“There are many roles to fill in this industry”

Young female worker of a fish farm standing near fish tanks. Photo: Adobe Stock.
Young female worker of a fish farm standing near fish tanks. Photo: Adobe Stock.

Aquaculture is a male-dominated industry in North America, especially on the production end, but that doesn't mean women can't do the work. This was one of the conclusions reached at the Women in North America Aquaculture Summit (WINAAS) held last month. But, as Leah Stoker, Senior Advisor at AquacultureTalent and one of the panelists tells us, "where there is an imbalance there is opportunity for the entry", and adds, "there are many roles to fill in this industry". That optimistic and celebratory spirit is what was in the air throughout the event that, through a keynote and four panels, brought together 12 speakers around the figure of women in North American aquaculture. "It was so awesome to hear the stories, encouragement, advice, and concerns of all the women who participated and also from those who followed up with questions about certain topics raised in the segment", Leah says.

Highlighting women in aquaculture

The verse of pop star Rihanna's hit song, 'Shine bright like a diamond', was also the title of the event's keynote and the spirit that guided the session and illuminated this brilliant meeting. Julie Kuchepatov, founder of Seafood and Gender Equality (SAGE) and the keynote speaker, was inspired by her because, beyond her musical career, Rihanna is also an example of a successful entrepreneur in a world that, like aquaculture, is global and male-dominated. "Women are the invisible back end in the seafood industry, regardless of where they are found, and women are found everywhere in the sector, from harvesting to farming, to processing, to sales and marketing", said Julie, "so let's shine a light on the invisible women in seafood", she thought, "let's highlight these women".

Following this keynote, the WINAAS included four panels dedicated to recruitment and mentorship, women in leadership, aquaculture advocacy, and building intentional dialogue and equity in aquaculture. Gathered around these virtual tables were leading industry figures such as Diane Morrison, Managing Director at MOWI Canada West; Briana Warner, CEO of Atlantic Seafarms; Jennifer Woodland, CEO at Nuu-chah-nulth Seafood at the time of the summit and currently Director of Reconciliation at Cermaq Canada; Imani Black, founder and CEO of Minorities in Aquaculture; or Jeanne McKnight, Executive Director of Northwest Aquaculture Alliance. In all of them, the panelists debated, answered questions from the participants, and shared their truly inspiring stories – the kind that makes you think about the past, present, and future of women in the sector and in the industry itself, not only in North America but around the world.

However, to have women in leadership in the aquaculture industry, to have the presence of minorities in the sector, to be able to advocate from within, you need to get in first, and that's where the debate was. The three speakers on the first panel of the day – Kathleen Offman Mathisen, CHRO of Grieg Seafood Norway; Tina Garlinski-Gonsky, Director of Human Resources, Grieg Seafood BC; and Leah Stoker of AquacultureTalent herself – agreed that, in general, and beyond gender, recruitment is hard in this industry. Obstacles such as the poor reputation of the sector, the difficulty not only in attracting but also in retaining talent, or the specialization itself, means that the pool of available candidates is, usually, not very large.

"Finding people with the professional skillsets and experience to fill much needed roles in the industry is a struggle. This is just the current reality. This opens up a huge opportunity for more people, male or female, to study, gain experience, and become experts in this growing industry", explains Leah Stoker.

Barriers to entry or lack of skillsets?

"No one is barring women from entering the industry", claims the Senior Advisor of AquacultureTalent. "It just traditionally hasn't been an attractive segment for women. I have experienced this firsthand", she tells us, "but know that as a woman, you are needed, you are accepted and the opportunities that exist in the industry will continue to grow. You are encouraged to engage yourself, become involved and apply". In her view, it's true that the industry demands long hours in sometimes rough climates and remote places but "that doesn't mean that women can't do the work", another point on which the panelists were in agreement. "As the aquaculture industry grows in the U.S. and globally, it will require many professionals with diverse backgrounds and experiences", Leah claims.

During the discussion, Stoker gave a statistic from her company: in the last 14 months, 40% of the positions filled in the United States were women. "We don't look at the gender when looking for the candidates", she said then. "AquacultureTalent works with clients who are looking for a highly qualified professional to fill a role in a timely manner. We search for professionals who meet or exceed the requirements of the position. We consider education, experience, personality, and passion. We utilize search methods that do not specify genders, only qualifications, location, and experience", she explains to us now.

Leah Stoker, Senior Advisor at AquacultureTalent, studied aquaculture at College and is a fish lover in her personal life. Photo: Leah Stoker.

Tina Garlinski-Gonsky also shared some encouraging figures. "Between 2020 and 2021, we doubled the amount of women working at Grieg BC", she said, adding that at the moment the presence of women in the company is 24% in seafood/technical positions, 77% in support services, 50% in the hatchery and, also, 50% in the executive team. In fact, Grieg Seafood BC's Human Resources Manager, noted that in the company they are detecting a growing interest from women to enter not only in the sector but particularly in the sea side, where we traditionally used to find more interest from men.

Moreover, Tina also highlighted that when we go to the typical "women are strong enough", we are actually forgetting that strength is not always necessary, that the important thing is not to be strong enough but smart enough. "And that's the feedback I'm getting from managers at the sea side level", she said, "that women find a way to get things done and that's because we're getting young, bright, talented women who want to come and build a career with us".

Women will get there

So according to Leah and Tina, more and more women are entering this industry in the U.S. and British Columbia, Canada, but North America is still behind industry leaders such as Norway, the mirror in which – perhaps because of the presence of Kathleen Offman Mathisen, CHRO of Grieg Seafood Norway, on the panel – all the speakers sought reflection at some point during the talk. But, again, Leah Stoker is optimistic. "We will get there to balance the gender gap in the aquaculture workforce here in the U.S. as the industry grows, as more youth are exposed to the opportunity, and as it becomes a mainstream industry as in other countries".

As a woman and a recruiter and a person who loves aquaculture, she confesses that she gets excited when sees the profile of a woman who has the qualifications the client is looking for. "We at AquacultureTalent present qualified candidates, we do not make hiring decisions", but for her, "it is awesome to learn about her, to take her forward, to make the introduction". Women supporting women, references that can become mentors.

This is the case of Imani Black. Through her organization, Minorities in Aquaculture (MIA), she is an inspiration for women of color, who are absent from various sectors of the aquaculture community. During their panel, all the participants agreed on the need and usefulness of this type of association or initiative to accompany and work with women, and to do it for real. "We are more than boxes to check", said graphically Anoushka Concepcion, Associate Extension Educator at University of Connecticut and MIA member. She was talking about minorities, but it applies to women in general. It is not so much a matter of fulfilling all the requirements as of letting each one occupies the place she wants and is qualified to occupy.

Before that, at another point in the summit, Jeanne McKnight, Executive Director of Northwest Aquaculture Alliance, had said: "Aquaculture needs your voice". McKnight wasn't focusing it on women or men, she was just talking about having a voice and Leah Stoker agrees. "Perhaps it is not that a woman's voice needs to be heard – it is the industry that needs to have the voice – speak loudly about it – open the doors and come up with ways for our youth, women, diverse populations, men, all of us who have the passion and want to be a viable and valuable part of aquaculture, to be trained, encouraged and employed in this amazing industry". Whether individually or together, one thing is clear: women have a lot to say in the seafood and aquaculture industry.

Related Stories

No stories found.