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By KOROI HAWKINS

Wellington, NEW ZEALAND – December 19, 2022 – 12pm (RNZ Pacific): The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) officially announced Rhea Moss-Christian as its new executive director at their 19th meeting in Da Nang, Vietnam late last month.

Dr Rhea Moss-Christian - The incoming Executive Director of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission. November 2022

Dr Rhea Moss-Christian – The incoming Executive Director of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission. November 2022 Photo: RNZ Pacific/ Koroi Hawkins

The long serving Marshallese diplomat is the first woman in the world to head one of the five global tuna Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs).

Of the five tuna RFMOs the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission also known as the Pacific Tuna Commission is in charge of the largest and most lucrative tuna fishing grounds – producing up to 60 percent of the world’s tuna and worth over $US3 billion a year.

RNZ Pacific senior journalist Koroi Hawkins sat down with Rhea Moss-Christian shortly after her appointment at the commission’s annual meeting hosted last week by Vietnam in Da Nang.

Koroi Hawkins: Thank you so much for making time to speak with us. It’s finally official – so this moment like how hard have you been working up to this?

Rhea Moss-Christian: Oh, this moment is still sinking in, it feels like a lifetime of working up to this point. I started working in fisheries when I was 22 years old. I am 48 now. And I have had a couple of breaks in, in my career, but they never lasted very long. I’ve always, I think, just been pulled into this work. Because it doesn’t feel like work because I love it so much. So, you know, getting to have this opportunity and to be in this moment. It’s still, it’s still hard for me to put into words, because it just means so much to me. I decided last year that I was going to apply and starting in January, I just started taking steps to try and prepare myself for the interview. And for this moment, and I just kept visualising that outcome. I stepped down from the [Marshall Islands] National Nuclear commission in December of last year in the Marshall Islands, because I wanted to be sure that no one would question my commitment. Either way, I didn’t think it was fair to the nuclear commission to be there, but trying to move, you know, trying to pivot my career at the same time. I started an MBA programme in early 2021. To boost this application, I wanted to show that my learning my education was recent and relevant. And I’m finishing that program in three weeks. Anyway, this is just all to say that all of these actions and steps I’ve been taking have been to contribute to my chances of getting this position.

Koroi Hawkins: You mentioned that you started at 22 years of age. But tell us a bit more about the steps after that?

Rhea Moss-Christian: So, I was a delegate with the Marshall Islands. And I started with the negotiating conferences for this convention. They were known as the Multilateral High-Level Conferences MHLC. So MHLC two took place in Majuro. And that’s where we adopted the Majuro declaration that would track us through the remaining negotiating conferences. So, I went up through MHLC eight, sorry, seven, and seven was the concluding conference in Honolulu. And then I went to the first Prep Con in Christchurch. And then I stepped out of fisheries. And I tried other work for a while. Nothing stuck. And I came back into fisheries in 2005. And that was with the US delegation at that time. And then 2009 went over, I moved to Pohnpei, because I went to Pohnpei for a TCC meeting with the US delegation. And I met my husband. And so, I stayed like the longest duty travel ever! And then I worked for the FSM government and in this space. So, it’s just been it’s been an incredible journey with so many amazing opportunities to do this work from different angles and viewpoints. And up until getting to chair the commission [WCPFC] and then and I’ve been independent. I’ve been an independent consultant for a couple years now. And so, everything is revolving my life is revolving around this work.

Koroi Hawkins: Tell us about the role and what you hope to bring to it?

Rhea Moss-Christian: So, this role, I think that the secretariat is very much the foundation of this Commission. The secretariat provides the operational foundation so that the Commission can carry out its mandate. And the secretariat has done an incredible job in its very young life. doing that. And I want to continue that work. I also want to bring my own ideas. In the areas of trying to work smarter, work more efficiently, we are getting so busy. There’s so much paper at this meeting, and so many just really difficult and detailed discussions. And we’re not the best at prioritising in this Commission. Unfortunately, we talk about it a lot, but we tend to just try to do everything all at once. I would love to see if we could try to do our work in different ways and be a little bit more creative. So that we give ourselves the best chance and the best opportunity to have good measures in place and some of these measures that are unclear or not well implemented. I’d love to try to address those issues and just do it better. I think that members want to do that. And anytime you have a change in leadership, you have an opportunity to do something different. And I think members are willing and wanting to come with me on that on that effort and see what we can do together.

Koroi Hawkins: Now, obviously, we’ve had some media reports alluding to geopolitical impacts on the choice of the vote. What is your response to those reports?

Rhea Moss-Christian: I think it’s really unfortunate framing. To be quite honest, I think it’s unfair to both myself and the other candidate that were part of this process. I know that Lara has spent also her career in this space and was a very strong contender. [Lara Manarangi-Trott is from the Cook Islands and is the Compliance Manager at the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission] And to put it down to what happened at the forum, really diminishes what we bring as individuals and what our career has meant to us. And so, I was quite disappointed to see that framing, especially because those differences were largely resolved – especially for the Marshall Islands – well before this meeting took place. It is purely coincidental that there was an RMI and a Cook Islands candidate involved. But also, the WCPFC is an international organisation, it’s not part of the crop family of organisations. So, there’s a real distinction there. I just think that that sort of framing is really unfair to us and what we have committed in our careers and what we’ve contributed to this space, and how just how deeply, both of us care about this work and wanted to be in this position.

Koroi Hawkins: I have spent a lot of my journalism career writing about Pacific women in leadership and empowering women. And you guys are the embodiment of this. And all of the women leaders in fisheries that we’ve seen in these discussions in here at this conference. Yeah, speak to that, and to young women, Pacific women coming up through the ranks as well.

