A real life David and Goliath struggle has unraveled in the Pacific as a young woman from a small island nation takes on the cause of protecting the world’s dwindling tuna stocks against bigger countries and interests — a role that has earned her global respect.
In her day job Rhea Moss- Christian works as the special adviser on Oceans and Trade to the government of the Marshall Islands, where she provides direct support to the Minister of Foreign Affairs. It is in her unpaid role as chair of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, the rule-setting body for the world’s biggest tuna fishery, that she has won the respect of the world by moving the institution from a state of paralysis.
At 42, Christian had spent more than half her life working with tuna and other marine resources. “For 20 years I have been following this path on fisheries,” Moss-Christian said. Her work in fisheries started with her undergraduate study in an American University. But her career began during the time WCPFC Convention was being negotiated in the 1990’s. The convention eventually gave birth to the commission.
Straight from school she helped the RMI government during the regional fisheries meetings and the United Nations negotiations as the they struggled with other Pacific countries to establish a body that would bring sustainable management to the last healthy fishery resources.
Christian is a cheerful young mother who takes her job seriously. She made history as the first woman to chair the Pacific Tuna Commission, a body which brings together all the big fishing nations from Europe, Asia and North America with developing Pacific nations such as Indonesia and the Philippines. Her recent re-election for a second two-year term is testament to the respect she has won from the members.
She wears so many hats and has recently given birth. As she travels around Asia and the Pacific with a breastfeeding baby, she is breaking new ground for women hoping to make a positive impact in the world.
When asked about her experience as chair from a small island nation such as the Marshalls, Christina said she doesn’t see a problem dealing with commission members from large countries. “I don’t know if it affects me directly, I work very hard, I try to give equal time to delegations. I don’t see that my representation as a small island state should cloud my ability to do that,” she said.
WCPFC membership includes all the nations that fish in the Western and Central Pacific and the resource-owning island states. The aim of the commission is to put fishing for tuna and other species that range widely across the ocean on an economically and environmentally-sustainable footing. Fishing is a cut-throat industry powerful nations involved have not been willing to act even when tuna stocks drop to critical levels.
As chair of the commission, Christian shoulders a huge responsibility especially when two of the main commercial species of tuna are at dangerously low levels. The Pacific bluefin tuna and bigeye tuna are in most trouble, with bluefin down to 2.6 per cent of pre-fishing stocks and bigeye down to 16 per cent. Both stocks continue to be overfished. Christian said the challenge can be daunting as different countries have different interests. The way the commission is set up every one has to agree to measures or they will not be agreed. She said that the challenge is to help members meet their interests. There is a mechanism to do that and “there is a way for them to agree to take action even if they don’t see it immediately,” Christian added.
Christian, in her pioneering role, said she is humble about her substantial contribution and happy to see more opportunities for women.“I see myself as someone who cares about the issue not as a woman but as someone who plays on my strengths, (in) taking the role as chair,” she said. “From the time I started to now, it’s encouraging to see that there is a more balanced representation (of women) at meetings and in their delegation, I think that is just a sign of growing interests overall in the importance of fisheries especially in the Pacific region,” she said.–First published in Pacific Island Times and Pacific Note