Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Women Who Fish Have Stories To Tell: Part 2

By Erin Burkett, Michigan Sea Grant Graduate Research Fellow

In my previous blog, I described the process of facilitating a community-engaged research project about Michigan women who fish for recreation. I used a method called photovoice that combines individual photography with group discussion and storytelling to highlight 15 participants’ unique perspectives. The project culminated in two major events: a photography exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of the Keweenaw and a public presentation at a meeting of the Metro-West Steelheaders Association.
April Tang presenting to the Metro-West Steelheaders Association in Livonia, Michigan, on June 4, 2019. Photo: Erin Burkett
Now that the major events are wrapped and the project is coming to a close, I am writing up my findings for publication in a scientific journal. There are a lot of options for analyzing qualitative social science data, and I’m using a process called grounded theory. A lot of research applies a pre-existing scientific or theory-based idea to data, but grounded theory is useful when you want to remain true to participants’ own words, ideas, and personal expertise. The major steps of grounded theory include data coding (assigning labels to sections of text that represent what each section is about), memoing (writing down analytical ideas as you go through your data), and developing a case-specific theory or theories. Combining photovoice with grounded theory is a feminist participatory approach to social research because women’s fishing experiences aren’t often shared or highlighted in academic studies.

One of my findings is that, for these women, fishing isn’t about the fish. Well, almost. Catching a beautiful brook trout or their first northern pike was certainly memorable for these women, but fishing provides them with many other benefits and satisfying experiences. For some, connecting to water and nature and “getting away from it all” was important, and for others it is the empowerment and sense of accomplishment that fishing brings that drives them to fish. 
"Sleepy rivers soothe the soul" Photo: Cori Fitzpatrick
Many of the women expressed being the “token woman” in their circle of fishing buddies, and this certainly created social obstacles to fishing that we discussed quite a bit. But this wasn’t always the case. A few learned all they know about fishing from a strong female role model like a grandmother or mother, and by participating in the project the participants made new, fishing-related connections with each other and other women in their social circles. Finding other women to fish with was particularly important to April Tang, project participant and member of the Flygirls of Michigan: "I joined the Flygirls of Michigan group and the women there have helped me build my skills and opened up more fishing opportunities. On this guided trip, I caught my biggest steelhead so far. It was a brutally cold day, like most days when steelhead run the rivers. My boatmate and I persisted, and she ended up catching an even bigger beast! The Flygirls have really been a wonderful, supportive community for me.”
April Tang with her steelhead on a freezing day on the river. Photo: April Tang
Uncovering and highlighting stories of women fishing is important because this doesn’t often happen in the public eye. It can also help us to overcome what are sometimes very deeply-rooted beliefs about women in the context of outdoor recreation. It also reminds us that women cannot all be lumped into a single group because they are each individuals with varying identities and personal reasons for fishing.