Why Women Who Fish Are Still Fishermen

It's clear when language is sexist—except when the people you're talking about disagree

Word Nerd
Word Nerd

“Let’s say you buy your seafood from a store that correctly labels its fish, or from a fisherman you trust.”

The construction of this sentence—from an article recently published on this very website—is relatively simple and straightforward; the idea it expresses is clear and unambiguous. And yet this collection of words caused me more trouble than almost any other single sentence I’ve worked on since I arrived at The Walrus.

Perhaps you already know why. There’s one word, one single frustrating word, that makes this snippet of text downright controversial: “fisherman.”

As a copy editor, I am responsible for catching and querying sexist language—indeed, biased language of all sorts. I will, without hesitation, highlight “mankind,” or “fireman,” or “manpower” (“humanity,” “firefighter,” and “staff” are all reasonable and inconspicuous substitutes)—but I generally leave “fisherman” as is. Why, if I allow there are issues with “fireman,” do I hesitate to change “fisherman”? Isn’t it just as objectionable?

For many, the answer is simple: yes. After the piece went up, we received a letter from a reader who was concerned that The Walrus was in the business of using—or at failing to detect and eradicate—sexist language. That response is entirely sensible and understandable: the word suggests that all those who fish professionally are male. It seemingly makes assumptions about the people who have this job and the people who are likely to have this job in the future—its use could potentially alienate women who fish and give young girls the impression that this vocation is off limits to them.

For many copy editors, though, the answer is frustratingly complex: it involves the weighing of competing interests and an understanding that whatever they do, someone is going to be frustrated. If they do go with “fisherman,” many readers will be concerned; if they don’t, they risk irritating the actual women who fish for a living.

Women who fish, you see, seem to overwhelmingly prefer the term “fisherman.” As Clare Leschin-Hoar, who writes about the fishing industry, told Hakai Magazines Ilima Loomis, “I’ve met many female fishermen…I ask them all the time what they prefer, and 100 percent of the time, they have told me they like the term fishermen, they don’t want to be called fishers.” A CBC article detailing the rise of women in P.E.I.’s lobster fishery quotes captain Bethany McCarthy as saying, “I don’t do any of this political correctness” and “I’m out here the same as everybody else. I fish. I tell people I’m a fisherman.” When the CBC started using the word “fisher” in the late ’90s, it received angry letters from across the country. “One producer,” writes the CBC’s Blair Shewchuk in a tour de force article about the fallout, “said her newsroom had banned fisher because women in the industry ‘are proud to be called fishermen, a la chairmen.’” The Globe and Mail Style Book ably sums up the dilemma: “We encourage inclusive terms, but women in the fishing industry on both coasts have made it clear they call themselves fishermen and take strong exception to what they regard as a bureaucratic, politically correct term.”

A complicating factor in all of this is that no clear and pleasing alternative exists. As The Canadian Press Stylebook writes, “There is not an entirely satisfactory substitute for ‘fisherman,’ although ‘fisher,’ ‘fish harvester,’ ‘fish industry worker,’ ‘fishing licensees’ or the phrase ‘fishermen and women’ are all possibilities.” Some have objected to “fisher” on the grounds that it also refers to a kind of animal—“a large N American arboreal carnivore of the weasel family, Martes pennant, valued for its fur,” according to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary (interestingly enough, the second definition given is “a fisherman, either professional or recreational” [italics mine]). Others point to the fact that it sounds like “fissure.” My primary issue with “fisher”—besides the fact that it’s become a loaded term—is that it sounds either old-timey (some dictionaries give the fishing-related usage as “archaic”) or oddly fanciful (“The fishers ply the blue-green waters, far from the echoing caverns and spark-lit forges of the dwarves”).

Fisheries and Oceans Canada has now adopted “fish harvester”—as has at least one industry council, the Canadian Council of Professional Fish Harvesters. (I realize “harvester” is a versatile word, but whenever I hear it, I think of fields of gently swaying cod, and halibut pushing their little heads through the soil to meet the sun.) But look at a list of fishing-related organizations, and you’ll notice that “fisherman” is still clearly in evidence. Hakai cites research indicating that “fisher” is beginning to make inroads in scientific journals, but notes that “fisherman” is still “strongly preferred by both women and men working in the North American fishing industry.”

So what is a copy editor to do—offend readers rightly concerned about sexist language, or offend the workers themselves, who are rightly concerned about being able to determine what they’re called? “One logical conclusion is that fishermen is the right choice until women in the industry start calling themselves fisher,” writes Shewchuk. Or “fish harvester.” Or, God forbid, “fishing licensee.” (My half-serious suggestion, “fishcatcher,” has yet to gain traction.) I continue to feel torn, but I agree that the conclusion Shewchuck suggests is a logical one. If a writer wants to go with “fisher,” I won’t reject it out of hand—but unless and until women in the industry change their opinion, I won’t be throwing “fisherman” back.

Sarah Sweet
Sarah Sweet (@catastrophizer) is the magazine's copy editor.