Tele Aadsen

When it comes to commercial fishing in Alaska, women have a small piece of the pie. They make up about 11 percent of Alaska residents who hold a crew license. About 4 percent of permit holders are Alaskan women.

The numbers come from the state’s economic trends newsletter, and they only include residents of Alaska. So, painting a picture of exactly how many women work in the industry is difficult.

But painting a picture of their experiences might be a little easier. That’s what the Sitka Maritime Heritage Society hopes to do Thursday night at its annual meeting. The group is convening a panel of women to discuss their time in the commercial fishing industry.

Tele Aadsen joins Linda Behnken, Linda Danner, Pat Kehoe, Marie Laws and Coral Pendell at 6 p.m. Thursday inside Harrigan Centennial Hall. The event is free and open to the public.

Aadsen spoke with KCAW earlier this week. Here’s her interview:

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Tele Aadsen’s life at sea actually begins a few miles inland, in Wasilla, with her parents.

“They had a dream – a landlocked dream – of going to sea, so they started building a 45-foot sailboat in the backyard,” she said. “With the full-time jobs of being veterinarians, it took seven years to complete.”

When it was done, they sold the veterinary practice, launched the sailboat from Anchorage, and sailed across the Gulf of Alaska.

AADSEN: We landed in Sitka. That was in 1984, when there were a lot of fishing families, with young kids, running around in Thomsen Harbor. Folks who made trolling look like a lot of fun, like it was something a family could do together. So they rigged up the sailboat to be a hand troller, and that was how we got started.”

KCAW: I would imagine, it sounded like one of those things … ‘Boy, that looks like a fun way to make a living,’ and it turned out to be a lot harder.”

AADSEN: I’ve just recently been going through my folks’ original log books. The very first few entries they’re out hand trolling by Vitskari Rocks, and they’ll get two coho a day and 10 humpies. There’s a note, “We made $19 today.”

But it can’t have been all bad, because the family soon upgraded. They built the Willie Lee II, a 54-foot troller, and fished it for a few years. Eventually, Aadsen’s parents split up. Her dad took a job on land, and her mom took the helm of the boat.

Aadsen says looking back on it, she’s really proud of what her mom did, and appreciates all the hard work that went into running a boat and raising a daughter at the same time. But back then, it was not always easy.

“I was a really angry, obnoxious teenager,” she said. “We made one trip, we stayed out for 26 days, just the two of us on that boat together. A boat never gets so small as when you have two people in a conflicted, tense relationship, let alone a mother and a daughter.”

Aadsen spent a little more time fishing, including for a captain who she says marveled at the novelty of having a woman on his crew.

“I got really tired of being teased as the liberal little college girl, and it made me really bitter at an industry that I loved a lot,” she said. “So I left after that season and took a break and went and did social work in Seattle.”

After six years living paycheck to paycheck, she decided to come back to fishing, and to Alaska. And she says she returned to an industry that felt much different.

AADSEN: I see a lot more women running their own boats. I see a lot of young women running their own boats. I see so many more deckhands. I see male skippers who openly prefer to hire women, believing that they’re a superior crew, which may or may not be true. But I see an openness I wasn’t aware of when I was younger.

KCAW: Would you encourage a young woman today to get into fishing?

AADSEN: I would encourage any young person today to get into fishing. And I would certainly encourage a young woman to, also. Anyone young and green who’s coming to the fleet, I always feel protective of them. They have no idea what’s a good boat … or a good captain. And I think that’s particularly relevant for young women.

KCAW: As a person who’s a professional fisherwoman – so, what’s the proper nomenclature? Is fisherwoman OK? Fisher? Does everyone get called fisherman?

AADSEN: I think whatever you say is fine. We all have a different opinion. It’s just like any group. We all have the term we attach to. It’s funny, because I’m super sensitive to using gender-specific terms for any other industry or group, and for myself I adopt fisherman. It just doesn’t make any sense.

KCAW: Everybody’s different.

AADSEN: Exactly.

KCAW: OK, so as a fisherman you’re investing a lot of time and emotion and money in something that’s pretty risky. Do you ever sit there and think “What am I doing?”

AADSEN: Even having done this for 26 seasons, it’s still scary as a profession. Are we going to make a living at this this summer? How are we investing or banking everything on that ultimately this season is going to work out? They all have before one way or another. It is pretty scary in that sense.

KCAW: You also have a lot of love for it.

AADSEN: I have so much love for it, and that’s the thing: My partner also grew up fishing and so he has the same amount of love for it. Neither of us ever imagined we’d find a person that matched our passion and drive for fishing. To have that, and be able to share it together, that makes all the worst days, and all the worst uncertainty, it makes it worthwhile.

KCAW: What I hear you saying when you talk about fishing is that it’s the best job ever.

AADSEN: It is definitely the best job ever now in February when I’ve forgotten mostly about all the worst days of last season. There are days during the summer with the sideways rain and you’re not catching and it’s just miserable out and things are breaking. You forget about those days because the other days are just so good, and the privilege of our life is just so good.