work, we would
sit around the galley, stand around on the deck, hang
out on the dock, talking to pass the time. These were
moments when stories were told. The subject of these
talks stayed close to our concerns as fishermen: stories
of the big catch or failed trips, of male sexual con-
quests, or of marital infidelity.
In these stories, themes of masculinity, fishing
skills, and sexuality were entwined. This was a de-
cidedly androcentric discourse, one that linked being
a good fisherman with being a certain kind of man.
Embedded in this androcentric discourse was the nor-
mative expectation that, after a few years of carousing,
a good fisherman would get caught by a good woman,
get married, and have kids. In the same sense, it was
expected that a good fisherman would leave the deck
to become a skipper of his own boat. The two narra-
tives were flip sides of the same coin: settling down
with a good woman and taking on the responsibility of
a skipper made a man a man (King 2007).
I recall a time in the 1980s when I was helping my
father get his seine ready for the coming salmon season.
Along with our crew, there were two other boats’ crews
working. During the lunch break, the skippers would
sit together talking, and the crews sat quietly around
the edges. Occasionally, other skippers would drop by.
These men were from my father’s generation. Their
memories of past big catches would be salted with dis-
cussions of marital infidelity and sexual relations.
“Remember the time Jim loaded up in
“Oh yes, wasn’t that the year Ole took off with
his old lady?”
“No, that was that other time. He was loading up
that week at the Duckers.”
“Ted did two trips that next year. All large, just
out and in. Barely had to let the gear soak.”
“Ha, he should have stayed home, Jane spent all
the time he was away with Joe.”
“They were done anyway. She took him to the
Figure 1. The author in his father's arms, on the dock.
Anthropology of Work Review
© 2019 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. 5
One of the main worries expressed was that
one might come home to an empty house. It was
risky, as Canadian folksinger Ian Tyson sang, to
“leave your woman alone, with friends around to
steal her” (1967). Sometimes when fishing halibut,
a fish would come up caught by the tail. “Your old
lady’s getting some back home,” one of the crew
might yell out to the man who had pulled in the
fish. In the quiet hours, men would sometimes
worry about their partners’ potential infidelities.
Commercial fishing takes men away from home for
long periods of time. Re-entry is often difficult and
disruptive for partners and their men, even if antic-
ipated and desired. In a world in which masculinity
is in some sense premised upon sexual competency
and economic capacity, there was an underlying
worry among the fishermen that the women left
alone would succumb to the presence of some other
man. Being tough enough to manage the worry of
potential infidelity, and believing oneself to be man
enough that she would still want him despite his
absence, was all wrapped up in the same package of
being a competent fisherman. These men enacted
a kind of hyper-masculinity in order to deny the
need for the emotional labor required by the stress
commercial fishing placed upon them and their
Learning to labor, finding one’s sea legs, was a
physical experience. While linked to the above stories,
learning one’s tasks on the boat occurred more often
than not in silence. Those of us who grew up on the
water developed a feeling for our environment that is
awkward to articulate beyond simply saying one has a
feeling for it. One of the ways my father would enter-
tain me at the docks was to place me into a wooden
version of the aluminum skiff in Figure 2, tie a few
hundred feet of halibut longline from dock to skiff,
give me oars, and say, “Row around.” With a long
tether, I could always pull myself to safety.
A lot has changed in parenting practices since
then. For that matter, my father was more safe-
ty-conscious than his own parents—he tethered the
skiff to the dock. As a child, my father had a kind of
free range not approved of these days. I might tell
stories of rowing a tethered skiff. He recounts tales
of standing chest deep in a creek mouth holding
one end of a gillnet while his cousin held the other
end, and his father and uncle picked salmon out
of the net. My father was a child in the 1930s, and
his experience was one of a mixed-race household
(settler father, Indigenous mother) wherein fishing,
hunting, and collecting traditional coastal foods ex-
tended wages.