Rhea Moss-Christian: I feel so lucky and happy that I get to witness the evolution of women involved in this space. Because when I started at the age of 22, I was a novelty, there were very few women in the room. And I was always the youngest in the room at the time. And watching how much this space has grown to be so much more inclusive, is just a really, it’s an incredible moment today. And to look in the room and see that we’re seeing more women than men in some cases. We’re about to have our third consecutive female chair of this commission. I mean, I’m so excited, I get goose bumps. I’m so excited about that. I just think that’s incredible. I don’t like to be too focused on gender, but I want to also appreciate what it means for us to you know, to break through some barriers. But I think individuals have a lot to do with it as well. I also do think that we do have different perspectives, you know, men and women and, and to have the opportunity to share those perspectives, but more importantly for people to be willing to accept the new emerging women in leadership is really great.

Koroi Hawkins: To the people of the Marshall Islands and the people who supported your bid?

Rhea Moss-Christian: My mother is Marshallese and she’s, she’s not with us anymore. She passed about 12 years ago. And, you know, these are my roots. My career is rooted as a Marshall Islands delegate In the fisheries space, so I would not have been able to have the success that I’ve had without the support of the Marshall Islands government, not only this year in this bid, but my entire career, just to have the government, my family members just backing me and supporting me and believing in me. I don’t think you can accomplish many things on your own. And so yeah, I am so grateful for the support.

The Pacific women in charge of the world’s largest tuna fishery

Rhea Moss-Christian will officially start in the role of Executive Director in early March.

She takes over from long-serving Tuvaluan executive Feleti Teo.

Dr Josie Tamate - The incoming chair of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission. November 2022

Dr Josie Tamate – The incoming chair of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission. November 2022 Photo: RNZ Pacific/ Koroi Hawkins

Shortly after the announcement of Rhea Moss-Christian’s role the director of the Niue natural resources ministry, Dr Josie Tamate was appointed chairperson for the Pacific Tuna Commission the third consecutive woman in that role.

And with their appointments they now join two other high-ranking Pacific women in fisheries namely – Dr Manumatavai Tupou Roosen, secretary general of the Forum Fisheries agency and Dr Sangaalofa Clark the chief executive officer for the Parties to the Nauru Agreement.

What this means is Pacific Islands women now hold the four most powerful and influential roles in the Pacific Tuna fishery. And many of the delegations from the Pacific Islands countries represented at the Tuna Commission AGM in Da Nang were also led by Pacific women.

Sitting together after the close of the Pacific Tuna Commission meeting on Saturday the four women reflected on the significance of their collective appointments for Pacific women in leadership.

Dr Sangaalofa Clark is the chief executive officer of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement. November 2022

Dr Sangaalofa Clark is the chief executive officer of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement. November 2022 Photo: RNZ Pacific/ Koroi Hawkins

Dr Josie Tamate: I think for me, coming from a very small – one of the smallest members of the commission – being in this position, I get emotional, sitting there waiting for the moment of the nomination. And I’m reflecting back where we’ve been, and where we are now. And where we’re going. As one of the smallest members of the Commission. It means size does not matter, the work that it’s ahead of us or before us. It’s the responsibility of all. And I’m really looking forward to working with the new executive director and also working with Sangaa and Manu, over the next couple of years, it’s not going to be an easy road. I know I’ll be leaning on all these ladies, who has done a lot of the years. Rhea being the former chair and Dr Sangaa and Dr Manu are just amazing women in the area they are working on at the moment, the leadership that they are providing for the membership. So, I’m really excited to be here.

Rhea Moss-Christian: Sitting here with these three PhDs is a real honour to be in this group right here. And I think Josie really summed it up so well about how, where we all started, when we came into this work, and how we’ve all I feel like we’ve all sort of quietly moved up. And sort of, you know, we haven’t made a lot of noise and caused a lot of waves. We have in our own different ways, but we’ve just sort of just been diligent and hardworking, and focused and committed. I think commitment really sums up us. And that’s how we’ve, now we’re finding ourselves sitting here. And I’m just, I just feel so incredibly lucky to be with this group of women right now.

Dr Manumatavai Tupou-Roosen is the secretary general of the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency. November 2022

Dr Manumatavai Tupou-Roosen is the secretary general of the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency. November 2022 Photo: RNZ Pacific/ Koroi Hawkins

Dr Sangaalofa Clark: Well, I’m the oldest. It’s an advantage for me, because, in our culture, people respect older people, so I use that! ( group laughs) But I’m very privileged to be here. I think with women we are, servants, we serve our people. And so, having this opportunity to provide this service to our people is such a great privilege for me personally. Thank you.

Dr Manumatavai Tupou-Roosen: I am the youngest…It’s just amazing to be sitting here with these incredible women. (tearing up) I just feel so humble. And I think that these three ladies are all role models, and an inspiration to myself, and to all of our girls and boys. I’ve been really privileged to know these women for many years. And I’m just so proud of how far they’ve each come. And, you know, Sanga summed it up really well front of mind for all of us – and I know what’s in your heart which resonates with all of us – is our people and doing the absolute best that we can during our tenure, to serve them. And it’s always front of mind, our fisheries, our children, our future. So, I really am grateful for this time that we get this opportunity to serve together.

It is safe to say that the multi-billion-dollar Pacific Tuna Fisheries is making a massive statement in support of women’s leadership in the Pacific.

And it is an important statement to make in a region where women are either completely absent or grossly under-represented in parliaments, in governments and in other decision-making bodies and roles right across the public and private sector.

When this article was published RNZ Pacific senior journalist Koroi Hawkins was in transit in Singapore on his way back to New Zealand from Vietnam where he covered the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission meeting. His trip was made possible by the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency.

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