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Women Are #MakingWaves In SA’s Fishing Sector

  • 8 min read

For Port Elizabeth local Sagree Gerdharee, fishing beat out fashion to shape a successful career as the CEO of Mayibuye Fishing. 

Family duty meant that holidays were spent behind shop counters or offloading vessels, and her entrepreneurial father, Boya Chetty, who began the business and built it up from humble beginnings would be proud today that she’s “all in” and thoroughly enjoying it. 

“Watching and learning from my father who had been in the fishing industry for over 40 years was all the experience I needed. I worked in his shadow, and it was only when he passed two years ago, that the time came for me to make waves myself,” says Gerdharee, who is also the Vice Chair of SECIFA (South East Coast Inshore Fishing Association). 

Today, both Gerdharee and her husband are hands-on and working to grow their business and that of other entrepreneurs in an industry which she describes as highly volatile and capital intensive.

Despite having small quotas and limited resources, Mayibuye Fishing has made meaningful investments in both hake deep-sea and inshore trawlers. Through partnerships fostered with like-minded local and international organisations, they are proudly doing our small part in contributing to much needed job creation and off course local economic opportunities.

“I find the fishing industry to be very competitive and challenging and I’m constantly thinking about those who must live off this industry. That would be my goal and inspiration, to ensure that we all get the benefit of this resource and play a significant role in the industry. 

“My father pioneered transformation in the fishing industry and I have a big shadow to live up to, but he instilled in me high values, integrity and work ethic, all of which I apply each day.”

The call of the ocean also lured WWF-SASSI Manager Pavitray Pillay at an early age, but unlike Gerdharee, the prospect of a career that had anything to do with marine sciences couldn’t have been further from her traditional Indian family’s minds. As a child growing up in Pretoria in the 1980s, she would pore over the second-hand National Geographic magazines her father would bring home from his job as a fruit and vegetable seller.

“I would cut out pictures of dolphins and whales and stick these in collages. I remember thinking, it’s so far removed from my reality. I couldn’t fathom how this diver was able to explore a world I was so captivated by, yet had never been anywhere near,” says Pillay, a marine scientist who now heads up the SASSI programme and is devoted to leaving a legacy of a safe protected marine environment people respect. 

Every step that Pillay has taken on her journey in the marine sciences has brought her a step closer to the purpose she had as a child, leafing through those National Geographics. “I don’t fit the model of a marine scientist or what was then the traditional stereotype of an Indian woman. But all I remember thinking is that I wanted to take all this amazing science I learned and shift people, move people the way I felt moved by those National Geographics.

“I never thought I would get to work at an organisation like WWF where I get to make an impact that goes beyond simply saying ‘Save the Fish’. There are those who are reliant on that environment, reliant for their livelihoods, for a source of food. So, you can’t simply have a preservationist attitude towards this environment. Rather, if we are to use the resource, we must do so responsibly and sustainably.”

Sustainability is a journey that many brands have committed to as part of the WWF-SASSI Retainer Participation Scheme including Breco, now Atlantis Seafood Distributors, which is where Kubie Pieterse hails from.

“I started off as a personal assistant and the bookkeeper for a fishing company. That evolved into a role as a shore skipper offloading seafood and that’s where I got my first knowledge of working hand in hand with seafood,” explains Pieterse.

You never know where your next step is going to take you, she adds. “I didn’t think I’d end up in seafood as a Durban girl who studied to be an accountant but ended up learning everything about trawling, seafood and trading thereof, latter thanks to my past Executives at Breco and my current Executives at Atlantis Seafood Distributors, and continue this journey of learning from them.”

The impact of the fishing sector on lives and livelihoods

South Africa’s fishing sector feeds more than three million people in South Africa every day, from the affordable and tasty meal of canned fish to a parcel of hake and chips, to locally caught rock lobster in a fine dining restaurant.

What many people don’t know is that the fishing industry comprises 22 different sectors and directly employs over 27,000 South Africans, like the women and men of Atlantis Seafood Products, who own 100% of this Atlantis-based factory which happens to be the third-largest fresh and frozen seafood processing factory in South Africa.

The R250-million Atlantis-based factory established in 2007 with 54 staff members processing only frozen and fresh fish species into portions and fillets, has grown and now comprises several factories.

Chances are, if you’ve bought smoked salmon, frozen prawns or hake fillets from many of the retailers in South Africa, from Pick n Pay to Spar, Food Lover’s Market to Shoprite Checkers, by putting seafood on the menu you’ve helped to put food on the table of over 1,500 people who benefit from the over 350 jobs created at Atlantis Seafood Products.

And all this achieved without an economically viable fishing quota. A viable fishing allocation, from which these women and their families would derive 100% of the tangible benefits, would be a gamechanger. It would cement the future of the factory and its empowered workforce.

This recipe becomes even more compelling when one considers the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment’s strong emphasis on job creation, especially amongst those people living in marginalised communities and growing economic sectors reliant on the environment without destroying it.

Many of the women at Atlantis Seafood Products are single mothers and have worked their way through the ranks in different roles within the factory.

Carlene Jacobs started as a scrubber on the production line and is now a supervisor just six years later. She speaks fondly about her co-workers and explains how most are hard-working women who are all striving to achieve the same goal – to give their children a better life and better circumstances.

“There aren’t a lot of job opportunities in Atlantis. But, for as long as I can remember, Atlantis Seafood Products has been offering employment and relief to residents. It’s also one of the only companies that has continued to operate right through the pandemic,” she says.

Originally from a small farm just outside of Atlantis, Janine Esau has worked her way up the ladder of success during her 14 years at the company and has had her finger in practically every pie along the production line.

Starting out as a general worker and packer, she moved on to being a scrubber, a scaler, a filleter, and – finally – a well-respected supervisor. “I’ve continued to push forward and have accomplished a lot in the 14 years that I’ve been here,” she says. “The skills that I’ve learnt over the years have been so diverse. It makes the job exciting.”

This August, Atlantis Seafood Products shares the stories of those women, and men, who work in the deep value chain of South Africa’s fishing industry, from the ship’s skipper to the chef. The Making Waves campaign (#makingwavesza) comprises interviews with and insights from people who span a multitude of roles many South Africans would never have equated with the fishing sector – their stories of how they came to work in fishing, what’s important to them and the role that the sector plays in their lives and that of their families.

It’s almost impossible not to get swept along the tide of enthusiasm as Fish SA Exec Chair and a Making Waves super lifter, Loyiso Phantshwa, who talks about the opportunities that exist in the fishing sector.

“The sea offers opportunity,” he explains, not only because of fishing, but because of the “many other things” that are dependent on the fishing sector flourishing.

“Look at those communities in rural towns that rely on the fishing sector, the factories inland further down the value chain. Most people think that fishing is a little boat in the sea and have no idea what process was followed to get the fish from the sea to the plate,” explains Phantswha. The Making Waves campaign aims to change this.