My father learned how to row a skiff and, soon
thereafter, how to run and repair a small boat en-
gine. These skills led him into industrial wage labor
at an early age and then to the deck of fishing boats
long before the time of high school graduation. He
started work at 14 and ran his first boat collecting
fish when he was 16. I suspect his coming-of-age
experience influenced his own ideas of parenting.
While he was no helicopter parent, he did keep us
children tethered more closely than he had been as
a child.
My own children also had a chance, though not
the same as my own or my father’s, to be on the boat.
Figure 2. Author's sons dropping skiff in water from the deck of the F.V. Miss Georgina.
Anthropology of Work Review
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In Figure 2, we see them helping launch a skiff from
the deck of my father’s boat. We dropped it on the
water, gave them an outboard, lifejackets, and oars
and let them head out to explore. My boys spent time
with my parents on the family boat from a young age.
Though they didn’t have a chance to join them work-
ing, my sons’ experiences on the boat created learning
opportunities for them. My sons learned about work
on the water through play much in the same way as
I did, but in a different context. The marine world of
north coastal British Columba has changed, and find-
ing a life in commercial fisheries is a far rarer chance
for any young person today—whether First Nations
or settler. Learning occurs here naturally first as play
and then as work. These experiences provided a foun-
dation upon which the later learning of specific skills
and knowledge bases were built. These are experi-
ences out of which lifeways and senses of belonging
Learning One's Craft
Halibut longlining was once a craft fishery with
a learning process similar to the structure of appren-
ticeships in craft unions in the late 1800s and early
1900s. Fisheries regulations such as those establish-
ing vessel quotas, and changes in market structures
by which the cost of leasing fish quotas was passed
down to the crew, undermined the craft basis of the
halibut fishery.2
I am just old enough to have experi-
enced the transition from a skilled, stable, deep-sea
fishery to an itinerant, de-skilled, neoliberal fishery.
The neoliberal fishery is one in which precarity
has increased to such an extent that, around the world,
maintaining crews has become a serious difficulty. In
Brittany, for example, the artisanal fishing fleet has been
compelled to recruit new Euro-zone entrants from the
former communist bloc (Menzies 2011). In Ireland,
the deck crews of distant water boats are more and
more likely to be Polish mariners, not Irish citizens, as
local youth migrate away from home (Donkersloot and
Menzies 2015). Gloucester and New Bedford trawl
skippers find themselves recruiting itinerant laborers
with little shipboard experience. These are all ramifi-
cations of the erosion of coastal communities as viable
economic spaces, a development that owes much to
neoliberalism (McCormack 2017).
Regulatory change in BC’s halibut fishery in the
1990s—through vessel quotas—resulted in a massive
downsizing of the fleet and fewer jobs.3
The quota also
turned fish caught into the private property of the li-
cense owners, not of the fish harvesters themselves.
The license owners charge the crew to use the license.
This means no fish can be brought home unless the
crew pay for it. These regulatory changes contribute
to de-skilling the labor process. Most vessels fishing
halibut today use gear that requires only a general
knowledge of the fisheries process since they can’t find
skilled crew as before.
In Figure 3, I am gutting a halibut. The view
is looking aft from the galley. This figure was taken
in the late 1980s when most halibut boats were still
fishing “conventional gear”: long lines with hooks at-
tached by short pieces of cordage at regular intervals.
Each unit of gear, called a skate, consisted of about
seventy to eighty hooks, spaced between 18 and 21
feet apart. These lines were set out along the ocean
floor in strings of two to six skates each. The gear was
hauled from the ocean floor amidships on the boat
over a roller and pulled by a machine called a gurdy.
One man would stand at the roller, waiting, gaff in
Figure 3. Author gutting halibut onboard the F.V. Miss Georgina, circa 1980s.
Anthropology of Work Review
© 2019 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. 7
hand, to pull each fish on board. Behind the gurdy, a
crew member would stand and coil the gear. Working
in rotation, the crew would each coil a skate of gear
and then carry it to the baiting claim to bait the gear.
