Ahh, Instagram is such a gem for so many reasons. And one of those is getting to connect with people I may never have had a chance to meet. Ashley Mullenger is one of them, and honestly, a new girl crush I can’t wait for you to get to know. She’s a fisherwoman from England who has kind of become a minor celebrity in her own right: BBC Morning Live, The Guardian, and Good Morning Britain have all interviewed Mullenger to get a perspective of what it’s like to be one of the very few female fishermen in the UK. So, I asked Ashley why she thinks fewer women are fishing across the pond than in the U.S. She shared some very thoughtful answers that still have me staring off into the distance, scratching my head. I can’t wait to hear what you think. Without further ado…
Meet UK Fisherman Ashley Mullenger!
What do you fish, and what’s your position on the boat?
So, we have 2 boats, Fairlass and Saoirse, they are a joint enterprise for myself and Nigel. Nigel is a long-standing friend and in charge of everything operational, mechanical, day-to-day fishing operations, and skipper. I am merely the business admin, accounts, marketing, sales, Spanner girl, oh, and full-time deckhand. We have 2 boats as, ultimately, we want to do different things with them. Whelks, or conch’s as they’re known in the States, are our bread and butter, and Fairlass will continue to fish for whelks as this is pretty much all her license allows for. However, Nigel and I are turning our attention to other markets, including crab and lobster, which are also caught in traps like whelks. We also want to diversify and try netting and hand-lining for other fish species to sell directly to the consumer or local restaurants. Sadly, many of our native species of fish are exported to Asia and Europe, and I am actively trying to encourage the great British public to be brave and try things that they would not normally through my Instagram account, where I plan to demonstrate different types of fish prep. I am also looking into direct sales options too. I think this is a responsible way of fishing – do more with less. I mostly bait and stack the pots; however, from time to time, I am “allowed” to haul, and it’s something I’m still learning to do. So, if it’s a nice day and we have plenty of time, I’m allowed to stand at the block. 😃
I am currently waiting to do my next round of tickets for my commercial skipper qualification, which would allow me to take a boat of up to 16.5m (54.1 feet). I had hoped to have this completed by my birthday in May, but all training courses are on hold due to the pandemic.
Owning a boat becomes your entire life. It’s not just a job; it’s a lifestyle choice. Your boat becomes your world, and it’s almost like you can’t exist without each other. They are not just tools; they have their own souls and personalities, and they keep you safe. I feel like I am linked with both our boats in a way that I haven’t learned how to put into words yet.
Who buys your seafood?
So our whelks are all collected on a lorry by a company based 30 mins up the road, they process our whelks and are, for the most part, sent to Korea. However, I am trying to champion the great British whelk as a sustainable alternative; sadly, 80% of all seafood caught in the UK is exported. We have become so used to having anything available to us 12 months of the year via supermarkets that eating local seasonal produce has become a thing of the past. So very few high street fishmongers exist by comparison. We have become a nation of convenience. At the moment, we don’t do a great amount of crab. However, what crab we do catch does go to a small processor in the town, and for the most part, his customers are local restaurants and wholesalers.
Is it a buyer, or do you sell to the public?
I am actually now looking into selling direct via online sales through my Instagram and an online retailer. The annoying thing about this is that the posting and packaging is the most expensive part. However, I want to ensure my product reaches the end consumer in top condition, and I want to source environmentally packaging. The Whelks themselves are actually a very low-cost item, and once the pandemic finishes, I will be encouraging people locally to approach me directly for sales direct from the boat. I will support this with tutorials and prep via my social media so that people get the best from the fish I’ve supplied them.
In our DM, you mentioned that women’s fishing culture in the US seems a lot different from that in the UK. In what ways?
I am of the opinion that maybe women in commercial fishing are more common in the US. For example, Grundens makes women’s oil skin! I don’t think this is commercially available in the UK yet. It also seems that there are many different types of commercial fishing available to you; you have a very diverse country with many different habitats and climates, so I have seen women fishing for green crabs in small skiffs around the marsh’s, women who farm seaweed. People like Bri Dwyer and Mandy Hansen are not out of place in Alaska on the big crab boats. I take inspiration from all of these very strong, empowering women.
Why do you think the female fishing cultures are different?
I have been tossing this around in my head for a while. I was baiting and stacking pots the other day, and I was really thinking about it. It was one of those rare, still, sunny, cold, and crisp January days on the North Sea.
- Maybe it’s the climate in the US; it’s warmer and better weather? But then, as I’ve already said in places like New England and Alaska, that’s certainly not the case…
- Maybe women in the states are different; are they more confident to step into a predominantly male industry? Women in the UK make up 2% of the fisheries sector. I’d be interested to know what the statistic for the USA is. (According to
- Maybe there are lots of options for different types of commercial fishing because your habitats for fishing are different.
- Maybe it’s because your population is that much bigger and that, by default, more women will be commercial fishing. But the statistic may be similar to ours?
- Do men empower women differently in America? Although every man I have met in this industry here has been supportive, encouraging, and welcoming…
What would you like to see change in UK commercial fishing, and what do you think is the best way to make that happen?
There are A LOT of things that need to be changed here, including fisheries management and eating and buying culture. But it’s a very difficult job to get into. It’s not a career that’s promoted in schools. It’s generally done as a generational thing, and it’s not a job you can know your gonna like until you go and try it. But before you can try, you need to complete a sea survival course at the cost of around $150.
I’d like to see commercial fishing training vessels that would give people the option of a taster session with approved skippers who can give an accurate idea of what the job entails. I’d like to see apprenticeships for young people, which don’t just include the physical doing of the job, but the back of house business running and government legislation.🐟
What’s your biggest takeaway from Ashely? What are your feelings on her thoughts about UK fisherwomen? Please share in the comments below!