Keeping it neutral

What do you call a person who fishes? The conventional wisdom is changing, and for the better.

Illustration by Kallum Best

Illustration by Kallum Best

This is an editorial for Issue 29 of Lateral, by Life Science editor Andrew Katsis. Despite studying birds for his PhD, Andrew moonlights as Communications Manager for the Australian Society for Fish Biology.

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

In the popular imagination, fishing is overwhelmingly associated with men. When I picture the archetypal person fishing, it is Santiago, the old, grizzled man who grappled with a marlin in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. This stereotype holds true to some extent: In a 2009 survey by the Victorian Fisheries Authority, nearly 90% of recreational fishers were, indeed, male. That is probably why, for decades, the default term for somebody who fished was ‘fisherman’.

Women also fish, of course, but you wouldn’t know it from reading the scientific literature. For a long time, ‘fishermen’ was the default term for people who fished, regardless of gender, until researchers started looking for a gender-neutral alternative. In the 1960s, ‘fishers’ began to appear in scientific journals, but only sporadically at first. It grew strength over the years. ‘Fishermen’ remained the most common usage until 2013, when ‘fishers’ finally overtook it for the first time. (The alternatives “fisherfolk” and “fisher-people” are also used, but rarely).

Intriguingly, Australia has led the charge in using ‘fishers’ rather than ‘fishermen’. According to an analysis published in 2015, about 70% of Australian papers favoured the gender-neutral term, compared to just 49% in North America, 37% in Europe and 21% in Asia. This preference seems to be largely dictated by journal guidelines, and hence to an extent by the whims of journal editors. For instance, the journal Conservation Biology requires authors to use ‘fishers’, while Fishery Bulletin falls firmly into the opposite camp.

The use of ‘fishermen’ as a catch-all for people who fish seems especially egregious when you consider the rich cultural legacy of women fishing. According to historian Anna Clark, who wrote The Catch: The Story of Fishing in Australia, much of the fishing in pre-colonial Aboriginal communities was performed by women. “Men had spears and they did a lot of spear-fishing,” Clark explained in an interview this year, “but it was the women who went out in boats, their little nawi canoes, and hand-lined for snapper and whiting and dory.”

Researchers in North America have been slower to transition to ‘fishers.’ One reason for this, perhaps, is to avoid confusion with the fisher, a small carnivorous mammal in the weasel family. In the meantime, many women in North America’s male-dominated fishing industry have adopted ‘fisherman’ as a badge of pride, and consider the gender-neutral term a slight of sorts. This suggests that fishermen may linger in the lexicon for some time yet.

Rebranding fishermen as fishers may seem like a small step — some would even dismiss it as semantics — but it does, I think, get us closer to the truth of the matter, which in science can often be a slippery thing.



This issue, we are catering to every fish enthusiast, regardless of gender. We have timed our theme to coincide with the annual conference of the Australian Society for Fish Biology, who are meeting in Melbourne from October 7-11 to share the latest research on Australian fish and fisheries.

Because scientists can’t have all the fun, we are also hosting Australia’s Favourite Fish, a national survey to crown our country’s most beloved species. While pulling together this competition, I was genuinely surprised and impressed by the sheer diversity of Australia’s fish fauna. This continent and its surrounding waters boast more than 5,000 fish species — from great white sharks to blind cave eels — and about a quarter of them are found nowhere else in the world. For voting purposes, we have whittled down this diversity to a 51-species shortlist.

May the best fish win.