Being a woman in the male-dominated fishing industry presented some challenges for Ashley Mullenger, who became the first woman to win the Angler of the Year award.
“It’s little things like the ankle cut on the boots we wear – for men it’s wider and you need to have good ankle support on a boat when working on a moving deck. It took me a while to find boots suitable for commercial fishing and for women,” she says.
Life jackets are also a problem. “I’m quite chest heavy so once I have skins on and a life jacket over it I can be quite restricted. I’d love to see a woman-owned business tackle that .
But ultimately, she doesn’t think being a woman has held her back, and she prefers to be known as a “fisherman” rather than more neutral terms.
Mullenger gave up her office job three years ago to become a commercial fisherwoman and now spends her days off Norfolk catching whelk.
She started her Instagram channel – the Fmale Fisherman – to try to engage the general public in the industry and educate people about where their food comes from. His success was a key factor in his victory.
Mullenger won the award in the Under 10m (boat size) category, with the award description stating that he was looking for someone “who has demonstrated skill, determination, leadership ability and adaptability to change”.
“Just being nominated was a huge achievement, which means you’ve been recognized by someone else in the industry as a credible angler. God, if it had been calculated on how much you catch, I wouldn’t have sniffled,” she says.
“But it’s more than that, it’s about the time you give, the image you give to the industry. I do my best to bring the industry as much good news as possible.
Fellow fisherwoman Isla Gale, from the Isle of Man, won the award for trainee of the year.
For Mullenger, it’s the everyday unknown that makes the job so exciting. “The environment is always changing. Sometimes the day can be beautiful – right now I’m sitting in the sun and gently cradled. Some days it’s a bit fierce here, but it puts some air back in your lungs,” she says.
“There’s also something about using the strength of your body, having to rely on your arms, your legs, your back, to earn a living, which is invigorating in itself.” Mullenger says the physical nature of the job never held her back and she was never pushed beyond her capabilities.
She is passionate about encouraging young people in the industry, which has historically struggled to recruit. “It’s just not being pushed in schools as a career option,” she says.
A commercial fishing apprenticeship that launched this year is a welcome addition, she says, but it’s still limited to a few providers in the southwest. “I would love to go to schools and talk to young people about what I do, and I hope they will think about it for the future.
“The problem is, if they say, ‘Yes, I really like this idea and I would really like to do this’, then what do I tell them? It’s a really hard industry to break into and I just think there’s so much more to do.
Mullenger hopes that by speaking about her life at sea, she will challenge misconceptions that it is not suitable for women.
“There are some really important conversations that need to happen in this industry,” she says. “Recruitment in the industry itself, it struggles to recruit historically, always has. Let’s push that this is an industry that suits both women and men.