SWANS ISLAND — Lesley and Leah Ranquist, sisters in their early 20s, were first introduced to fishing when they were mere kindergarteners. Now they are among the 4 percent of women currently holding commercial fishing licenses in the state of Maine.
Lesley and Leah’s story isn’t just noteworthy because they’re young women making a good living in an industry dominated by men; their introduction to lobster fishing started with a grandfather who fished with only two fingers and a thumb.
In 1959, Ricker Ranquist was working on a major power line when he was shocked, tragically losing one arm just below the shoulder as well as two fingers on the opposite hand. A man of extraordinary determination, before long, he was not only skillfully repairing his own lobster traps, he was building new ones. When his granddaughters Leah and Lesley were four and five, he invited them onboard his boat. By age 11, apprentice licenses in hand, the girls were hauling between 25 and 50 traps alone in the family skiff.
“Our grandfather taught us the meaning of hard work,” Leah said. “Above all, never once did he imply we girls couldn’t do man’s work. I have a college education. But this is where I want to be – chasing lobsters off Swans Island.”
This summer, she set more than 400 traps with hopes to expand to 600, the amount allowed in the island’s conservation area. Lesley, preferring her own pace, has every intention of catching up soon.
Twenty-three-year-old Leah captains her own boat, a 32-foot North Shore, while Lesley, 16 months older, shares her slightly larger 36-foot Osmond Beal with her father, Les Ranquist. Lesley explained, “My dad would much rather be a lobster dealer in the summer and drag for scallops in the winter, so this arrangement works well for us.”
On a foggy Saturday in mid-September, Leah and Lesley ventured south towards Sally’s Ledges, hugging the southern shore of Swans towards Little and Big Bakers islands. The two accomplished women synchronized their movements so gracefully it seemed like a well-rehearsed ballet.
Leah’s sternman had the day off, so Lesley obliged, yet you could see they had spent thousands of hours together, navigating, hauling, sorting and tossing back berried females. Not one instruction was necessary as they shared how challenging it was to find good sternmen willing to work with a female captain, and how important it was to respect the rules of the game. Above all, and despite the challenges, they shared how much they both love lobstering.
“Our father and grandfather taught us well,” Leah said. “We’re aware of the risks, yet we’re also experienced. If you’re smart and willing to work hard, you can make a good living.”
According to the Department of Marine Resources, in 2014, more than 123 million pounds of lobster worth more than $585 million was landed. That constitutes 40 percent of live fish caught in Maine.
Leah and Lesley are examples of women lobster fishing as a career on the water, yet many others have chosen to be at the administrative helm of major organizations that represent the lobster industry, such as the Maine Lobster Dealers’ Association, the Downeast Lobstermen’s Association, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association and the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative. Industry-wide, this presents a much greater collaboration between men and women than some may realize.
It is grueling work physically, yet more and more women are embracing the challenge. On Swans Island alone, there are 10 women who have commercial fishing licenses. As long as there’s enough lobster to go around, the numbers are bound to increase.
“I’m proud of my girls,” Les Ranquist said. “They’ve done well in a man’s world. They hold their own. Both are hard workers, wise to the sea and fearless. That’s pretty unusual.”