While the skipper would select a new crewmem-
ber, or “inbreaker,” the responsibility of teaching the
craft of halibut fishing fell to the crew. Fish harvesters
have traditionally been paid through a share system,
in which the value of the catch is apportioned to boat
owner and the crew. Each crewmember, including the
skipper, would typically get an equal, or “full share.
The crew would pay inbreakers from their earnings,
and the crew would decide when the inbreaker was
ready to earn a full share. The training of inbreakers
was (and remains) filled with banter and taunting.
Learning how to dress a fish requires a familiarity
with the process, a capacity to handle a knife, and an
ability to pay attention to sparse instructions. If the in-
breaker’s work is badly executed, a senior crewmem-
ber steps in. This is how the work tasks were learned.
Many years ago, I wrote a paper about halibut
fishing, obscenities, and gender (Menzies 1991).
I observed the banter around the point of hauling
each halibut onboard and reflected on what has
come to be called hegemonic masculinity (Vale de
Almeida 1996): a straight, homophobic, male-cen-
tered idea of masculinity. Rather like a call-and-re-
sponse routine, the man coiling the gear would call
out sexualized insults to the man at the roller—in-
sults that questioned his straight-male competency.
In that early paper, I was focused on how the halibut
fishery had become a “safe space,” as it were, where
women were definitionally excluded. All this was oc-
curring in the context of the growing feminization of
paid work and the increasing critiques of male-cen-
tered public domains. Here, I ask the reader to con-
sider how these practices provide instructions on
how to be male. Becoming a competent fisherman
entails simultaneous mastery of the craft and assim-
ilation to a variant of hegemonic masculinity (King
2007; Power 2004; Sanday 2007). In his study of
Oregon fishermen’s poetry, McMullen (2018) links
task competency with masculinity. There, as in my
experience, becoming fully masculine involves task
Inbreaking involves more than being schooled
in how to dress fish or coil a skate of gear or bait the
hooks. An inbreaker is learning how to exist as one
of the crew, an all- male crew living in close quarters
for extended periods of time. The use of a particular
form of obscenity links an ideology of heteronor-
mative masculine sexuality with competency. The
idea is that not doing one’s job well is like a kind
of sexual inadequacy—something to be ashamed of.
Beyond sexual capacity are the values of strength,
tolerance of discomfort, and willingness to overlook
pain. Hazing and taunting formed a part of the mas-
culine ideology of toughening up to be a man, to be
a fisherman.
My example is, of course, rooted in a specific
time (the 1970s to the 1990s) and a particular place
(the north coast of BC), but it does offer comment on
wider processes of gender formation and the main-
tenance of gender ideologies. These androcentric tac-
tics don’t ultimately work in men’s best interests. Paul
Willis (1977) explains, for example, how similar and-
rocentric practices among the male industrial working
class in Britain worked well for workplace-based soli-
darity in the all-male industrial labor force but were a
disaster for working-class young men trying to survive
Thatcherite post-industrial England.
On the north coast of BC in the 1970s, 1980s,
and 1990s, one’s sense of self-worth as a man was
tied to one’s sense of self-worth as a fisherman. This
became a social problem when wider cultural values
and/or economic structures began to change. Today,
as members of the male industrial working class find
themselves progressively displaced and their momen-
tary economic security diminished due to regulatory
and structural transformation, the sense of self culti-
vated through learning to labor remains, even though
the work may be long gone.
On the Boat
Learning to labor onboard the boat is structured
by two basic sets of relations: the dynamic between
skipper (manager of labor) and crew (the labor), and
an informal seniority structure among the crew based
on longevity, experience, and relations to the skipper.
Figure 4 depicts the halibut crew of the Silver
Bounty, in the mid-1960s. My father, arms crossed,
seated front on the left, talks of the camaraderie of
long days at sea, fishing 20 out of 24hours. His stories
discount moments of conflict, frustration, even anger.
