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Julie Kuchepatov

(She/Her), Founder, Seafood and Gender Equality (SAGE)

“[The pandemic] …is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers, and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.” 
- Arundhati Roy, “The Pandemic is a Portal” 

While life can feel like a series of choices, challenges and changes can happen without your consent. For example, because of the global pandemic and despite my best efforts, I lost my job. I am honored and humbled to share the evolution of my career as a woman in the seafood industry, one that closely mirrors the evolution of the sustainable seafood movement itself. 

I’ve been passionate about the sustainable seafood movement since its inception over 20 years ago. I have worked tirelessly since 2008 to engage Russian commercial salmon fisheries in sustainability initiatives with a special focus on the Sakhalin Island pink and chum salmon fisheries in the Russian Far East—one of the most prolific salmon fisheries on our planet.

However, as I stood in the parking lot of a processing facility on Sakhalin after a particularly rough day, I had a moment of clarity: I felt that I was missing a big piece of the equation. I asked myself,  

What am I  doing to support the people and communities who depend on these fisheries?

Around that time, newspapers started to release bombshell articles about forced and child labor in global seafood supply chains and I began to think about how to ensure social responsibility in global fisheries and their supply chains. I evolved to theorize that if people’s livelihoods and social wellbeing were assured, they would be better environmental stewards. At this time, I was fortunate to transition to an organization that worked to ensure social responsibility in small-scale fisheries.  

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and I lost my job. 

Throughout my time navigating the seafood industry one thought has persisted and grown in importance; there is a large need for gender equality and women’s empowerment, period. Women make up 50% of workers in global seafood production and are found at every link of the seafood supply chain. Even though one of every two workers in seafood is a woman, their voices are seldom heard in fisheries management discussions, their work is rarely acknowledged and sometimes unpaid, and their vast contributions to ensure thriving fisheries are rarely recognized. 

I realized that due to the global crises we are facing – the COVID-19 pandemic; the reckoning that social justice movement like “Black Lives Matter” brings to the U.S. and abroad; and the global impact of climate change on our ocean and planet – the status quo is no longer an option. We are spurred into another evolution and, importantly, this evolution must put women front and center. 

I took a risk and ventured out on my own; I started SAGE (Seafood and Gender Equality) an initiative to uplift, amplify, and integrate diverse women’s voices in global seafood production. SAGE has an ambitious goal of achieving gender equality and empowering women in at least 75% of global seafood production by 2030. Importantly, we recognize that there is no one solution to address the challenges facing our growing population; therefore, collaboration is key.  

To achieve SAGE’s mission, we promote gender equality and women’s empowerment through education, advocacy, and communication. As a relatively new initiative, I spend most of my time educating about the unseen women behind our seafood through webinars, interviews, articles, and social media. As we grow, I plan to work in all areas where women can be found in seafood supply chains— so, basically everywhere! I’m extremely excited to put my storytelling and communication skills to work and share the amazing stories of the women who work hard to put seafood on our plates and shelves globally. (Psst, a podcast and a digital magazine are in the works, so stay tuned for more information once we are ready to launch!)

We have a long way to go to ensure that gender equality – a fundamental human right – is assured in every country on the planet. But we are evolving, and we have choices. As we celebrate women this industry, let’s challenge each other to put women front and center to lead the evolution to a more sustainable and equitable future. 


Note: This article was originally published on March 8, 2021 for International Women's Day and was republished August 26, 2021 for Women's Equality Day.