Women want more opportunities to work at sea

Two young women at the interface of quay and sea share their experience of working in the fishing industry.

Megan de Klerk and Nelile Gcabashe

Megan de Klerk and Nelile Gcabashe work for different fishing companies in different locations, but the two are united by their youth and commitment to pushing the barriers that they believe are preventing women from building careers at sea.

Megan is quality assurance and HACCP coordinator at I&J’s Cape Town Fishing division and Nelile is assistant risk control officer at Sea Harvest’s trawling operation in Saldanha Bay. Both are at the interface between the fishing fleet and the fleet administration. Megan works closely with skippers, factory managers and quality controllers to make sure that the fish landed by I&J’s vessels is safe for consumption; Nelile works with skippers, safety officers and engineers to make sure that the Sea Harvest fishing fleet is seaworthy and safe.

“Whenever the vessels dock, I carefully go through the production report to see that everything on the quality side is in order,” explains Megan who graduated with a National Diploma in Biotechnology in 2017 and has been working for I&J for two-and-a-half years.

She also works closely with food safety auditors to ensure that the I&J fleet is compliant with the stringent food safety standards that are demanded by the company’s international customers.

In a similar way, Nelile visits the Sea Harvest vessels on a daily basis, checking safety equipment and standards, investigating when injuries occur at sea, and working through checklists and testing protocols to make sure that the vessels in the Saldanha fleet are well prepared for routine safety surveys. She graduated with a Diploma in Nautical Studies from Durban University of Technology and has worked for Sea Harvest for three years. In 2022, Nelile plans to register for an Advanced Diploma in Nautical Studies.

There are 10 vessels in the I&J fleet and 12 in the Sea Harvest fleet, but almost every sea-going employee Megan and Nelile work with on a day-to-day basis is male. Both say that they have been accepted and feel supported by the men they work with, in spite of their youth and gender.

“I’m young,” says Nelile. “In some cases I’m younger than the last born daughters and sons of my co-workers. But as I started to show up and everyone got to understand what I do, and what I’m capable of – how my work helps the company – my co-workers started to be more respectful and comfortable towards me and I don’t have any problems.”

Both are hopeful that when the COVID-19 pandemic abates and when personal circumstances allow, they will be afforded the opportunity to spend more time at sea.

“For my career goal, I need to understand the operational side of the business and that’s why I would like to spend more time at sea,” says Nelile. “I need to have that technical background, to see how things are done. I’m happy to have a shore-based job but I would like to spend much more time at sea.”

While Megan and Nelile both express satisfaction with their jobs, saying there is plenty of opportunity to learn and grow, they are concerned about the lack of sea-going jobs and opportunities for women.

“Women want to work at sea, but we are not given the chance,” says Nelile. Her sentiments are echoed by the few female factory workers who work on Sea Harvest vessels. All are factory workers (there are no female officers) and the female crew members have expressed the desire for opportunities to work in other roles at sea – as deck hands for example.

“People say that deckhand work would be difficult for women, but I believe that women should push that boundary and not be limited,” says Megan.

“Why don’t you get any female skippers?” she asks. “In this industry you can push yourself, it’s a good environment in which to grow.”

She and Nelile agree that when recruiting cadets (sea-going trainees who work towards a career as an officer or engineer), fishing companies should recruit women as well as men. This will create a working environment in which it becomes accepted practice for women and men work side-by-side at sea, with both sexes afforded equal opportunities to develop careers.

Both young women hope that the work they do in the male-dominated quayside environment will be recognised and that they will have many opportunities to improve their knowledge and capabilities by applying their skills at sea. In doing so, they hope to encourage other women to consider a career in the fishing industry and maritime environment, and that barriers to entry and career progression will diminish and disappear over time.