When they do come up in his stories, such tensions
are most often resolved by someone quitting or being
fired. But for most of the telling, it’s one big happy
family at sea. While conducting research in France,
fishermen would tell me that the crew was like their
family at sea: they never had conflicts. One man, in
talking about the relation between skippers and crews
said, “We get along; we’re like a family.” He paused,
and then said, “It’s not like when you get home from
a trip where it’s a battle as soon as you step through
the door.” I still wonder at how he could jump from
the happy family at sea to annoyance with his unhappy
spouse at home and still use the idea of family to de-
pict harmony and collaboration (Menzies 2011).
The contradictory ideas of conflict within the
heterosexual shore family and harmony among the
androcentric family at sea reveals a fault line between
domains of gendered space and authority. Women
Anthropology of Work Review
© 2019 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. 8
enter the male space of the boat through imagination,
imagery, or discourse—not as real people. In contrast,
men construe the shore and home as female spaces.
From a fisherman’s perspective, then, shore side work-
ers—male or female—are feminized. “Land lubbers”
lack the characteristics of masculinity required of fish-
ermen (McMullen 2018, 17–21). They are slack; they
require protection in a man’s world; and they are un-
able to bear the consequences of shipboard life. You
can’t count on them to get the job done. Fishermen
see in themselves a commonality through their oc-
cupation and practice. This masculinist ideology of
camaraderie covers over the very real differences in
power, authority, and role.
The reality of shipboard life is one of class conflict
muted through the ideology of the male team.4
women who are successful entrants to the fishery take
on a neutered role as “like-a-man” and prefer to be
called fishermen rather than more gender-neutral terms
(Sweet 2017; see also, Meyer 2015). I say more later on
the way the technical process of work also requires a
form of muting social conflict. But, for now, I wish to
examine the social class distinctions and how this plays
out onboard. Elsewhere, I have discussed the dynam-
ics of shipboard class conflict (Menzies 1990a, 1990b,
2002); here, I highlight the way class shapes learning.
Skipper and crew stand in oppositional relations
in terms of the ownership of the means of produc-
tion—the boat, gear, and licenses. Skippers own the
boat (and often the core licenses) or are the owner’s
delegate onboard. The crew owns nothing but their
boots and personal gear. The class distinction is spa-
tially demarcated. The skipper has his own individual
stateroom. The crew, on the boats I speak of, sleep in
a shared fo’c’sle. The skipper’s role also assigns to him
a primary and solitary workspace: the wheelhouse on
the boat. The crew’s domain is the work deck. While
skippers move without impediment throughout all
of the spaces of the boat, the work deck is the social
space dominated by the crew. Even more prosaically,
but no less symbolically, the skipper typically has a
designated space at the galley table where no crew-
member dares sit.
Young crewmembers are taught this social geog-
raphy. During working hours, the crew is expected to
be on deck. A new crewmember might find themselves,
for example, being sworn at by the boat cook or skipper
to get off their lazy ass and get out on deck. A crew
may be expecting to come into the galley for a meal,
but the skipper (who may have just grabbed his own
bite to eat) may yell down from the wheelhouse to get
back out on deck, thereby deferring the crew’s meal
until after fishing is done. No one is handed a sheet of
instructions. Rather, it is all learned through observa-
tion and error.
Part of the message is that a man, a fisherman,
does what is asked. He puts up with rough talk and
hard conditions, and he eventually learns to do it
without being asked. A class ideology of a compliant,
tough, and silent worker is ensnared within an ideol-
ogy of masculinity. My father would say to us, “The
old halibut skippers had crews that didn’t shit, sleep,
or eat.” He seemed to delight in telling us this as we
sat around the galley table eating. It was as though
were really weren’t as tough, not nearly as manly, as
the old-timers. “They never used gloves,” he would
remind us, if anyone mentioned a cut or stiff hands.
