Fisherwoman and industry advocate Mary Howard

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

 The expression still water runs deep is pretty perfect for a woman like Mary Howard. On the surface she is a smart, friendly and hard-working fisherwoman with a strong family focus. But dig a little deeper and and there’s a lot more going on here.

Mary is a commercial wild harvest fisherwoman on Sydney’s Hawkesbury River. With her husband Graham, they trawl for prawns up and down the river right outside their house every weekday morning during the prawn season (October through to May). The afternoon we visit, Mary and Graham are busy packing that morning’s haul into small bags which will be frozen then sold as bait. “The bait market is strongest right now,” Mary says, though at other times in the season the prawns go straight to the Sydney Fish Market too.

Some mornings they will bring back as much as 100 kilograms of prawns, others will be much lighter, as few as 25 kilograms, “but so far, this season is shaping up well,” Mary says. "Some days the prawns will be right outside the mooring, others we travel up the river for up to an hour to find them.” And how do they know where to look? “It becomes an instinct.” Mary says. The Howards have been living and fishing here for over 30 years, so by now they know the river and its prawns pretty well.

Mary grew up in Liverpool where her parents had a market garden. As a child she would help her father get their produce ready for market and spend afternoons and holidays chipping cauliflower, parsnip, lettuce and other vegetables.

After finishing school in Year 10, she worked with her family until marrying Graham and moving with him to the Georges River. Graham was working for a boat builder at Menai and was also establishing his own boat building business. Graham's boss had an order to build a fishing boat for the Hawkesbury River, he became friends with the owner and was asked to visit the Hawkesbury and go fishing with the new boat owner. “We just fell in love with the place,” Mary says, “30 years later and we still love it!”

Mary had always taken an interest in land and water management and had of course, a vested interest in the future sustainability of the fisheries industry that was her family and community’s livelihood. So fourteen years ago she decided to get involved. Really involved.

Mary enrolled in an aquaculture  course with Grafton TAFE. The course was completed via correspondence and gave Mary not only a swag of excellent practical knowledge that was directly applicable to her daily fishing work but also, a set of writing and research skills that enabled her to begin producing papers on issues she was passionate about.

Since then she has authored four papers and presented them at conferences around Australia, has been a Director of the Hawkesbury Nepean Catchment Management Authority, is working on a new paper and is also considering a book. On top of this Mary is the National president of the Women’s Industry Network Seafood Community (WINSC) and in this role has just organised a successful national conference in Canberra. The theme was 'Sustainable Seafood - The Challenges and Opportunities" and attendees covered adjustments to wild harvest fisheries around Australia and the impacts to families as a result of Marine parks, Aquatic reserves, Recreational Fishing only Havens and general closures to fishing grounds making commercial fishers non viable. As Mary says, "it was an extremely emotional but successful Conference." She is now preparing to attend the next one in South Australia at Port Lincoln on the 26th October 2013.                                                                                      

Mary has become a strong voice for Australia’s commercial fisheries and an advocate of their sustainability and development. “I have a lot to say and I want to be heard,” Mary says, “but I realised that if you are going to be heard you need to get involved. You need to be educated and reasonable, and you need to present well.”

And so, in addition to her more academic pursuits, Mary has also taken public speaking courses, completed the Australian Company Director’s Course and more recently has undertaken a course in media training. In 2010 her research and practical fisheries work awarded Mary the Sydney Fish Market’s excellence in environmental practice award.

Mary’s first paper, “Aquatic ecosystem productivity relies on water managers and sustainable cities,” was a convincing argument against the pressure placed on wild harvest fishers like Mary, Graham, their friends and family.  “I thought it was time the rest of the community realised the effect they too have on our waterways,” she says, “from recreational fishing to every day water use; people just don’t understand the collective impact that all water use has on the productivity of our aquatic ecosystems.”

Mary argues that the wild harvest fishing industry in NSW is constantly being challenged yet constantly meeting those challenges. “We keep adjusting and have established that this is a sustainable industry but still “policy and the community primarily focusses on sustainability, and 'wild harvest fishers' are always the target”.”.

The commercial wild harvest fishing industry is indeed shrinking. Forty years ago there were over 6000 commercial fishermen in NSW and today they number less than 1200. As Mary says, there is no incentive at all for anybody to enter into this industry, “we see incidences of suicide at the extreme end, and across the board fishermen are discouraging their children to join the industry.”

Of Mary and Graham’s three children, one son is working as a commercial prawn fisherman and another was in the industry but has moved to another sector after an injury. Their daughter, who lives two doors up, works in real estate.

All her working life, Mary has been involved in family businesses; from helping her parents run their market garden as a child to working alongside her husband in their prawn fishery and boat building business. “Family is the driving force for everything I do,” she says. And as we walk around the garden, evidence of Mary’s commitment to her family is all around us - literally.

After taking an owner builder course this year, Mary is now renovating the house to provide more room for family gatherings. She drafted up drawings and had full plans drawn up, then, “much to the amazement of my husband, submitted them to council”. Now, with Graham’s help and the occasional contractor, she is not only running a business, researching and continuing her advocacy work but also renovating a house.

Did I mention she is just over 65 years old? “Oh yes, I’m a fair way of retiring I hope.” She says.

Mary is a seriously impressive woman. From leaving school in year 10 she has gone on to educate herself to the point that her research papers are now affecting legislation changes and all the while has worked her own family fishery, raised three children and become a strong voice for women in commercial fishing.

With yet another review of the commercial wild harvest fisheries industry due out within months, Mary is bracing for yet another round of cuts to the industry and is preparing yet another paper to argue against them. Watch this space!


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