In 2020, Amy Kirke’s dedication to the ocean and its inhabitants earned her the mantle of Northern Territory AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award winner thanks to her work in sustainable fishing and commitment to encouraging more women into the world of Science, Technology, Math and Engineering (STEM).
Amy Kirke began her schooling years a long way from her hometown of Perth. Travelling with her parents, whose careers were intertwined with the mining sector, young Amy started school in Chile alongside her sister, in a small, rural mining town. From there, the family skipped onwards; living for four years in the red-stained soils of the Pilbara before moving to Laos in South East Asia.
Completing her high schooling back in Western Australia, Amy lived in, on and around the west coast. “I did a lot of sailing, swimming, snorkelling and diving. That’s what I remember most growing up; camping and fishing and always being on the water. I loved biology all the way through high school and I really had an attachment to the water and the ocean through activities and sports and the happy memories made when we were on holidays.”
With a mother concerned about the future job prospects of a scientist, Amy chose a double degree in Arts and Science, incorporating both psychology and marine and conservation biology into her schedule at Murdoch University. Although an increasingly competitive industry, marine biology won in the end – driven by an experience swimming with the largest fish in the ocean.
“I did an elective unit over our winter break at Coral Bay, an hour south of Exmouth on Ningaloo Reef where my university had a research station,” she says. “We did a lot of swimming with sharks, and on my day off I went on the Whale Shark Swimming Tour. It's very hard to describe being in the vast blue of the ocean with a creature that size.”
In 2018 the marine biologist jumped at the chance to take on a PhD at Darwin’s Charles Darwin University, studying the biology and ecology of the Australian Blackspot Shark and the Milk Shark caught as bycatch in Northern Territory commercial fisheries. Arriving in the aftermath of Cyclone Marcus, she was greeted by upturned trees and cut off water and electricity. Through her study of commercial fishing, the urge to teach and spread awareness of sustainable fishing started to float to the surface.
Amy began to immerse herself in outreach programs; passionate about encouraging more girls and women into STEM. “I did Science Week last year and realised this was definitely what I was looking for. The kids had to listen to me going on about sharks for an hour!” she says. “I started to notice it's a lot harder for outreach programs to get to communities in the Northern Territory. It’s so important that we get to future scientists earlier, to get them thinking about their future. Just asking themselves questions; ‘What do I want to do? Where do I want to go? What am I interested in?’.”
Amy developed a pilot outreach program titled the Science Totally Roadshow; a simulated, interactive fishing game educating school children on all things sustainable fishing. Adapted from a program created by social enterprise Blue Ventures, the kids are separated into teams and run a ‘fishing season’ on a reef mat, sparking conversations about management inputs and how fish populations are affected. With discussions already in place with schools across Darwin, Amy has her eyes set on Arnhem Land and schools near Kathrine, hoping to roll the program out across the state. The scientist says emerging Indigenous commercial fisheries could have a real influence on Australia’s fishery management.
As the winner of the Northern Territory Rural Women’s Award, the researcher will funnel her bursary award towards rolling out the roadshow program later this year. “It was an absolute honour to win, I was very surprised. I applied because I really want to push myself to do more outreach,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to start the ball rolling on something that's quite important. One of the goals outlined in the 2020 Close the Gap report is to get more Indigenous kids into tertiary level of education. I think stuff like this, where I'm a role model for women in STEM, is to go out and show others it can be done.”
The AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award is Australia’s leading award acknowledging and supporting the essential role women play in rural industries, businesses and communities. Applications for 2022 open August 2021.