Being a man meant taking it as it was dealt.
Figure 4. Author's father, Harry (Basso) Menzies with the crew of the F.V. Silver Bounty, fishing halibut off the coast of
Alaska, circa 1960s.
Anthropology of Work Review
© 2019 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. 9
The deck, despite being the domain of the crew, is
no utopian community of equality. On deck, the inter-
nal dynamics generate an informal hierarchy. In large
enough crews, there may be a deck boss (the skipper’s
delegate or second), who liaises with the skipper and
coordinates the work on the deck. Most typically, it’s a
male hierarchy built on seniority and expertise struc-
tured by age.
In this masculinist environment, directions are
often brusque. This is not to say that there is no com-
passion or concern. Rather, it is to note the specific
cultural form within which workplace directions are
expressed. Nor is this to suggest that women are never
rude. This is to reference again the ways in which
more than technical instructions are conveyed, but
also the appropriate forms of communication: neutral
for normal instructions; sharp and derogatory for cor-
rections; and, rapid, tense, and unadorned in urgent
contexts. Being a man, a fisherman, is to assimilate
these attitudes.
Marine environments are constrained workspaces.
On coastal fishing boats, this is even more the case. In
Figures 5 and 6, we see the same boat rigged to seine
salmon. Figure 5 shows the back half of the working
deck, the drum (large roller that hauls the seine net),
and the stern deck over which the net is hauled. Also
visible, rigged and ready, is the 16-foot skiff used in
the fishing operations. Figure 6 shows the same deck,
but here the focus is on the three crewmembers brail-
ing (or dip netting) fish from a large set. The lines,
lifts, and tools all crowd into this space. Our mobility
is restricted by the act of fishing, yet even as we are
constrained, when we move, we need to move quickly.
Each move is linked to a chain of actions among the
three pictured crewmembers, as well as one crewmem-
ber out of camera shot who is operating the hydraulic
levers lifting and dumping the fish. For our work to
progress, each move must be executed smoothly.
Final Thoughts
Figure 7 was taken on the Breton dragger Lorlie.
In the figure, we see two of the crew on the work
deck of the boat repairing nets torn during a day of
The “on water” aspect of fishing is a peculiar trade
that places workers in close proximity to each other
over long periods of time and requires a measure of
patience and tolerance that many other workers would
not endure. This is a world of work no less fraught by
conflict or animosity than any other. The difference is
that while on the boat, one must maintain a healthy
suspension of conflict in order to get the job done. It
is not an understatement to say that one’s life may well
depend upon one’s colleague. This is not necessarily
different from other high-risk jobs on shore. However,
unlike shore jobs, there are no ways to walk off the job
at sea. We’re stuck with each other and have to make it
work out, at least while we are at sea.
Observing other fisherfolk, like my friends pic-
tured below or fishermen I met in Donegal, Ireland,
allowed me to step outside of the particularities of my
own upbringing in a fishing family, yet it was my ex-
periences back home that helped me understand the
similarities and differences between growing up fish-
ing in Brittany or Donegal and growing up fishing in
BC. There is much that is the same about these com-
munities irrespective of the particularities of local his-
tory and culture.
Two paradoxical characteristics define the oc-
cupational community of fish harvesters: isolation
and connection. Long periods of withdrawal from
mainstream society tend to isolate fish harvesters
from wider social processes, even in the context of
increased electronic communications and social
media. What is lacking are wider, beyond fami-
ly-work group relations. At the same time, crews are
well-connected people who form strong affective re-
lations and, to a certain extent, through their kinfolk,
to a community that extends a bit beyond their daily
Figure 5. Stern of the F.V. Miss Georgina rigged for salmon
drum seining, circa 1980s.
