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In my first job at a community newspaper in Hawaii in the early 2000s, whenever I had an assignment to write about fishing, I checked to see which editors were working that day. If a certain copy editor was at her desk, I groaned inwardly. I knew that every single reference to “fishermen” in my story would be changed to “fishers”—even if those fishers were men.
At the time, I thought the gender-neutral “fishers” sounded awkward and forced. So when I wrote a story about fisheries economics for Hakai Magazine recently, I surprised myself by noticing that I had used the term “fishers” without a second thought.
It turns out, I’m not alone. According to new research, “fishers” has been gaining ground. At least in scientific journals, “fishers” outpaced “fishermen” for the first time in 2013, a trend that continued in 2014.
“I had looked at this once before, about 10 years ago, and it wasn’t like that at all,” says Trevor Branch, a fisheries researcher at the University of Washington, who co-authored the new paper. “It was maybe 40 percent. It flipped.”
But the study found that shift hasn’t taken place across the board. “Fishers” is most commonly used in conservation biology, as well as in Australia. “Fishermen,” however, is strongly preferred by both women and men working in the North American fishing industry.
Interestingly, when it came to scientific papers, word choice did not seem to be affected by the gender of the lead author.
I’m not the only journalist who has an opinion on the subject. I put the question out to several writers, and got arguments on both sides.
“I prefer the term ‘fishers’ because it’s inclusive of women,” says Jennifer Crain, who writes about local food industries, including fishing and shellfish, in the South Sound region of Washington State. “Considering the normalization of terms such as ‘police officer’ and ‘flight attendant,’ it makes sense.”
Robin Meadows, a science writer in San Francisco, says she uses “fishermen” to avoid confusion—“fisher” is also the name of an adorable animal in the weasel family.
Vermont-based Madeline Bodin, who has covered wildlife conservation for more than 25 years, says a conservationist told her a decade ago that the gender-neutral “fishers” was the preferred term. “I’ve been editing myself ever since.”
Clare Leschin-Hoar, a San Diego-based writer who has extensively covered food policy, the fishing industry, and seafood, had a strong opinion. “I’ve met many female fishermen,” she says, “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.”
She says women in the fishing industry see the term as a badge of honor. “They worked very hard to become commercial fishermen, and they want that respect,” she says.
But Leschin-Hoar agrees that the tide seems to be turning. Although she still uses “fishermen” in stories, more and more editors ask her to use the gender-neutral term. “I think 2011 is the first time I had an editor try to change the term to ‘fisher,’” she recalls. “I think it’s coming. Editors want to be politically correct, even if it’s not what fishermen want.”
Does word choice matter? Probably, but not necessarily in the way that some might hope, says Danika Klieber, a feminist fisheries scientist at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland and co-author of the paper.
She noted that some people insist on using a gender-neutral term, in the hopes that it will promote equality in society. But “we didn’t find that’s actually true,” she says.
The team looked at the words for “fishers” and “fishermen” in more than 75 different languages, and found that many countries that use more neutral terminology continue to have highly gendered division of labor. “Gender-neutral terms did not mean gender equality in fisheries,” she says.