All-female lobster crew making waves as the season begins in Nova Scotia

The Nellie Row looks just like any other boat slicing through the waves and darkness of the North Atlantic on the first day of Canada’s most lucrative lobster fishery.

But the cheerful red and white vessel is distinct from hundreds of other boats racing out to sea Tuesday morning in one crucial aspect: there are no men aboard.

Gail Atkinson is captain of the boat, named after her grandmother — a trailblazer like herself — and is leading what they believe to be Nova Scotia’s first all-female lobster crew.   

“I’ve gotten all kinds of messages from all over the place even as far as Louisiana from another female crew and it’s been fantastic,” she said. “But I kind of feel like I’ve put a lot of pressure on my crew.”

And the stakes are already high. 

Nearly 1,700 boats will be fishing in lobster fishing areas 33 and 34, which run from Dartmouth, down the province’s South Shore through to Digby and combine to make up Canada’s largest commercial lobster fishery.

Everyone is vying for part of a catch that was last valued at $502 million in the 2017-2018 season — and success is dependent on pulling in a strong haul in the first week.  

It’s an extraordinarily physical job. 

And it’s one that’s been largely done by men with ice crystals in their beards and cheeks ruddy from the wind and the salt.

But Atkinson says that picture is changing; she’s seen a shift in the 26 seasons since her father first took her on to fish tuna with his crew in 1993. Then, she said women supported the boats from the shore, but in the last number of years she’s seen more getting on with crews as a bander — a less physical job of sorting and banding lobsters as they’re pulled from the traps. 

“Now they’re also working out on deck, they’re boarding traps, they’re running traps, and I don’t think that’s going to slow down any,” she said “I think you’re going to see more and more women out there.”

Born to the sea

The fact that her crew is made up of only women is happenstance, Atkinson said. None of them would be aboard the Nellie Row if its captain didn’t believe they could handle the 20-hour days, icy decks or the raw physicality of baiting and loading the 250 traps she’s carrying.

Her wife, Kathryn Moore, joined her on the water five years ago. The other members of the crew are veteran sailors, one on the Bluenose II and another on the Picton Castle, but they’ve spent little time fishing. 

I had a guy shout to me … ‘You should be home in the kitchen doing the dishes,’ and I don’t think he was joking and I wasn’t very happy about that.– Gail Atkinson, captain of the Nellie Row

Experience is the only teacher, Atkinson said. While it might slow her down for this year’s catch, she said the investment in training her own crew will pay off in the future. 

Atkinson herself was born to this life.

She grew up in the fishing village of Cape Sable Island, which sits at the southwestern tip of Nova Scotia and is hugged by the water on all sides. Her grandmother Nellie built a career at a shipyard, while her father was a fisherman and made Atkinson one of his crew.

That first summer trawling for tuna hooked her, but didn’t prepare her for the winter. 

“Lobstering was a rude awakening to be completely honest,” she said, laughing. “It was cold and I was sick, but I liked the challenge of it so I stuck it out.”

Other challenges have been less rewarding.

“Way, way early — back in the 90s when I first started — I had a guy shout to me … ‘You should be home in the kitchen doing the dishes,’ and I don’t think he was joking and I wasn’t very happy about that,” she said. “That was ages ago, about 20 years ago now, but I never forgot it.” 

The Nellie Row is named after Atkinson’s grandmother who worked in shipbuilding at a time when few women did. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

Standing her ground

Things escalated when she got her own boat in 2015. Atkinson found that someone had shot the balloons marking some of her traps and cut the lines on them, hauling off her gear. 

“Well my first season, I think maybe I was getting a few warning shots across the bow, so to speak — and quite literally.”

But Atkinson refused to be intimidated. She said most of the fishermen know her, have fished or sailed alongside her for decades and treat her like one of their own.

She’s part of the community, said fellow fisherman David Croft.

“She’s been doing it ever since she was little, she was a lobster fisherman with her father,” he said. “That’s what she’s done and that’s what she’s grown up to do.”

Finding that community on the boat is one of the things Atkinson loves, something she hopes to pass on to the crew members she’s christening this season. 


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