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There will be an all-female crew aboard the Nellie Row when the LFA 33 lobster fishery opens this fall.
“They want the opportunity and its hard to get the opportunity when you’re a woman,” says Captain Gail Atkinson, who along with her partner Kath Moore are going into their fifth season at the helm of the Nellie Row.
Joining Moore on deck this season will be fellow sea salts Annie Featherstone and Sophie Mantel. Both have experience on the water in the tall ship world, said Atkinson, but not on fishing boats.
“I don’t know if they can do it or not. I don’t know if they know whether they can but I want them to have a chance,” said Atkinson. “I know they will give it their all, that’s for sure.”
Leading up to the season, Atkinson was teaching her new crew members the ropes aboard the Nellie Row.
“I told them they better learn to coil and keep up with the hauler because I’m not going to slow the hauler down,” says Atkinson. “I can’t cut them any slack. It’s a business.”
For Atkinson, this will be her 27th season fishing lobsters.
“I started fishing with the old man out of West Head (Cape Sable Island) in 1992, right up until I got my own licence, actually.”
Growing up in a fishing family, Atkinson helped with a lot of the prep work on land that goes into lobster fishing.
“There’s pictures of me when I was five years old with a hammer building traps with my father so I always did all the prep stuff, filling bait bags, back then we built our own wooden traps. I always loved that yet as far as I ever got was to the wharf and the boat. I never got to go out fishing.”
In those days a girl on a boat wasn’t really done, Atkinson says.
Atkinson made her first fishing trip in the early '90s when her father was fishing for bluefin tuna.
“I asked if I could go out and I went out and I thought wow, what an incredible experience. It was amazing. I thought I’ve got to do this. Of course, that was in the summer. In winter time it’s a totally different game.”
Atkinson decided if she wanted to go lobstering, she had to try it.
“I tried it and I just loved it,” she says. “It was so hard and I was so sick but I wanted to do it so much. It was an incredible challenge. Something inside of me just had to do it. That in the blood thing is kind of true.”
Atkinson says one of her big regrets is she waited until she was 27 to start her lobster fishing career.
“I wish I had started way earlier,” she says.
Atkinson made the transition to owning her own boat and licence in 2015 at the age of 50.
“It’s a big risk. It’s so expensive but it was one of those things. If I’m going to do it, I got to go now,” she says. “It was a total crap shoot. Who knew how it was going to turn out, but it’s worked out all right.”
Atkinson and Moore have invested in a larger fishing vessel going into this season; a 50-by-20 foot Atkinson hull from Cape Island. The Atkinson haul is a type of Cape Islander boat construction style.
“I believe in the Cape Islander,” says Atkinson. “It’s the same hull as my dad’s boat. I fished on his for 15 years and really like it.”
Like their first fishing boat, this one too is red, and named the Nellie Row, in honour of Atkinson’s grandmother Nellie.
“She worked in the boatbuilding industry up until her retirement,” Atkinson says. “Hers, and my mom's favorite colour is red. The row part comes, of course, from the dory rowing and all the heritage that brings with it.”
Atkinson, who fishes of her home port of Lunenburg, says she’s “passionate” about the lobster fishery.
“Some people think it’s the most repetitive thing. You’re out there in the winter, lobstering, but every day is like Christmas day. The traps are coming up. Are they going to have lobsters in them? It’s exciting.”
Atkinson said she notices more and more women are getting into the fishery all the time, which is fantastic.
“I don’t know how many have their own rig. I know there are more going banding for sure and you see them on the rail now too, so we’ve come a long way.”
Atkinson has often joked she should help set up something to help train women for working on a lobster fishing boat.
“Lobstering is all or nothing as soon as the gun goes off. You don’t get a chance to ease into it, which is really hard on the body. You start out wide open, it trickles down then back up in the spring. It makes it hard for brand new people to get their foot in the door, especially women.”
Atkinson says there’s no denying the job is incredibly demanding physically.
“When you first start you do everything the hardest possible way but once you get going you can work easy and work smart,” she says.
“I’m trying to set the boat up in such a way that it does make it a bit easier,” she adds, such as a sliding bar to slide traps onto the deck, and using grill bottom pots that are big but not super heavy.
“You’ve got to be smart about it, work with the motion of the boat,” she says.
“It’s a hard job at the worst time of year in one of the roughest oceans, is super competitive and I’m competitive. I want to do well. I’m not going to slack off any” she says, and her new crew knows that.
“You have to invest in people,” Atkinson says. “I really hope they can make it.”