Skipper Laura Wilkins is a key figure in the Women in Fisheries Network, Northern Ireland – a group that has been, she says, ‘in the making for more than 30 years’
“Women in Fisheries NI is still an informal grouping, but we are seeing the need to formalise what we do. There is a real need for the work and support we provide,” Laura Wilkins told me when we met for a catch-up in Neptune’s Larder, a popular spot on the quayside for everyone involved in Kilkeel fishing.
The group has a wide membership, with many role models for youngsters looking at a career involved in fisheries in some way, from science through to catching, and from harbour support through to small businesses. Mutual support and exchange of ideas is just part of what goes on, I was told, and is the fruition of years of groundbreaking work.
“We very much are standing on the shoulders of two local women, Lou Henning and Elaine Campbell, who for 30 years were at the forefront of providing voluntary service and support for all aspects of the local fishing industry. It was their work that inspired us. As a group, we’d all experienced the same issues trying to break into aspects of the fishing industry.
“When Lou and Elaine started their work in the early 1990s, there was little or no recognition of the role women played in supporting fisheries, and the pressures that can be placed on families when the main breadwinner is away for much of the time, and has no guaranteed income.
“They were both from fishing families and, with help from the Fishermen’s Mission, they worked ceaselessly to support other fishing families, and raise broader awareness about the pressures that fishing can cause on all aspects of family life. A big breakthrough came in the late 1990s when with a small EU grant they organised a women’s conference in Annalong, that in turn led to invitations for them to speak in European ports.
“They not only put Northern Ireland firmly on the map with the EU, they also did a huge amount to promote awareness in schools and elsewhere about local seafoods, as well as get across the message that women have a vital role within the seafood industry.
“I had a huge amount of family support as a youngster coming into fishing, but never once at school was it even suggested that I could make a career at sea. I first went out on my father’s boat at the age of five. I was working on it at the age of 16, and progressed up to take my skipper’s ticket.”
“The Women in Fisheries Network NI aims both to raise awareness about fish itself, and encourage local consumption here in Northern Ireland, but also to provide all aspects of support and mentoring to women looking at careers involving fisheries. That support applies across all issues.
Much of the recent awareness about the growing pressure on fishermen’s mental health has been enabled by women in the sector.
“You’ll see from our membership the growing roles that women are now entering, many of which would have been unthinkable a couple of generations ago. In our Portavogie group we have Judith McClements, who works within the NIFPO office.
“Danielle Rooney, who was appointed as harbour master in Kilkeel in 2019, is another high-profile role model. There’s everyone from AFBI fisheries scientists through to businesswomen such as Michelle Wilson, who sells her seafood products through Sea Source as well as elsewhere, and has won all sorts of awards. We’ve Annabel from the lifeboat crew, and students studying marine science at Queen’s University.
“We also have plans to visit schools and drive home the message about the great careers involved in fisheries, and promote awareness of fish as food.
“We are also acutely aware of the pressure on working fishermen and their families. We encourage people to talk whenever they can, and have started a new venture, Wellbeing Wednesday, to support this. We now have branches in all the Co Down fishing ports, and try to provide that extra layer of mutual support and protection for all families finding it difficult to cope with rising fuel prices and the cost of living issues.”
“Does it stop me getting to sea? I don’t take the boat out as often as I would like, but I do get to put the days in over the summer months at least. The boat is the same age as me, and was named after me, but she’s in fine condition.”
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Email: womeninfisheriesni@gmail. com
This story was taken from the latest issue of Fishing News. For more up-to-date and in-depth reports on the UK and Irish commercial fishing sector, subscribe to Fishing News here or buy the latest single issue for just £3.30 here.