'This is where I need to be': the UK women defying fishing stereotypes

 Amy Rose, fishing in Newlyn, said her girlfriends were excited about her job. 

Superstition among fishing crews has traditionally said that women on ships are bad luck – and it is among many of the reasons women in the fishing industry are in short supply.

Now though, they are being urged to join Britain’s fishing fleet by the first UK organisation to emerge that is actively encouraging women to join the fishing industry.

UK Women in Fisheries was set up last month to get more women involved as fleet managers, skippers, commercial fishers, fishmongers, processors or gutters, among other roles.

It comes after the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme sparked a row for using the term “fisherpeople’” in a news report. The Europe editor Katya Adler’s gender-neutral description during a package on Brexit talks caused some listeners to note that women only fill a fraction of the jobs, pointing to a study finding only 2.7% are female.

Fishing, and control of who fishes in UK waters, became a central part of the Brexit negotiations and some industry leaders claim the deal struck with Brussels will do long-term damage to their prospects.

Laney Black, 48, one of the co-founders of UK Women in Fisheries who works on a trawler, says she would love to see more women involved. Black trawls for langoustines and works 18-hour shifts most days. 

“Our days are dependent on the tide and the moon and the weather but on an average day we would be leaving harbour around teatime, so 4 or 5pm, and by the time we return to land with langoustines cleaned up it is around an 18-hour shift. It’s mostly a night shift but can vary – sometimes a day shift dependent on tides,” she said.

The aim of their new not-for-profit company is to bring women who fish together. “We are drawing the plans for it at the moment but the main goal is to mentor and support, and give training for women in all sectors of the fishing industry,” she said.

The inspiration behind the project came to Black after she was involved in a government-funded study a year ago that meant she met more women who work on boats. “I found it inspiring to meet women who had up until now a very solitary career,” she said. 

Black added that it was hard to tell how many women fished but she did not know many others on trawlers. She said women “don’t realise it is something they can or want to do”.

“It’s very male-dominated,” she said. “The old-fashioned views about women on boats is an issue. At careers day [in school] you never have anyone coming up telling you that you can work in fishing … It still seems to be a taboo but it does seem to be changing and we are trying to combat that kind of thinking.”

Another woman who has been promoting fishing through her Instagramaccount is Ashley Mullenger, 33, who has been commercially fishing off Norfolk for more than two years. “About 11 years ago I booked an angling trip and I went out and had a light bulb moment and thought ‘this is where I need to be’. The skipper could not get rid of me after that till eventually he said just turn up when you want and jump on and have a go and asked me to work on a commercial boat, gutting fish.”

Ashley Mullenger
Ashley Mullenger: ‘I had a lightbulb moment and thought this is where I need to be.’ Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Her work is very physical. “It’s a long day,” she said, which means it can be a hard industry for mothers. “If you’re at sea 12-16 hours that will make it hard [for women with children]. You need a good support network to help you.”

“It is a very male-dominated industry and a lot of women may be intimidated by that but that may be their own preconceptions. Everyone I have met in the industry – mostly men – are really supportive.”

Women who fish were “few and far between”, she said, but she would like to see more getting involved. 

Amy Isobel Rose, 31, works in Newlyn, a fishing town in south-west Cornwall, and said she had worked at sea on yachts since she was 21. “I came back to Penzance last year with the intention of having a year off at home then going back to yachting at the start of this year, which of course was ruined by Covid.”

“Having grown up in Penzance, I went to school with most of the fishermen or their kids, so it was just a case of convincing one to take me to sea. Eventually, Danny, my current skipper, agreed to. 

“He thought I just wanted to go for a jolly, but as soon as I let the lines go from the quay he said he knew he could take me seriously and I’ve been fishing with him since.”

Her duties involve line handling, net repairs, gear maintenance and wash-downs. “Physically, I’m finding it hard at the moment, but that’s more because I’ve done zero exercise for the past couple of years, whereas these guys have been fishing for years and are used to the physical demands,” she said.

She added that fishing did not always appeal to women as it can be a very physically demanding, smelly, dirty job with erratic and unsociable hours.

“None of my girlfriends has expressed an interest for giving it a go, but they’re all stoked on me being out here.”


Tags: Real Women

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