A new baby, a flood and a leadership program have added colour and chaos to Paul Aquilina’s life over the past year, but the irrepressible young fisheries leader wouldn’t change a single thing.
“I’m flat-out or nothing,” he acknowledges. Taking part in the 2020 TRAIL: emerging leaders program offered Paul a complete change of pace, and a new appreciation for the industry in which he makes his livelihood.
“It was great to be in a group with people I’d never otherwise cross paths with, from all aspects of regional Australia,” he says.
“TRAIL gave me a framework to learn about different styles and models of leadership. Prior to that, I didn’t reflect on anything in my work – you just get it done. The program had us really thinking about it.
“We learned a bit of weaving on the program, while learning about Aboriginal culture, and that’s something I still do now. It’s a good way to reflect.”
Known to many as ‘Nipper’, Paul has been sustainably harvesting prawn and freshwater eels on the Hawkesbury River since 2012.
In March 2021, as the TRAIL program neared its conclusion, the Hawkesbury River flooded, enforcing a halt to Paul’s work. After weeks of cleaning up, Paul and his partner Alex welcomed their second child.
“The flood was a blessing in disguise.” Paul says.
While he makes light of being able to “paddle board” into his own living room, Paul says the TRAIL program provided a whole new perspective on pace and pressure.
“TRAIL is so inclusive. It takes you through some physical challenges, but you learn quickly that everyone’s different, and you can only go forward as fast as the slowest travelling with you,” he reflects.
“Fishing on the river, when you see people being overly competitive in the way they fish, it used to get me wound up. I’ve learned through TRAIL to deal with it. I let it go, but keep working to make sure I’m being sustainable, and representing my industry in that way.”
As well as helping him embrace ‘slowing down’, Paul credits TRAIL with broadening his horizons well outside of his community and industry.
“It’s helped me to recognise and understand all these problems that we confront in different settings – from racism to domestic violence – I am so much more conscious of it now, and able to identify it when I come across it.
“I’ve also learned to communicate more clearly. I’ve always been pretty laid back, and I have an attitude where nothing phases me, but I have a responsibility to be really clear with the people working for me,” he says.
But at the end of a leadership experience impacted by a global pandemic, while a host of other changes affected his own life, Paul has emerged from TRAIL with his values of openness and optimism enhanced.
“TRAIL was so much fun, I didn’t want the experience to stop … Now I have all these networks and I still talk to those people I met on the program and have them to help me problem-solve.” He says.
As he looks to the post-flood future, life is always going to be about the water.
“Our life is the Hawkesbury for now, but I’d love to fish different areas in my career. It’s not about going much bigger and getting more boats, but about the life we can make as a family in this industry. I’m where I wanted to be as a kid, so I’m very lucky.”