Share a day in the life of the Norfolk fisherman and vessel owner who was named 2022 Fishing News Awards Under-10m Fisherman of the Year

Sometimes I think: ‘How have I found myself in the position that I’m in?’ I’m very, very lucky to be able to do this job,” Ashley Mullenger told FN.

Producing content for social media is very much part of Ashley’s day, and her presence on Instagram has led to a wide range of opportunities, from a collaboration with a Japanese knife manufacturer to television appearances. “I went out and filmed with the BBC at Bridlington a couple of weeks ago with a television chef, who I’m not allowed to name yet. They chartered a boat, and we took a load of kids out to go mackerel fishing. I enjoy doing the TV bits because I enjoy doing my job, and being asked to talk about it to a mass audience is always lovely.”

Steaming out from Wells-next-the-Sea on Saoirse LN 55, an 8m Cygnus, to haul a few hundred pots is a world away from her previous office-based career.

“I worked for a company for a number of years which looked after responsive breakdowns for boiler repairs in social housing. When things went wrong, and when processes weren’t followed, it came to me. I was pretty much the complaints department.”

Over the next eight years Ashley worked her way up through the company, her career progressing well – or so it would seem. “Yeah, alright, I was earning good, steady money, but I was bored. It was the same old things, day in, day out.

“It got to the point that when I decided to jack it in to go fishing the first time, the company gave me a three-month sabbatical, which allowed me to go and work for Nige – the skipper of the Saoirse – on his angling boat.”

After her sabbatical ended, Ashley returned to the office. “They gave me a job in troubleshooting – quality control, process flows, that kind of thing. But the routine got a bit too much, so I found a similar role in the private sector.

“I was in charge of a team of administrators. It was fine, I could do it – but I would find myself taking my laptop home and sitting of an evening trying to get spreadsheets done for the next day. Then I’d have dinner, a bath, go to bed, and get up and do it all again. I thought: ‘This is just existing – this is rubbish.’”

This time, the appeal of life at sea was too strong to ignore. “The sea is an environment that you can’t control, whereas in an office, people looked to me to try and control what was going on. At sea, I’m not in control, and nobody is ringing me and bothering me. It’s definitely a little bit of escapism.

“It’s total freedom. I used to be confined by four walls, and if I wanted to go for a cigarette, or my lunch, I had to think: ‘What time can I go, is somebody else out of the office, can I spare five minutes, or is there a meeting coming up?’”

Ashley’s change of career has certainly paid off, from being named Under 10m Fisherman of the Year at last year’s Fishing News Awards, to developing an audience of more than 9,000 followers on her Instagram channel (@thefemalefisherman).

Engaging with that audience is now very much part of Ashley’s daily routine. “Social media is a great space. I get such a mix of people. It includes other fishermen, who are great to have a network with and talk about what’s happening in their community – and that doesn’t necessarily stop in England – they could be in Australia or America.”

Keen to champion the industry, and the diverse range of seafood available from around our shores, Ashley recently trialled a pop-up stall on the quayside. “The fishmonger in the High Street in Wells just closed. So the stall is something that I want to try to do more regularly – but there’s only one of me, and we work quite long days, being a tidal harbour. If I could split myself into three, we’d be winning.”

Producing content in a fast-paced, safety-first environment can be challenging. “It’s part of my daily task, but it can be difficult. As any fisherman knows, things happen really fast out at sea.

“If there’s something interesting in a pot that I want to film, it’s a case of stopping, taking my gloves off, finding my phone and starting to record.

“I’ve just bought myself a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses that have a video camera in. You can literally just talk to the glasses and ask them to make a video, and they’ll make a video. It’s fantastic.”

Another of Ashley’s recent innovations, which may develop into a regular part of her daily routine, was to open a pop-up fish stall on the quay, stocked from the previous day’s fishing.

“We’re a tidal harbour at Wells, so that day we started out at about 9am. It took us a couple of hours to get to where we were fishing. We hauled a few hundred pots. The crab was landed locally, but I decided to sell the lobster on the stall at the weekend, along with the fish that we had a jig for once we’d finished hauling our pots.

“We also did a bit of rod and line. We got some massive, massive mackerel. They were all gutted and put on ice ready for the next day.”

Ashley says the reaction from the public to the stall was ‘really positive’. “People are getting the best quality, and they’re getting a backstory with it – they know where the fish is coming from. It also helps to encourage people to seek out quality fish, and buy more locally sourced produce. And they’ll also get to know a fisherman.”

In Ashley, they’ll get to know one who just a few years ago traded her old career for the call of the sea and has never looked back. “Even when it’s screaming with wind, and it’s cold, and I’m hungry and being chucked all over the place, I’m still grateful to do this job.”

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 £3.50 here

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