Whether it’s chairing the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority, running ultra-marathons or raising a family of seven, Beara woman Susan Steele’s energy is impressive, writes Maria Moynihan
IF you were to ask Susan Steele what have been the proudest moments of her career, you might imagine the answers to be: (a) finishing her PhD at 23; (b) earning her pilot’s licence while on maternity leave, and going on to complete her coach and truck driving licence for good measure; (c) training for the gruelling 200km Kerry Way ultra-marathon while holding down a demanding job as ceo and chair of the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority in Clonakilty; oh and (d) raising seven children at the same time.
‘I always say it was reversing the trailers,’ she laughs.
Rewind 15 years or so. After the birth of her second daughter, Susan left her research post in the UK to return home to West Cork to work with BIM training local fishermen. While self-conscious of her youth, she was determined to be taken seriously: but one day, while preparing for a boat handling course, the person who usually reversed the trailer into the water for her wasn’t available.
‘It took me an hour and a half to get it down the slipway,’ she recalls, cringing.
‘I remember I got the boat in the water and I went into the toilets and I cried my eyes out and I said, ‘I am going to learn to do this.’ And I took the boat and the trailer out to the local woods and I practiced and practiced and practiced and practiced until I got so good at reversing boat trailers that one day I was in the fisheries college and someone came in on the pier and asked me to reverse their trailer.
‘That was it. That was the whole success of it.’
And it does not take too long to realise that Susan has brought this same focus to every challenge in her career; though as the daughter of food icon, the late Veronica Steele, who started the Irish farmhouse cheese revolution with a one horned cow called Brisket, how could she do otherwise?
Sadly, Veronica lost her battle with the degenerative disease, MSA, in January, but her spirit lives on. Susan explains how Veronica had prepared all the family for the end and how they had spent special time together, including taking a train journey across the States from Chicago to LA.
‘And when I was on it, I took some video recordings of her and the other day I selected one and I asked her, “What’s the secret of life?” And she said, ‘I don’t know, but every minute is precious, so enjoy it”,’ smiles Susan.
‘She was an absolutely phenomenal mother and just was a professional granny and I would get nowhere in my career without her.’
Susan shares the same wry smile as her mother: but while Veronica was of the land, Susan is of the sea. And with her job running the independent state body responsible for enforcing sea fisheries laws, food safety and trade, her enthusiasm hits you like a wave.
She was just three when she decided she wanted to be a marine biologist and didn’t waste her time; by 11, she was earning £20 a week cleaning tanks in a local fish farm; by 17 she was working as a research assistant in Trinity after answering an advert in New Scientist, and by 23 she had completed her degree, master’s and PhD.
By 24, she also had her first daughter, Emma, while working in the UK, but it was the arrival of Lizzie 17 months later that swept her back to Irish shores.
Born eight weeks premature with a teratoma (tumour) and later diagnosed with cerebral palsy, Lizzie spent much of her early life in Temple Street, with Susan taking on a role as a lecturer with Open University to be as hands-on as possible with her care.
However, after leading shore walks for BIM in West Cork, she was offered work training local fishermen on everything from first aid and survival skills to fish farming. She recalls how on her first day, she hired a mini bus and brought a group to the auction halls to observe the market price earned by different grades of fish, before treating them to breakfast.
‘We sat in Bantry and had breakfast and we worked it out, well they worked it out, I just sat there drinking tea – the best way of teaching – and they all worked out that they’d make 10 grand a year extra if they landed good fish,’ she explains.
‘And the aim of the course was to land good fish and what happened then was that they listened to everything that I said and they came; and I ended up with a full-time job out of it.’
Her next role saw her head up BIM’s Seafood Innovation Centre from a green field site, working with the industry on developing value added products from mussel butter to pickled seaweed. While Susan loved this work – which in many ways, reminded her of her parents Veronica and Norman’s journey with Milleens Cheese- by 2013, she was ready for a new challenge: which she certainly found with the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority.
The SFPA is an independent state body with three key roles: regulation of sea fisheries laws, seafood safety and trade.
As a regulator, Susan describes the SFPA’s main role as ‘guardians of the sea’, ensuring that there isn’t overfishing, that quotas are adhered to and that sustainable practices are enforced.
‘There’s kind of a resentment about regulators,’ she acknowledges, ‘but we’re essential because in the marine if somebody overfishes, it affects everybody.’
Indeed, she believes that ‘fair and effective regulation’ is key not just to protecting the fisheries, but Ireland’s coastal communities.
‘If we fail as a regulator and fish stock collapses, then you’re not going to end up with enough people in a coastal community to have a hospital, to have all of the things that they need in the coastal communities,’ she explains.
‘You’re guardian of the sea, but you’re also guardian of the coastal communities.’ She speaks with conviction of her vision of ‘a sea full of fish and a coast full of jobs’ and believes there are many opportunities that remain untapped.
As CEOand chair, Susan’s focus is to provide leadership, ensure corporate governance and look after her staff. Though if that was not challenging enough, in recent years, she has also become an accomplished endurance athlete, running her first marathon when her youngest son was five months old after reading The Non Runner’s Marathon Guide and going on to complete the 200k Kerry Way Ultra and Killarney Hardman, as well as becoming the first person to complete the 125km Pilgrim Path challenge covering five routes in five days in memory of her mother in January.
Indeed, it is not unusual for Susan to get up early to cycle from Clonakilty to Cork city for a meeting, to take a conference call while training on the Beara Way or to run- literally- between meetings.
‘The suits were the secret,’ she reveals, explaining that she discovered that Hobbs suits roll perfectly into her rucksack and emerge crease-free, allowing for a ‘Wonder Woman’ change just before work.
‘Because you always have to be able to do the ‘Wonder Woman’ change,’ she nods sagely.
With children Emma (17), Lizzie (15), Martin (14), Molly (12) and Nicholas (9) and step-children Eoghan (17) and Carl (12) with her husband John Murray, home life is equally hectic.
‘I’d love to be an octopus,’ she says, explaining how it has a separate brain in each of its eight arms, making it a multi-tasker extraordinaire; or basically, the closest thing to an Irish mammy under the sea.
Though we reckon she is doing just fine with just one; so what’s her secret?
‘Eating tonnes of fish,’ she smiles brightly, ‘it’s really good for you!’
For further information about the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority, visit www.sfpa.ie
Permitted with kind permission of The Farmers Journal/ Irish Country Living