By Kirsten Abernethy
Kirsten Abernethy is a fisher-woman, social scientist and researcher based in Port Fairy, Australia. In 2017 Kirsten was awarded Victorian Rural Woman of the Year by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC, now Agrifutures). She used this award to give a voice to women in the seafood sector, and to encourage women to seek out positions of leadership. In this guest blog post Kirsten reflects on her experiences in the fishing industry, along with her hopes for a vibrant and sustainable future for the industry, and the women working within it.
My name is Kirsten Abernethy and I have been working in wild-catch fisheries for more than ten years. It is hard to put my finger on how I got here. Unlike most people involved, I don’t have a family history of fishing. I was raised in the suburbs of Melbourne. But on school holidays to the beach, I’d always try to convince someone to go fishing with me. And from the moment I stepped onto my first professional fishing boat I knew I was in this job for life. There is a romance about fishing – they are the last of the hunters. There is also a great potential for a sustainable source of nutritious wild food. I think it is this combination of romance and culture, with my views on sustainability and food security that drew me to fishing. I’ve worked in different capacities in fishing communities - as a researcher, a teacher, and as an advocate. My partner is a fisherman, so I guess we are now starting our own family history in fishing.
I’ve worked in fisheries around the world, from Cornwall to the Pacific. I have seen a lot of fisheries facing a challenging future. In 2011 to 2014 I worked in the Solomon Islands and Timor Leste. These communities absolutely depend on the sea for their food security, and I saw the effects of the changing environment and how the communities were working together to respond. When I came home and started to work with Victorian fisheries, the potential I saw was unique. There is a lot to be proud of in Victoria, and in Australia more generally. Our fisheries are highly ecologically sustainable, often harvested using methods and knowledge passed down through generations in families, and they provide beautiful fresh and healthy local seafood for our tables. Our fishing families are the stewards of the sea, they are our eyes on and under the water, and are fundamental to the fabric, history and identity of our coastal communities.
The Slow Food movement in Melbourne has embraced the Victorian fishing industry. Slow Food is an international movement which seeks to preserve local food traditions and reignite people’s interest in the food they eat – where it comes from, how it tastes, and the impact of food choices. Alison Peake, who heads up Slow Food in Melbourne, has become very interested in Victoria’s local sustainable fisheries and ways to support and secure our local sources of seafood. So much so, that Alison and chef Rosa Mitchell decided to showcase the local catch at the inaugural Slow Fish Festival held in April this year in Melbourne.
The Slow Fish Festival went beyond tasting local seafood, as the public learned how to cook seafood, fillet fish, and hear the stories of the fishers and the challenges facing Victorian fisheries. The Slow Fish festival gave consumers the chance to talk to and put a face to the fisher, as well as to those who market, and really understand how seafood gets all the way to Victorian plates. There are sardines caught in Williamstown, sea urchins caught in Port Phillip Bay, and prawns caught in East Gippsland, to name a few. What is clear is that not many people in Victoria know what we have on our doorstep. When they find out what's on offer they want to support our local fisheries, through their purchasing choices, but also politically. The rights of the Victorian seafood consumers to access local fish have not been adequately defended, and we have witnessed a huge reduction in fish caught in Victoria due to competing interests with professional fishing. Now Slow Fish wants to be part of the conversation and demand rights for seafood lovers – the largest stakeholder group given the seas are a public resource. It was an honour to be asked to speak at this Slow Fish Festival, and to be part of Australia's emerging Slow Fish Movement.
I feel lucky to have the opportunity to work among passionate, motivated, and innovative women involved in the fishing industry here in my home state - whether they are women who are on the boat or behind the computer supporting the family fishing businesses, women working in the wholesale, processing and retail sectors, women in science and research, or women who want to promote and advocate for local fish on our plates, like Alison and Rosa. I met with a group of women in fishing last week – women who had spent their lives around fishing and the family business and are proud of their industry and what it contributes. Fishing and the way of life is intrinsic to the identity of fishing families, and also to the coastal communities that have depended on it for generations.
In 2017 I had the honour of being presented with the 2017 Victorian Rural Woman of the Year award. To be honest I was quite surprised to win this award, especially given that the fishing industry is a bit isolated from other agricultural industries. However it was an experience that I am incredibly grateful for, as it has introduced me to women from other sectors and given me the opportunity to promote the work of other women in our industry. I have a firm belief that more needs to be done to support women in the fishing industries. Although women make up half of the worldwide seafood workforce along the chain, less than 5% are represented in decision-making or executive positions. A 2015 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), for example, highlighted that approximately 56 million women work in the seafood industry worldwide, but significant barriers stop the majority of these women from advancing into management and decision-making roles. The report argued that “the work women engage in is often low-paid or unpaid with unofficial status, and this is a barrier to access to financial resources and policy support for these women.”
In Australia women have actively networked and lobbied for greater support and recognition. The Women’s Industry Seafood Network Community (WINSC) was established in 1996 and aims to:
- Recognise and enhance the skills of seafood women.
- Develop effective partnerships with government agencies and other industry stakeholders.
- Take a professional approach to all activities and relationships with other stakeholders.
- Create a supportive environment to ensure women of the fishing industry reach their potential.
- Actively encourage the involvement of seafood women.
- Provide community education on all aspects of the seafood industry.
I am an active member of WINSC and am always encouraged by the support and leadership that women show to each other, and with their communities and fisheries. These women work tirelessly, unpaid and often unrecognised, to promote what they know and love about wild-catch fisheries, the people and the way of life, are an inspiration to me. However there is still a long way to go.
What is clear to me is that women are good at telling stories about what it means to be in the fishing industry, the pride in being a fishing family, but also how hard it can be and how dangerous, and how it is so different to any other way of life. Women are good at seeing the connections between fishing families and their businesses, and the economic and social outcomes in regional communities. Women are good at encouraging people to try local fish and learn more about professional fishing. I think women can provide an important and different perspective when given the opportunity, especially when confronted by discourses of greed, mistrust and over-fishing, which can often dominate public perceptions, perceptions that have not been informed by facts.
I believe this is one of the biggest challenges facing the fishing industry in Victoria and Australia – demonstrating to the seafood consumer that the industry can be trusted to take care of our seas and provide a beautiful source of healthy wild-caught food, and convincing the public that the fishing families have the biggest stake in ensuring the future sustainability of both the fish and the communities they live in. If we can demonstrate to the public what we already know is true, and get the support of the people behind professional fishing, then I believe our industry can thrive. Supporting and recognising women in fishing could be one key to unlock this support.