A Steele guardian of the sea

susan steele headshot

Posted on: 5th September, 2016

Category: Features

Contributor: Mary O'Brien

Chair of the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA), Susan Steele (42) knew she wanted to be a marine biologist since the age of three. Her passion for life means that when she’s not juggling a busy career (as a guardian of the sea) with family commitments (she’s a wife and mother of seven), Susan is out ultra running, flying or sailing. Mary O’Brien finds out what drives this exceptional woman and why she’s so passionate about good food.

Born into one of Ireland’s best-known cheese-making families in Eyeries on the Beara Peninula, Susan Steele’s family life has always revolved around food.

Her mother, Veronica Steele – now sadly battling Multiple system atrophy (MSA), a progressive neurological disorder – is credited with creating Ireland’s first farmhouse cheese ‘Milleens’.

“I love food ¬ I love the great choice of food producers that we have in West Cork. My children all cook with great passion and I have one daughter who decided at a very young age to be a chef and wows us all.

“Food is pleasure, it is health and it is a reason to get up in the morning!  I can’t wait for the Taste of the West Cork Festival, as I always find new things and rejoice in the old delights. We are so lucky living here.” Susan will be participating in festival when she returns from a week-long trip with Minister Doyle and Minister Creed to develop seafood markets in Vietnam, China and South Korea.

The Steele children were all very much involved in the family business growing up. “We drove cows, milked cows, turned cheese, delivered cheese,” recalls Susan nostalgically. I always loved doing tastings and handing out samples. In the same way as my children come with me, whenever possible, we went everywhere with the cheese. I am very grateful to my ‘baby’ brother Quinlan who has taken the reins in Milleens cheese.”

Although Susan says (tongue-in-cheek) that she did rebel by becoming a marine biologist, she credits her parents Norman and Veronica Steele with being her greatest supporters. “They put up with my first aquariums (it took a long time to learn to keep animals alive so there were some smelly moments!). They were my first teachers and mentors. From an early age I was interested in naming everything on the shore including the birds. My mother and father helped me learn all the names of birds and taught me to read and write before I started primary school. They helped every step of every project. I remember us sitting down as a family when I was doing my PhD with everyone handwriting labels for sample jars (it was the days before Avery printed labels). They stood on the shore in the freezing cold when I snorkelled around Beara, helped carry diving gear when I was diving. My father’s penknife has helped on every shore expedition that I have ever undertaken.”

Susan has fierce admiration for her mother who she describes as “being so brave and having such dignity in the face of one of the toughest possible diseases that any of us could face.

“I remember a conversation many years ago when I felt my hard work wasn’t getting the results I had hoped. She reminded me that I could sit on an exercise bike and peddle really hard and I would never get anywhere. She made me realise that while it is great to work hard – it doesn’t always give results!”

Always determined, at the age of 11, Susan pestered the local fish farm until they let her feed the fish and help clean the tanks. She saved her ‘earnings’, which went to pay for summer courses in Marine Biology at Sherkin Island marine station.

“By the time I was 18, I had gained huge experience. I spotted a job ad in the New Scientist magazine for a marine biologist. I applied and ended up working in Trinity College Dublin for a summer.”

She went on to study in Bangor and when there did lots of study in Lough Hyne Marine reserve, which led her back to Cork and UCC where she did her PhD with Prof. Maire Mulcahy.

Today Susan juggles a busy career with being a mother to seven (including two step-children) ranging in age from 17 down to eight-years-old.

“Sometimes I wish that I was an octopus. They have eight arms with a brain in each of them! This means that one octopus arm can be working out how to open a jam jar and the head can be working how to get out of the cave! I trained as a Business Coach a few years ago and this was great for helping me to work out how to achieve balance. With my kids, the job, training, studying – I spend my life working out how to get many things done at once!”

With a family of seven, money is important but Susan says that she has never been driven by money or material things. “I am driven by making a difference and in some small way, trying to leave things in good order for all of our children.”

The main highlight of her career was being made Chair of the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority. “The marine is a shared resource. The SFPA act as guardians to make sure that it is protected and fairly shared. Our vision is ‘coasts full of jobs and seas full of fish’. This harmony is possible if we realise the value of what is in the sea, broaden the focus to a wider range of species and seaweeds and develop really exciting products from seafood,” Susan explains passionately.

The SFPA is the independent state body responsible for enforcing sea-fisheries laws in Ireland including food safety laws relating to fish and fishery products.

Another high point was setting up the BIM seafood development centre in Clonakilty. “It was like a baby. I still walk into the building and smile. It is a centre of excellence with a great culture and is delivering tremendous results.

Susan is also very proud of her involvement in the establishment of training for the fishing and aquaculture industries through the regional fisheries centre in Castletownbere. “This is where I first really got to know the industry and people involved in it. It is vital that we continue to work with the coastal communities and to provide the tools so they can keep innovating and keep growing.”

She believes that one of the main challenges ahead for Irish fishermen is ensuring a sustainable industry to achieve the collective ambitions for the development of Ireland’s valuable marine resources.

“Fishermen operate in a sector where change is constant – both with regards to prices and markets. One of the biggest challenges facing fishermen is how to work that change to their advantage.

“The new Landing Obligation, which requires fishermen to land what they catch is being phased in over the next few years and will involve changes to industry practices. There are opportunities too, though. Many years ago, monkfish were thrown over board because they were not seen as valuable. Today as demand for Irish seafood grows at home and in overseas markets, there is value in many species that we don’t consider at the moment.”

Apart from wishing for eight arms like an octopus, Susan’s aim for the future is “to keep learning, keep communicating and when the time comes that others stand on my shoulders, that what I have done stands up!”

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