An Ocean of Opportunity: Women Transforming the Blue Economy
The coastal region of Aquitaine in southwest France is known for its sand dunes, fine Bordeaux wines and delicious seafood.
Maïder Taudin is a fishmonger at The Aiguillonin Fish Market in Arcachon. The family fish shop sells all kinds of raw and cooked fish, molluscs and crustaceans. She says many customers who come into the store ask for the fish skin to be removed.
“We take the skin off the fish, because usually people don’t eat it, especially when cooking fillets – so the skins go in the trash, we don’t use them for anything.”
Turning fish waste into money
But one woman’s trash is another woman’s treasure. A few years ago, local entrepreneur Marielle Philip started using the skins to make fish leather. She took over her mother’s ancient Norse tradition, collecting the unwanted byproduct to produce hides.
“In Aquitaine, there is a large seafront, there is the Bassin d’Arcachon, we eat a lot of fish here. There is aquaculture, especially trout farming. So why not recycle the waste from this sector – fish skins – and transform them into leather?
From her small workshop, Marielle harnesses the raw skins that have been thrown away by fishmongers and wholesalers.
“The process is quite long. It takes about two weeks to go from rawhide to dyed and finished leather. The skins are soaked several times – passing through tanning and coloring baths, then they undergo mechanical treatment – they are flattened and stretched, achieving better flexibility and a certain finesse… During the process, we only use just crushed herbs, no other chemicals, so it’s pretty eco-friendly.”
To finish, Marielle irons the leather, adding varnish and sequins.
“It’s the same as classic leather. The only difference is that there is a scaled pattern – just like ostrich, crocodile or snake leather, which also has a pattern, so it is in the category of so-called exotic leathers.
Today, Marielle sells her “marine leathers” online and supplies small local manufacturers. Thanks to the support of the European Maritime, Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund, this innovative recycling of discarded fish waste has given rise to a successful business.
Like other types of exotic leather, fish skin can adorn a wide variety of fashionable clothing, accessories and footwear. French fashion brand Pas Kap likes to use fish leather in many of its products. Karine Coutière, craftswoman, explains to us.
“Baby shoes, women’s shoes, from a small card holder to large luggage, a handbag, a small clutch, a bracelet, a keychain – it’s endless. I find that fish skin has something precious and original while being very respectful of the environment. I am proud to be able to work with this raw material, very proud!
Transforming the blue economy
The success stories of women like Marielle tend to stand out in the male-dominated fishing industry. In Europe, less than 4% of workers on fishing vessels and less than a quarter of those in aquaculture are women.
But on the Greek island of Kefalonia, a women-run aquaculture company is trying to stem that tide.
Directed by Lara Barazisince the late 1990s Fisheries of Kefalonia has multiplied his production by 30 times. He also ensures that things remain sustainable. The company breeds sea bass and sea bream in floating cages for customers around the world.
“The majority of our management team are women: we have fantastic women in our R&D, our sales, our quality control, our HR department – basically I think we are all women, except in two departments.”
While the men in the business still tended to do more physical tasks – like feeding the fish or diving to inspect the nets – the women took on key management and administrative roles. By embracing this diversity, Lara says the company also makes it easier for its employees to balance work and family obligations.
“We are very flexible in terms of maternity leave and remote working. If someone tells me, listen, I have to leave a little earlier because I have to pick up my child and then I’ll work maybe a little later or on the weekend – that’s fine with me.
Working at sea can be physically demanding, especially in the winter, but that hasn’t stopped Katerina Katsika. She has been raising fish in cages for 30 years and is now responsible for ensuring the good health of the population. Each year, Katerina’s team, mostly young women, vaccinates one million small fish to protect them from disease.
“In winter, it’s very cold and choppy at sea, but I think women who choose this kind of work appreciate it. It’s nice to work so close to nature when you love the sea. I don’t think that they don’t see any problem, they like it!”
Adelaida, an ichthyologist at Kefalonia Fisheries, also says there is a misconception that the job is too physically demanding for women.
“You need physical strength for some tasks, but not all, so all the work here isn’t just for men. A woman can do just as well!”
Research is a vital aspect of any aquaculture business – production depends on the hatchery which is both a laboratory and a farm.
Evi Abatzidou manages the Kefalonia Fisheries hatchery. Along with her colleagues, she oversees the broom, monitoring the growth of young fish, from tiny eggs to larvae and juveniles. The fish remain in the hatchery until they are large enough to be moved to the sea cages.
“We select the best fish – fast growing fish with better shape. And we use them to parent the next generation. Hatchery procedures are very scientific – they must be very precise and the work must be very thorough. Women are very good at this.
Female Kefalonia Fisheries staff also play a leading role in quality control and, typically for the fishing industry, process and package the final harvested product. The feminization of the company at all levels, however, is considered the norm to follow in the industry.
the Hellenic Organization of Aquaculture Producers, which represents 80% of the Greek aquaculture sector, runs awareness projects for young women. The body’s communications director, Ismini Bogdanou, said the aim was to dispel misconceptions and encourage more women to pursue careers in the industry.
“We are trying to introduce knowledge about aquaculture into schools. We do seminars, write articles on women in aquaculture, and introduce women to the different paths, career paths that they could take if they wanted to join this sector. It’s not just about packing up and being on the water all day, but they can be engineers, researchers, scientists, food specialists, and they can even be captains if they choose.
Achieving gender equality will take time – but the fishing industry is slowly but surely moving away from the outdated stereotype that it is a male-only industry.