Laughing out loud: ‘Ana Finau Taholo

by Lisa Williams-Lahari | 9 March 2021 | Moana Voices

'Ana Finau Taholo, a Vessel Monitoring System adviser with FFA

FFA’s Moana Voices series on women shaping the future of oceanic fisheries is edited, researched and produced by Lisa Williams. This interview for Moana Voices 2021 edition with ‘Ana Finau Taholo, of Tonga. She works at FFA as a VMS adviser, and is former assistant compliance manager at WCPFC. It is published here to mark International Women’s Day.

“My late father lived by this Tongan phrase while raising us: ’Koe sipinga ‘oe mo’ui, faka’aki’aki mui’ – a call to all that, no matter how much you achieve and are successful in life, stay humble. It’s a reminder to me to stay grounded, and I think surrounding yourself with good, grounding people is a great way to live those words.”

If you had told me in 1997 when I started my first job with a fishing company in Tonga called Sea Star Fishing, that by 2020, I would be the assistant compliance manager at the Pacific Tuna Commission in Micronesia for seven years, and about to take up a new job with the Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) in the Solomon Islands, I would have laughed out loud.

At the time I was in stepping-stone mode, using the opportunity to get me to the next level towards my dream job, and for the 20-something me, that was definitely not fishing! While at high school in Tonga and even into my university years, I fancied, among other things, becoming a writer.

Shortly after joining Sea Star, I was awarded a study scholarship bonded to the Tonga Ministry of Fisheries, so grabbed that opportunity for further education, thinking I was still on track towards finding something better and landing my dream role. Fast forward to 2020 and I have been living the dream job for the last 20 years – and loving it. It is a far cry from my early days at Tonga Fisheries. I had to oversee the trial of this new initiative called VMS, the Vessel Monitoring System. Back then, I had no clue what VMS stood for! Fisheries is loaded with acronyms and to someone outside of fisheries, these are verbiage, but being in fisheries for a while, it becomes your everyday language.

During my service with Tonga Ministry of Fisheries, I was involved in fishing vessel inspections, particularly checking VMS units and conducting observer placement meetings.

The vessel operators and crew did not like having a woman come on board and checking things and, at times, made it difficult for me, ignored me or simply did not take me seriously. But I continued about my job as professionally as I could and eventually they accepted me, and I enjoyed the rapport of a good working relationship built on mutual understanding.

In my early years at Tonga Fisheries, I was part of a team, the youngest and only woman, sent to the outer islands to conduct consultations with vessel owners and operators on having VMS on board their fishing vessels. I had to do a presentation on VMS to stakeholders. I prepared for that presentation for weeks and I did a great job delivering it. But right after my presentation, one male vessel owner who was against having VMS on board his vessel got up and wrote off my presentation, simply because I was young, and a woman. He was blunt about it. I must admit I was floored. It was hard not to take it personally. But under the guidance and encouragement of my superiors at the time, I was able to rise above it. I was more determined in my work, and after the week-long consultation that same operator asked to have VMS installed onboard his vessel – and to be trained along with others on the use of the VMS software to track their boat while out at sea.

Fisheries is a male-dominated area, especially when I started about 20 years ago. The first regional meeting I attended was the Forum Fisheries Agency’s 7th working group on monitoring, control and surveillance (MCS) in 2004, in Madang, Papua New Guinea. I was one of a handful of women at that meeting. So, it is very pleasing to see more women in fisheries nowadays and especially in leadership roles.

Fisheries is often seen as a blue-collar job and not for women. But I tell people, especially youth, that there are a lot of exciting opportunities in fisheries. It may be challenging, especially in an area where it is male-dominated, but that just means we must work harder and smarter. Young people love to travel, so I often use that as an enticement: that a career in fisheries can take you places where you meet different people.

My parents taught me the value of hard work, perseverance and humility, and my late father lived by this Tongan phrase while raising us: ”Koe sipinga ‘oe mo’ui, faka’aki’aki mui” – a call to all that, no matter how much you achieve and are successful in life, stay humble. It’s a reminder to me to stay grounded, and I think surrounding yourself with good, grounding people is a great way to live those words.

It has helped me connect with mentors who’ve helped me navigate the complicated but exciting world of fisheries. The compliance manager at North Pacific Fisheries Commission, Peter Flewwelling, and the late Colin Brown of the Cook Islands gave me so much of their time and mentored me in my early years when I joined fisheries. It helped solidify my interest in fisheries and my decision to stay with fisheries as the dream career.

Along this journey, I have met so many wonderful women who are an inspiration to me: the current FFA Director-General, Dr Manumatavai Tupou-Roosen, and the former WCPFC chair, Rhea Moss-Christian. They are an inspiration to me because they give all heart and dedication to the work they do and the people they serve. They prove that with hard work and determination, women can succeed in what we put our mind to, floating above the noise, achieving focus to get work done.

Head and upper body photo of Rhea Moss-Christian, left, and 'Ana Finau Taholo, right
Ana (right) and one of her mentors, Rhea Moss-Christian, share a good laugh

Compliance work at the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission WCPFC) involves developing draft compliance monitoring reports (CMRs) for each country involved in the WCPFC. These reports track each country’s compliance with its WCPFC obligations. It also flags areas where technical assistance or capacity building may be needed to assist small island developing states attain compliance.

But the fun part of the rules and what keeps me in this field – other than the fish – is the people! The work we do is service to people at its core.

Our oceanic fisheries resources are crucial to our people for food security, social and economic development, and the Pacific Island identity. I have met and worked with a lot of great people with whom we share the same passion about what we do, and they have become great friends and family to me. I see these as my fisheries family, which does also keep me in this field.

I am joining the FFA within the next few weeks as the compliance policy adviser. I look forward to joining FFA as I am passionate about serving our people and this will give me a greater opportunity to work directly with our countries to effectively manage and conserve our resources for generations to come.

I think the future of fisheries will continue to be an urgent priority for our people. It is vital that we ensure that it continues to provide – not only economically and socially but as a secure source of protein – for many generations to come. Working to ensure that vision comes with many stand-out memories. Among them is one moment in 2008, when as part of Tonga’s delegation to a WCPFC compliance meeting, the TCC4, we successfully listed a Chinese Taipei vessel suspected of IUU [illegal, unreported and unregulated] fishing in Tonga’s waters on WCPFC’s provisional IUU list. It resonates with me because a lot of work went into this, before, during and after TCC, not only from Tonga government, from New Zealand government whose air surveillance initially detected this illegal fishing, from the FFA Secretariat legal team who assisted with putting the case together, and from the FFA membership who all joined forces at TCC4 to successfully get this vessel in the provisional IUU list. Subsequently, it led to a successful negotiation and settlement with the vessel owner, resulting in a substantial monetary payment to Tonga. It reminded me that the work we do matters in protecting our resources for our people.

More recently, in my current job, witnessing the adoption of the observer safety measure in 2016 at the 13th Tuna Commission meeting in Fiji, was, I think, one proud moment for all, particularly Pacific flags at the table. To top it off, that historic moment took place under the able leadership of the commission chair, Ms Rhea Moss-Christian of the Marshall Islands.

As for the future milestones for fisheries, and my own professional and personal aspirations, I’m looking forward to the post-COVID-19 new norm, whatever that will be. In 10 years, I see myself in a leadership role, where I can continue to contribute and make a difference in the management of our fisheries resources.

To my younger self, I would say: “Be bold, be fearless and be willing to say your piece.” To youth who may be eyeing the same career path, I say: “Welcome aboard! Set your goals and take that first step. It will not be smooth sailing at times, but stay the course and you will reach your destination.”