My Old Man and the Sea
Every morning, Corey Wheeler Forrest, 41, wakes up at 4:00 a.m. Her family’s fishing-trap boat leaves Rhode Island’s Sakonnet Harbor at 6:00 a.m., and Wheeler Forrest—a third-generation fisher—will be on it rain or shine. She is joined by a crew of fishers that includes her 70-year-old father, Alan Wheeler, and her brother Luke, 43. They spend the morning catching live fish to be sold to fish markets across North America. During their busy season, in May, Wheeler Forrest’s day might not end until 5:00 p.m.
Commercial fishing is a major industry in Rhode Island—one that continues to be male-dominated. (Less than 15 percent of the people working in farming, fishing, and forestry jobs in the state are women.) And as is the case anywhere in the country, if you do meet a woman working in commercial fishing, you can bet her dad did too: a recent study published in the New York Times found that an American woman whose father was a commercial fisher is 362 times more likely to become a fisher than the rest of the population.
“If it wasn’t for my family, I don’t know if I would have even thought about trap fishing,” says the former English major, who thinks she might otherwise have become a teacher. “It’s kind of an intimidating thing for anybody to walk into.” As it is, she’s been working on the docks and on the boats with her dad since college. “It’s so embedded in us,” she says of her family. “Whenever we go out together, we talk about fishing. It’s part of our language.”
In May, New York–based photographer Cole Barash followed Wheeler Forrest, her father, and their crew onto their 62-foot fishing boat, the Maria Mendonsa, as they fished for scup: steaming out to the traps, hauling in the nets, and sorting the fish. Below, Wheeler Forrest shares what lured her back to the family business, and how she got hooked.
My grandfather, George Wheeler, started Point Trap Co. in the late 1940s at Sakonnet Point in Little Compton, Rhode Island. He died in his sleep at 87 years old and worked until the day he died. My dad will be the same. My mom’s dad also fished. I think being in Rhode Island, everybody had their foot in some sort of fishery.
I started fishing later in the game, as far as my brothers were concerned. They definitely grew up going on the boat with my dad. I had no desire. I actually thought they were all a bunch of jerks. I did my own thing for a while—I lifeguarded and worked retail, that sort of thing.
Growing up, my dad worked pretty much every single day of the year. The type of fishery that we do is seasonal, but when he wasn't doing this, he had a lobster boat in the wintertime. I think the only day he really had off was Christmas Day. He would be there for my gymnastics meets, but he definitely missed a lot. I don’t ever look back and resent that—that was just normal for us. My mom, Bobbie, was a stay-at-home mom.
I studied English literature in college. Then my dad came to me my freshman year. The old trade of mending fishing nets, nobody really knew how to do it, and the guys who were doing it at the time were in their 70s and 80s; there was no one behind them learning. So he said, “This will be a good opportunity. You need a summer job—why don't you check it out?”
Once I started, I just absolutely loved it. I was working with these old-timers, who were telling stories that went back to, like, Prohibition time, and singing sea shanties. It opened up a whole different world for me. Then I was down at the dock one day when some guys didn't show up to work. My dad said, “Hey, we're shorthanded—can you jump on the boat?”
I thought I’d end up becoming a teacher and fishing summers. Right after college I did real estate for a while. I hated it. I lasted four months. Then it was the start of fish season. I think in my head there were times when I was fishing and I was like, I don't know if I want to do this, but when I was away from it I felt homesick. I could not stay away. I was actually studying for my GREs, and then fishing just kind of got in the way. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
“Whenever we go out together, we talk about fishing. It’s part of our language.”
Now we run two trap companies. When I first started going on the boat, the guys were very old-school. They were very nervous about having a girl there. There were days when this 70-year-old guy, who’d sold us one of the companies, didn’t even want me to get in the boat when it was really rough. I was like 20, and looking at him like, “You’re 70. I can definitely handle it.” That was my reaction. I wasn’t thinking it was because I was a girl, even though now I think that’s where he was coming from. Whereas my dad was like, “Get in the boat!” It didn’t matter how rough it was. He knew I could do it. I’m smart, and I’m careful, and I’m strong. I think if my dad wasn’t so encouraging and confident in me, I would have had a lot harder of a time.
I’m also the fish dealer for our company, so I’m responsible for selling all the fish we catch. We catch all kinds of fish: scup, striped bass, black sea bass, bluefish, fluke, butterfish, and squid, to name a few. Today, for example, we had 15,000 pounds of fish. A lot of that goes to the Fulton Fish Market in New York. The fish end up there the same night we catch them—they’re really fresh. I also do some secretarial stuff: I do all the fish reports. I do all the invoices. I do more than pretty much anybody else, including my father and my brother. They’d be screwed if they didn’t have me [laughs].
There are definitely a lot of multigenerational fishers. But there are no other women down where we are—I mean, I don’t know any personally. Even at the Fulton Fish Market, I’m the only woman walking through that place. It’s interesting. I’ve seen a lot of other women doing it on Instagram, but I feel like it’s a lot of families in Alaska.
My husband is not involved in the business at all. We have two children: Finn is 15, and Isley is 11. When they were born, we couldn’t afford childcare, so I took a couple of years off from being on the boat and worked on the dock side of things. That’s how I got involved with the paperwork and invoicing. My kids grew up being there in all sorts of weather—they were there every day for the first two years of their lives. Finn got seasick once and got it in his head that that’s what it would be like every time he was out on the boat, but Isley is a total mama’s girl. She’s really into fishing. I swear, she’s better than some of the guys down on the dock.
The fishing life isn’t easy. There are good years and there are bad years. I think my mom would have liked to see us have more stability. My older brother went to Maine Maritime Academy, and he could have ended up working on oil rigs making ten times more money, but he ended up back here right after school. None of us have a retirement plan. But as far as my dad is concerned, I think he loves having us with him.
“When I first started going on the boat, the guys were very old-school. Whereas my dad was like, ‘Get in the boat!’ He knew I could do it.”