What is it like to work in the fishing industry as a woman?

What is it like to work in the fishing industry as a woman?

Statistics tell us that the hake deep-sea trawl fishery is male dominated – an estimated 40% of people working in the fishery are women. Does this matter? What does it mean for gender equality? Four women working in different roles in the fishery share their views and experiences.


Bianca Brophy

Bianca Brophy is general manager of Combined Fishing Enterprises, a family business started by her father and mother, Basil and Doreen Lucas, and her uncle Don Lucas. The company is active in the hake deep-sea trawl, hake longline and small pelagic fisheries.

Brophy is a trained teacher, but gave up the teaching profession when she was asked to contribute her skills to the family business. Since 2007, she has been intricately involved in the day-to-day running of Combined Fishing Enterprises and she says that learning the fishing business “from the ground up” has given her the knowledge and confidence to tackle whatever challenges come her way.

In an interview about her career and her experience in the fishing industry, Brophy was quick to direct attention away from herself, pointing to older women who began working in the fishing industry during the apartheid era, overcame considerable barriers and smoothed the way for the women who have come after them. She mentions Claudia Bowers, former commercial manager of Pioneer Fishing and Celeste Diest, chief executive of Impala Fishing, as two particularly inspiring women.

“I have a lot of respect for women who speak up,” says Brophy, admitting that it took time and a conscious effort to find her voice. She began by listening and asking questions, and gradually found the confidence to express her ideas and opinions, not only in her own company, but also at industry forums.

Brophy says that in the course of her career in the fishing industry she has met many gutsy women. She believes that women bring a level of compassion and empathy to a business environment and she would like to see more women working in fishing, particularly in technical or leadership roles.

“If we had more women skippers, more engineers, it would raise women’s expectations to a different level. If we could achieve that, I would be even prouder to be part of this industry,” she says.


Fisokuhle Mbatha

Fisokuhle Mbatha is a research assistant working for the South African Deep-Sea Trawling Industry Association (SADSTIA). She holds a Master’s degree in applied marine science and has a special research interest in hake. Her recently published paper has advanced knowledge about the lifecycle of deep-water hake.

Mbatha is an observant person and during visits to the factories of SADSTIA member companies, she noticed very clearly defined gender roles: whereas women are by far the most numerous employees in the onshore processing plants, skilled jobs in the fields of engineering, maintenance and refrigeration are almost exclusively filled by men. Mbatha would like to see less clearly defined gender roles in the hake deep-sea trawl fishery.

“Some of our members have opened up opportunies for women to work at sea and I believe other companies should be encouraged to do the same,” she says, advocating for companies to prioritise gender equality.

Mbatha is also aware of the fact that there are few women in leadership positions in the hake deep-sea trawl fishery and she says that this can make it difficult for women, especially young women, to make their voice heard. She describes how she arrived at SADSTIA from an academic institution and was initially hesitant to participate in meetings. Would it have been easier if there were more women in leadership positions? “Yes,” says Mbatha. Like Brophy, Mbatha has benefited from the encouragement and example of other women in the industry, but she has also had strong support from male colleagues.

Mbatha believes that training is the first step in creating opportunities for women and she is proud that SADSTIA is becoming a “game changer in skills development”. She is referring to the SADSTIA Graduate Internship Programme which has so far provided work experience, and in some cases permanent employment, for 20 young graduates in the fields of science, human resources and finance, among others. Mbatha has thrown her considerable energy into the Graduate Internship Programme and is determined to see it play a pivotal role in creating opportunities for young professionals in the fishing industry.

She has a powerful message for young women who aspire to work in the fishing industry:

“Don’t be discouraged that this industry is perceived to be male dominated,” she says, “we are the women who will make a change. It starts with positivity. Be inspired by the few visible women in the industry and consider yourselves fortunate that doors are open. It depends on us to develop careers in this industry.”


Nozipho Mkhabela

Nozipho Mkhabela is a relative newcomer to the fishing industry. She began her career in 2019 when she was appointed as an intern at the fishing division of I&J. Today she works in I&J’s Business Intelligence unit, contributing her skills as a GIS (geographic information systems) analyst.

Mkhabela studied Environmental Science at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. She was trained in the use of GIS software, and when she joined I&J she got an opportunity to apply the skills she had previously used in the terrestrial environment, in the marine environment.

“My internship provided me with an opportunity to learn different things,” says Mkhabela. “I got to apply new tools. Even now, the work I do changes constantly and my mind is kept active.”

Mkhabela expresses admiration for the work done by women in the hake deep-sea trawl fishery’s expansive shore-based processing plants. In fact, the exposure she has had to I&J’s fishing and processing operations has been one of the highlights of her job so far.

“All the exposure has been very exciting,” she says, “when it comes to the work that we do on shore, the interactions we have with the sea men, all of that is totally new for me and personally I feel embraced and encouraged to shine at I&J.”

Asked whether there are any special qualities that women bring to the fishing environment, Mkhabela says she would be hard pressed to identify specific qualities, but she believes that when women and men work together, an ideal balance of skills and abilities is created. Consequently, she would like to see the equal representation of women and men in the hake deep-sea trawl fishery.

Mkhabela has good advice for other young women who would like to build a career in the fishing industry. She says:

“I say ‘go for it’. Do all the preparation that’s needed and put your best foot forward. The idea that this is a male dominated industry, that shouldn’t phase anyone. It’s just stats, there’s nothing else to it! Once you are in the industry that you want to be in, you do your best and you should also keep your learning spirit alive.”


Jennifer Jeanes-Pleass

Jennifer Jeanes-Pleass is a shareholder and managing member in Pellsrus Historical Fishing Corporation, a company that holds quotas in the hake deep-sea trawl fishery and the hake longline fishery. Pellsrus Fishing was started by Jennifer’s late husband, Richard Pleass and seven other fishers from the Jeffries Bay and Humansdorp area, the heart of the squid fishing industry, in 1995.

Jeanes-Pleass’ introduction to the fishing industry was sudden and dramatic. She became a shareholder, and was nominated the managing member of Pellsrus Historical Fishing Corporation, after Richard passed away in 2014.

“While Richard was alive, I kept my eyes and ears open and was able to pick up a lot from him in that way, even though I didn’t work with him in the business,” she recalls, adding that taking on the role of managing member was difficult.

Jeanes-Pleass recognises that the mentorship and support of Combined Fishing’s Don Lucas was invaluable. He was willing to share his knowledge and help her find her feet in the fishing industry. To this day, Jeanes-Pleass works closely with Lucas; Pellsrus Historical Fishing Corporation and Combined Fishing Enterprises have pooled their quotas and bought an equal share in the trawler Harvest Kirstina.

Jeanes-Pleass is proud of the fact that Pellsrus Historical Fishing Corporation is 57% women-owned. She hopes to increase the company’s quotas in the forthcoming fishing rights allocation process, with the objective of eventually owning and operating a vessel in the hake deep-sea trawl fishery. She is positive about the experience of working in the fishing industry, saying that attitudes towards women have changed and are changing.

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