Anthropology of Work Review
© 2019 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. 10
Even small-scale fisheries is also one of the most
globally connected industries in existence. This is not
a new fact, but it is worth noting here. Fish are caught
in one location, processed in another, and often
sold and consumed in yet another space. Fisherfolk
know this. From Senegal (Badkhen 2018) to France
(Menzies 2011) to Canada and beyond (McCormack
2017), fisherfolk are well aware of global currency
markets, international campaigns against fisherfolk
and fishing gear, prices for fish on various markets,
and new techniques and gear.
Despite some ideological desires to androgenize
fisheries, they have stubbornly maintained its mascu-
linist complexion (King 2007; Yodanis 2000). Perhaps
the explanation is, in some way, entwined with the
process of learning to labor. That is, no matter where
in the world of small boat fisheries, gaining one’s sea
legs remains as much about becoming a man as it is
about learning to fish.
This paper has explored the process of learning
to labor on coastal fishing boats not simply in tech-
nical terms, but in the ways that learning to work
Figure 6. Brailing salmon onboard the F.V. Miss Georgina. Author is right midground in figure.
Fi g ure 7. On board the French dragger, Lorlie. Mending the trawl, circa 1990s.
Anthropology of Work Review
© 2019 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. 11
involves learning how to be and how to act, even how
to think. This is a personal reflection that draws pri-
marily from my life and work experience as well as
from the places I have studied. In this male-centered
work world, ideas of masculinity and gender are a con-
stant frame structuring the learning processes. These
frames are constant, but not static. I can see the shift
in ideas of masculinity when I consider my father and
my sons—their worlds are different, and so are their
conceptualizations of gender.
The industry has changed before the eyes of
those men who remain in the fishery. Current regu-
latory systems have contributed to the loss of fishing
opportunities (Davis 1993; Power 2004). Licensing
regimes have restricted the rights of fish harvesters to
take home and eat the very fish they have caught. Yet
men, and a few women, continue to go to sea to make
their livelihood. There is something about this world,
isolated and disconnected as it may be, that draws
people into it year after year.
The men I grew up with, fished with, continue
to engage with, and have written about, share a
passion for their work. This is not a romantic pas-
sion. These men understand the hardships, diffi-
culties, and risks involved. Rather, this is a passion
that comes from the way this kind of work is im-
bued with a strong identity. It’s an identity that is
also tied to one’s sense of being a man. One finds a
sense of eff icacy embedded within the physicality of
fishing—it’s a sense of knowing who one is through
what one can do. Ideologies of gender have shifted
and changed over time, and they will continue to do
so. I look forward to a world in which there is a place
for a masculinity that takes pride in one’s physicality
and competence without it being contingent upon
having women as a foil.
I have spent many hours with my father, first as a child
traveling along in silence, then as a young adult working
alongside him, and now as an adult son supporting him
as his journey nears the finish. This paper is dedicated
to him. A special thanks to Sharon Roseman, colleague
and friend, whose intellectual guidance brought this
paper into print. Thanks also to my colleagues who
read and commented on this paper, in particular Millie
Creighton and Caroline Butler; apologies to you for all
the changes I did not make!
1 At the time, the U.S. government was testing atomic
bombs in Amchitka, Alaska.
2 Over the past several decades, fisheries management has
turned from a primary focus on fish harvesting actions
(type of gear, days at sea, length of boats, etc.) to include
licensing shares of the total allowable catch and allowing
fish harvesters to rent, sell, and/or trade their catch shares.
The result has been a reduction of actual boats involved
in the fishery and an increased cost to fish harvesters to
catch fish since they now have to pay licensing fees and
rent catch shares.
3 See Pinkerton (2013) (who incidentally interviewed my
father) or Butler (2004) for discussions of changes within
the halibut fishery.
4 I am using an explicit Marxist conception of class that
embodies simultaneously ideas of one’s relationship to the
means of production and its subjective self-consciousness
of its existence as an actor in history (see Wolf 1982).
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DOI : 10 .1111/awr.12172
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