Portugal: Bucking Azorean traditions, these women take to sea

Traditionally, the role of women in the Portuguese Azores’ fishing industry was confined to the shore: preparing troughs, bait, and nets, or cleaning and selling the day’s catch.

Women were historically excluded from going out on boats because they were considered not strong enough to do the work. Economic shifts – whether through dwindling fish stocks or competition from bigger boats – changed that slightly.

Why We Wrote This

Despite gender stereotypes and hurdles facing the industry as a whole, these women have overcome barriers to fish commercially in the Azores.

In 2008, of the 153 women who worked in extractive fishing, 12 worked at sea, according to Umar-Açores, a women’s rights group. Today there are only four, perhaps the last of a dwindling breed of iconoclasts as the fishing industry as a whole continues to take a hit.

Lídia Silva and her sister, Sara, helped their father on the family’s boat when their mother stopped going to sea. The low pay drove Sara to seek employment elsewhere, but Lídia has obtained a fishing license and says she hopes to take over from her father when he retires.

She can’t see herself anywhere else.

Azores, Portugal
The traditional role of women in the Azores fishing industry was usually limited to the support they provided on land, whether in the preparation of troughs, bait, and nets or in the logistic work of cleaning and selling fish. But a small number of women, mostly in fishing families, have managed to go to sea, and they’ve found that the grueling work suits them.

In 2008, of the 153 women who worked in extractive fishing, only 12 worked at sea, according to Umar-Açores, a women’s rights group. Today there are only four, possibly the last Azorean fisherwomen. Women have historically been excluded from going out on boats because they were considered not strong enough to do the work, and because they were thought to be a distraction to male crews.

But as small fishing operations have struggled with higher costs, dwindling fish stocks, and steeper competition from larger boats, some fishing families have seen wives or daughters step up out of economic necessity.

Why We Wrote This

Despite gender stereotypes and hurdles facing the industry as a whole, these women have overcome barriers to fish commercially in the Azores.

Some of these women, like Lídia Silva, have found they liked the freedom of being out on the water, and they feel a sense of accomplishment in showing what women are capable of. Ms. Silva and her sister, Sara, helped their father on the family’s boat when their mother stopped going to sea. The low pay drove Sara to seek employment elsewhere, but Lídia has obtained a fishing license and says she hopes to take over from her father when he retires.

Even with all the difficulties inherent to the profession, Ms. Silva can’t see herself anywhere but on the sea.

Sisters Lídia and Sara Silva pull the nets during a trip to the island of São Miguel. The two started helping their father on the family’s boat, and while Sara has left the business, Lídia has her fishing license and hopes to be captain of the boat once her father retires.

The Silva family leaves on the vessel Arca de Noé for another morning of fishing from Porto Formoso on São Miguel.

The Silva sisters separate the fish that will be sold at auction. Small operations like their father’s find it hard to compete with larger boats.

Fátima Garcia takes advantage of an afternoon of stormy seas to prepare the fishing gear.

Eugenia Sousa hauls in her boat at the end of fishing season at the port of São Caetano on the island of Pico.

Eugenia Sousa organizes the heavy traps during lobster fishing on the island of Pico. Since 2006, she’s joined her husband at sea. She confesses that it’s hard, especially when she still has housework, but nowadays she doesn’t see herself having another profession.

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