A Women’s Business Harvests Shellfish and Helps Conserve Them

This article is part of our Women and Leadership special report, which profiles women at the forefront of global climate, politics and business.

Ana Shellem wakes up at 5:30am six days a week to check the tide and wind conditions for the day. Then she mentally pictures where she will go for wild mussels, clams, oysters and stone crabs. At dawn, she left.

Usually, that means hopping aboard her main workboat, a 14-foot catamaran.

She spends three to eight hours at sea, fishing until she collects the exact number of critters her 10 restaurant customers order. She spent the rest of the day delivering her bounty herself.

Mrs. Shellem, 32, has stuck to that schedule, Monday to Saturday, for the past six years. As the founder and owner of Shell’em Seafood, a sustainable boutique shellfish company in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, she’s a fisherman, salesperson, and businesswoman; a delivery driver; and, not incidentally, environmentalist.

In a male-dominated industry, Ms. Shellem’s success is rare, but not unique.

Throughout history and across the globe, women have played a role in fishing, collecting and making the most of the creatures caught from the sea. More recently, women from Rwanda and the Philippines have also started working on ocean sustainability, serving as watchdogs of coral reefs and fighting against overfishing.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration stated in 2020 that “women play a critical role in the sustainability of global fisheries” and that their participation in commercial fisheries appears to have increased as a proportion of the total number of fishery workers.

Still, the overall picture of women’s participation in commercial fishing “remains poorly understood and largely unrecognized around the world,” the report said.

Mrs. Shellem, who is a one-man business, said her involvement has turned into a successful business, selling about $100,000 in fresh shellfish to restaurant customers along the Carolina coast. Some are ordering as many as 600 to 2,000 a week for 70 cents to $1 each.

“I own my equipment and am the only employee, so the profits are all mine,” she said.

One of her clients is Seabird, a popular spot in Wilmington. “We feature Ana’s shellfish on the menu, and customers seek them out for their unique taste,” says owner and chef Dean Neff.

Seabird serves her mussels in a strong beer soup or in a cold sauce with leeks, fennel and chilli. Both dishes are favorites on the menu, sir. Neff said.

“Her connection to the ocean is palpable, and she has a following here because people are so interested in what she does,” he said.

At Poole’s, an upscale restaurant in Raleigh, Ms. Shellem’s mussels are served in a soup with Dijon mustard, white wine, cream and herbs. At sister restaurant Death & Taxes in Raleigh, oysters are grilled in chili butter and marinated chipotle sauce.

Ashley Christensen, owner of Poole’s and Death & Taxes, says: “Ana’s freshness is unbelievable. Her shellfish are special because she fished herself out of the mud that day. Servers love telling her story and customers love hearing it .”

Mrs. It’s rather unusual for Shellem to handle her business. An actress and model, she joined the tour of Disney’s live show “The Bear and the Big Blue House” at the age of 12. Eventually she settled in New York, where she starred in commercials and dabbled in photography. “They’re doing the show to pay the bills, not the passion,” she said.

A photoshoot took her to Wrightsville Beach, about six miles east of Wilmington, and it turned out to be a trip that changed her life. “I met Jon and we started dating,” she said, referring to her husband, Jon Shellem.

gentlemen. Shellem, a local and co-owner of a pub, grew up fishing wild shellfish for his own consumption and took his future wife on excursions. “We’d spend hours at sea and then come home to enjoy these delicious baked oysters with melted butter or pizza topped with clams,” she says. Shelley said.

After a decade-long battle with anorexia and bulimia, she said she first discovered the joy of food and found independence and solitude on the water.

“There’s nothing more satisfying than collecting seafood to feed yourself, friends and family after hours,” she said. “I realized I wanted to expand my reach to more people by being in the fishing business.”

(She notes that the serendipity of her transformation extends to her married surname, which she uses as the name of her company.)

Mrs. Shellem established Shell’em Seafood in 2016 shortly after obtaining a commercial fishing license. She said she received criticism mainly from fishermen who didn’t take her seriously because she was a woman. “Several people told me they didn’t think I was strong enough for the job and that I was wasting my time,” she said. Shelley said.

But she persisted. Now, she slips away from the boat she and her husband call home and puts out to sea day after day, later spreading her catch out on the dock and dividing the bounty into piles, as each client requests.

Among her conservation goals and her stance against overfishing, Ms. Shellem didn’t even get one more than what was ordered. She delivers her catch herself, driving her pickup truck from client to client at the end of the day.

It was hard work, but she couldn’t stand it, she said. “In North Carolina, Sunday picking is illegal,” she noted. “Otherwise I’d go to sea too. I absolutely love it.”

Mrs. Shellem’s commitment to sustainability has caught the governor’s attention. Roy Cooper, who in August appointed her commissioner for the North Carolina Department of Marine Fisheries, which promotes responsible and sustainable fishing. The committee includes another woman representing the entertainment side of the industry.

Shell’em Seafood is poised to expand its footprint, but ma’am. Shellem has no such ambitions.

“If I start shipping shellfish around, they’re going to sit in the truck for too long,” she said. “It’s not going to be as enjoyable as it should be, it’s the freshest water possible and that’s why I started my business in the first place.”

Shivani Vora is a New York-based freelance writer who regularly writes about trends, design, travel and interesting people.

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