You may be surprised to learn that it’s not only mermaids that have a bad rap for luring sailors into danger when sailing the seven seas – women, for hundreds of years, were considered bad luck to have onboard a boat.
In fact, some records show that in the earliest years of nautical navigation, women who wanted to work at sea were considered witches!
And while there were some notable female pirates over the years – hello, Anne Bonny – many sailor superstitions believed that having any woman aboard a ship could see the vessel sailing into disaster at sea.
Thank goodness those days are past us!
With so much folklore around the idea of women at sea, it should come as no surprise that even today – we don’t often hear tales of women in the seafood industry nearly as much as we should in 2023.
So this year, I decided to dive deep into learning more about some of the incredible women entrepreneurs and leaders in my home province of New Brunswick who are not only clearly a path for younger women dreaming of becoming an important part of the industry but who are making waves in their roles.
If you visit Deer Island, New Brunswick, it’s impossible not to drive past one of the many businesses that Sheena Young and her family own and operate on the island.
And while many know her as the Co-Founder of Boatique, a gift shop and marine supply store dedicated to celebrating life on the water – you may be surprised to learn that this powerhouse entrepreneur, who was just named an EY Entrepreneur Of The Year® 2023 Atlantic finalist, is also the CEO and President of Young’s Lobster Company, LTD. A 2nd generation seafood processing and exporting company on the island specializes in lobster and scallops.
“My sister and I were born into the seafood industry, and we sought leadership and assumed responsibility for the company at a very young age,” Sheena explained. She noted that in the seafood industry, things are always evolving. The landscape changes each year. For many business owners and fishermen, many decisions can be made about whether to GO or GROW. “Our dad empowered us – he always supported our ideas and vision. And when he reached retirement, we made the choice to grow and take our business to the next level.”
Today, Sheena is incredibly proud that they have kept their operations entirely on Deer Island, which had a population of 718 people in 2021.
The best part? Young’s Lobster Company is made up of over 90% women.
“I come from a large family history of fishermen; we have 7th-generation traditional fishermen in our family. Being part of the history of traditional fisheries is at the core of who I am. I have extreme pride in the men and women who fish and the communities that have serviced and served them that they call home.”
When asked what her favourite part about being a woman in the seafood industry is, Sheena was quick to share: “Being a woman in seafood for me is about not being one of the masses and being an example of that change that younger women can see. That it is possible if they want to go into a non-traditional profession.”
“It also inspires me that I could do what I love from my home – a rural community where some people would say there wasn’t much opportunity or that you couldn’t be successful if you stayed home. For me, that’s empowering.”
Of course, being a woman in the seafood industry is not for the faint of heart.
Women interested in pursuing a career in the industry, especially in fishing, should know there is resistance to change, much like other traditional trade industries. “It may be harder to earn your seat at the table. But I feel, in my time, that there has been significant progress and that women in the Canadian seafood industry are powerful. I have been very fortunate to have been surrounded by strong women who paved the path for me. I am humbled and grateful for them, whether at government agencies, through politics, or other business owners. I am not the first, and I hope I’m not the last. There’s so much power in that relentlessness to succeed.”
As someone who wanted to be a marine biologist when I grew up and now owns and operates a successful boutique PR and creative agency – I’m always fascinated by what other women wanted to be when they grew up, so naturally, I asked Sheena what she wanted to be when she was a little girl.
“I wanted to be a corporate lawyer,” Sheena responded immediately without hesitation. “In 5th grade, our teacher gave us an assignment to write a paragraph about what we wanted in life. I still have it. I was very intentional about what I wanted to achieve in life. I wanted to play hockey, and I wanted to be the captain of the team. I wanted to go to Harvard, and I planned to become a corporate lawyer. All in grade 5.”
Sheena shared that she became good friends during high school with someone whose father was a corporate lawyer. After learning more about his job and what it entailed, she quickly decided that becoming a corporate lawyer wasn’t for her. But she added that while she didn’t become a lawyer, she did check off much of her grade 5 list and studied business law while at Carleton University, noting that today, the law is a big part of her role at Young’s Lobster Company.
Oh, and that bit about Harvard? She said with a grin that she wasn’t ruling out the idea of going to Harvard one day.
Ever since we bought a place to call our own on Grand Manan Island, I’ve been dreaming about grabbing coffee and chatting with Bonnie Morse, the Mayor of Grand Manan Island.
I love watching her determination, dedication and drive to ensure that islanders and part-time residents get the needed island services. We are so lucky to have her.
So I was thrilled to have the opportunity to have coffee with her in September, chat about all things Grand Manan, and hear her thoughts on women in the industry.
You see, Bonnie is not only the Mayor – she’s the Project Manager at the Grand Manan Fishermen’s Association, where she has worked for the last 30 years.
My first question for Bonnie? What’s the best part about being a woman in seafood?
“For me, the best part of being a woman in seafood is the camaraderie with other women who are working for other fishermen’s organizations,” she shared. “Particularly across the Maritimes. Throughout the pandemic, we had our little texting group where we would text each other throughout Microsoft Team’s Meetings because we couldn’t talk in person at these meetings. We still keep in touch and have that group today. It’s really good to have that moral support and other women in the industry to lean on.”
Like Sheena, Bonnie agreed that certain stereotypes come with being a woman in the fishing industry. “I started my career in the fishing industry when I was 20, and I was not only the youngest person in any given room, but I was also female. And with that, sometimes having the ability to have your voice heard, earn people’s respect, and prove your worth can be hard.”
Knowing how hard it can be to have your voice heard in the industry, I couldn’t help but ask Bonnie’s thoughts on why there aren’t more women in the seafood industry. “I think fishing is still a really traditional industry for the most part. More than other industries. Because it is very physical, it’s harder for women to see themselves in that role. But there are a lot of younger women who are crew on boats, and I can see that starting to change. Hopefully, we’ll see more over the next few years.”
Earlier this year, I shared a behind-the-scenes look at my visit to Aqua Veggies, a Grand Manan company exporting dulse and sea vegetables around the world. While chatting with Co-Founder Pam Young, I couldn’t resist getting her thoughts on women in the seafood industry.
And she was just as enthusiastic about her career choice as Sheena and Bonnie. “I just love working with all my friends and family. It’s a real community feel,” she shared. “I love the fact that everything is sustainable and how we are able to live and feed ourselves from the ocean. This industry has so many different and cool aspects.”
Before Aqua Veggies, Pam owned a health food store and spa on the mainland, but she was drawn to Grand Manan, where her husband was a fisherman, to start Aqua Veggies. “This is my passion, and I enjoy all aspects.”
When asked why she believes there aren’t more women in seafood, her response was a breath of fresh air. “I think, surprisingly, there are a lot of fisherwomen. It used to be bad luck for women to be on boats. Now, that is thankfully all behind us. But while there are a lot of fisherwomen now, you don’t tend to see many of them running or owning the business, but they do work in the industry.”
I can’t tell you how refreshing and inspiring it was to have these discussions with women I’ve not only admired for years but to learn how many more women are working in the industry, whether it be as traditional fisherwomen or in the businesses that make New Brunswick a leading seafood exporter.
If you know a woman in seafood I should chat with for future articles, I would absolutely love to hear all about her!
Boatloads of thanks to the team at NB Food and Beverages for sponsoring this post and to Sheena, Bonnie and Pam for sharing your brilliance with me for this article. You all inspire me so much!