Gail Atkinson is one of Canada’s very few female lobster harvesters, who employs an almost entirely female crew aboard the Nellie Row.
Gail Atkinson grew up on Cape Sable Island in Southwest Nova Scotia. Coming from a long line of fish harvesters and boat builders, she originally had no desire to follow in her family’s footsteps.
“I ended up starting fishing with my father,” said Atkinson. “I started when I was a little bit older because I couldn’t wait to get out of there. But, something happened, and I just ended up back there and I ended up going for a trip fishing, and I just fell in love with it. The rest was history.”
Atkinson spent almost 20 years fishing with her father before she went off on her own to run an enterprise.
At first, the concept of running her own ship was daunting to her. Atkinson, however, had all the necessary skills. In the time she wasn’t fishing, she made a career in the commercial marine industry, at one point serving as the first mate on the Bluenose II.
“It was hard to get enough confidence together as a woman, I think, to take that plunge,” said Atkinson. “I had all the skills — I’ve got all the navigation skills, I’ve been fishing for 20 years and I see how this is done. I must be able to do this.”
With the price of lobster licenses escalating year over year, Atkinson knew it was now or never to jumpstart her new career path.
“If I was going to get in, I just had to jump. So, it was 2015, I think, that I bought a lobster license and a boat,” said Atkinson.
“We pulled it all together, and I just finished my eighth season here fishing lobster and a few other things out of Lunenburg. It’s been successful so far.”
While she’s experienced success in her business venture so far, Atkinson said being a woman in a male-dominated field doesn’t come without adversities to overcome and points to prove.
“I’m not going to kid myself and say that people aren’t watching, because yes, they’re watching. So, failure is not an option,” said Atkinson.
“I want to do well to prove the point that women can indeed do it, both up in the wheelhouse running the boat and also out there on deck baiting the traps and moving them around and hauling gear and shifting gear — doing all aspects of it and doing it at a high level.”
Challenges aside, Atkinson claimed that being a woman on the water brings some advantages onboard as well. She said that she brings a communicative approach to running the Nellie Row and always keeps her crewmembers in the loop.
“It’s not like they’re on deck doing the same thing over and over and don’t really know what’s going on. I keep them up to pace with what my plan is; if I’m going to shift gear, what we’re doing and what we’re trying to achieve,” said Atkinson.
“There’s sort of more communication, probably, in that way than some of the boats that I have been on… I always felt a bit outside of what the real game plan was when I fished with my dad. I am the captain and I ultimately make the decisions, but I am willing to listen to my crew and they might have more innovative ways of doing something.”
She said that contrary to some fishing trips she’s been on outside of her own enterprise, Atkinson and her crew choose to put the motto of “work smarter, not harder” into practice.
“You can muscle your way through things. I mean, anybody can do it. You can do it for a while; for a few years, but I want people to take care of their bodies and not injure themselves,” said Atkinson.
“I have what is called a sissy bar on a lobster boat. It’s basically a way of sliding a trap across the boat rather than carrying it and laying it on the deck… Rather than struggling with it on a rolling deck, we have a slider bar. I have noticed some of the guys have checked it out and now they have them.”
Beyond operating her business as a lobsterwoman in a lobsterman’s world, Atkinson has also hired mostly female crew members, save one man aboard the Nellie Row.
“I have a guy aboard. He’s very embarrassed about it. He’s a real bear of a guy — he has the beard and the whole thing — he’s a lovely guy, but I know he does feel that sometimes,” said Atkinson.
“Right now, I have Becky with me. She’s 40 or 41 years old and she’s a mother of two teenagers and has a very supportive family who really want to support her dream; she really wants to fish… So, it’s a pretty cool little group we have aboard right now.”
Atkinson thinks she’s a rarity in the industry because, unless one has family or friends to provide work and experience for them, getting into entry-level positions aboard a fishing vessel is especially hard for women.
“People want people with experience,” remarked Atkinson. “And because it’s harder for a woman to get on a boat to get the experience, it’s very hard to get that foot in the door.”
Atkinson goes on to describe a “mini dream” of hers — designing and operating a training course for women to garner experience in the fishing trade, bringing them one step closer to getting their foot in the door to a career in the industry.
“I would love to have a course just to teach women all the basics — the knots, the coiling, how to handle traps, all the splicing and all those seamanship things, so they can say ‘Yes, I do know how to coil, yes I can splice, I know how to handle a trap or overhaul a trap,’” said Atkinson. “All the basics that you need, so they could be far more likely to get a position on a boat.”