West Cork native Dr Susan Steele, has been a multitasker all her life — from voluntarily cleaning fish tanks as an eager youngster to being a busy mother of seven today.
Hard work and getting on with the job has never been an issue for Ms Steele, having been born into one of the best-known food-producing families in West Cork.
The Steele family is behind the Milleens brand, and fond childhood memories include milking the cows and delivering Ireland’s first farmhouse brand of cheese.
Ms Steele developed a love for the marine at a young age, beginning a love affair with an industry she says can be one of the fulcrums of the regional economy for generations to come.
“I don’t know where it came from — I was just attracted to the sea. I took a mad notion as a youngster that I wanted to be a marine biologist. I used [to] clean fish tanks and used to stay for days on end at Sherkin station with Matt Murphy. My whole life has been the sea. Even off work, I am swimming in the sea every morning, or out on boats. It’s more than a job, it’s an obsession. It’s an honourable job and I think it’s making a difference.”
A support network that began with her parents has been passed down to her own children, according to Ms Steele — her seven children make her dual roles as mother and formidable marine protector that much easier.
“I’m so lucky because I have the most amazing children. You just have to plan, you have to have a good team around you, and you have to have amazing children. The way I was brought up on the farm and in the cheese-making business helped. Touring around the country, they used to come with me so they have been very integrated into the career. It’s been fun and I’ve been very lucky, to be able to work and enjoy them,” she said.
Studying under one of the great female trailblazers of Irish academia, the legendary UCC zoology professor Máire Mulcahy, also left an indelible mark, said Ms Steele.
“Máire Mulcahy is one of the most incredible academics in the country, and I actually don’t think she realised how brilliant she was for so many people. I really count her as one of the great influences in my career, a truly phenomenal person.”
That life experience made the role as chair of the SFPA a natural progression, and ahead of World Fisheries Day tomorrow, Ms Steele is adamant about fishing’s potential for Ireland. The SFPA is Ireland’s authority for seafood safety and sea-fisheries protection.
“It’s something that people aren’t always aware of — that for every one acre of land that Ireland has as a State, there are 10 acres under the sea. Unlike other countries, Ireland has a very big continental shelf, the richest fishing ground in Europe. We have phenomenal natural resources out there. It is prime real estate in comparison with other countries.
“There is more that we can do with the sea. We are just on the start of a learning journey with it, and we are developing all the time. There is lots of lots of great work being done and we are always looking at what more we can do. Our vision is coasts full of jobs and seas full of fish.”
The statistics are impressive. Ireland’s seafood sector is experiencing a period of sustained growth. Markets for seafood are growing rapidly, offering enormous opportunities to the Irish sea-fisheries and seafood sectors. It currently supports approximately 11,000 jobs. In 2016, the industry contributed €1.1bn in GDP. Globally people are eating more fish per person — approximately 20kg a year — and this is expected to increase by 50% by 2030.
“There is huge work being done by Bord Bia and the Department of Agriculture, Food, and the Marine — we are exporting to 46 countries outside the EU. Trade missions are happening all the time. Our fish is coming from clean, unpolluted, rich waters. It really is a good product we are selling,” said Ms Steele.
The key is sustainability and that it where the SFPA comes in, she said.
“When people ask what do regulators do, it’s wanting to keep the vibrancy going. We don’t want what happened to Newfoundland in Canada to happen to us. Newfoundland had a big collapse of its cod stock, it wasn’t managed properly and it was heartbreaking to see.
“By contrast, in Norway, their recovery and sustainability plan worked so well that the cod grew incredibly large. Their fishing industry is so vibrant. It really is a balancing act — to take action now to plan for the future,” she said.
If done right, the possibilities for regional economic balance are tantalising, said Ms Steele.
“The vision of the SFPA is jobs in coastal communities in Castletownbere, in Dingle, in Galway, in Killybegs, in the Aran Islands, all around the country. We want these communities to be vibrant communities, with schools and hospitals and thriving industry.
“It gives people a wonderful lifestyle, visiting coasts and making a good living. I firmly believe we can make it happen.”