Living the dream: Joyce Samuelu Ah-Leong

by Lisa Williams-Lahari | 10 March 2021 | Moana Voices

Joyce Samuela Ah-Leong, a fisheries management 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 is with Joyce Samuelu Ah-Leong from Samoa. She is a fisheries management adviser with FFA. The interview is published here to mark International Women’s Day.

“Whether you are national or regional, one thing doesn’t change: at the centre of all the work we do is the humble tuna fish which feeds millions and millions of dollars into our Pacific nations and is eaten all over the world.”

I came into fisheries because my Dad thought I was playing too much rugby while my classmates were getting jobs. True story. 

He just turned to me one day and said, “You better go find a job.” I went to the Public Service Commission office, keen to see if they had any work in the environment ministry. I remember the lady behind the desk telling me the environment jobs were all taken, looking at my study program at USP and saying how my marine biology degree program sounded like something related to fisheries. She gave me a letter and told me to head over to the fisheries ministry. 

It was an eye-opening experience for me. My marine biology degree, which I had taken only through for my passion for the environment, suddenly made sense. The field work and my love for the sea, all in seven months of on-the-job experience – snorkelling doing coral reef monitoring, fish monitoring, invertebrate monitoring, fish-market surveys, fish-landing surveys – even a krill census! By the end of that seven-month experience, when I headed back to Fiji for my studies, I knew fisheries was where I wanted to be. 

It was also good timing as Samoa Fisheries was undergoing a massive restructure and I was listed for a post on graduation. I came back with my degree and went straight into fisheries, and it’s been my passion ever since. 

Right now, I’m a fisheries management adviser with the Forum Fisheries Agency in Honiara, working with our countries on fisheries policy, management systems and processes. This links to our regional voice at the Pacific Tuna Commission, or WCPFC. That’s a huge focus of my current work, supporting our Pacific nations in the technical meetings and annual Tuna Commission session, helping members to discuss and develop regional positions on the issues relating to management of the tuna fishery. 

Fisheries management work in the Pacific is really living the dream for me. I can’t see myself doing anything else. I’m not really one for over-thinking things or wanting to know where I will be a decade from now. I am more an in-the-moment kind of person. And fisheries are such a critical part in our lives as Pacific people. As large ocean states, we depend on fisheries for livelihoods, income generation, economic benefits. Tuna fisheries are the economic core for many of the Pacific island states, particularly the small island states. It’s such an important field that for many Pacific nations you can just look around and say tuna money did that, license fees did that. It’s more than food: it affects how governments earn, and cover goods and services for their people. Then, of course, there is the private sector and employment benefits; the list goes on. That’s been part of the dynamics of tuna fisheries management in the region for many decades. It continues to evolve and shift. 

With all the latest changes, science, and technologies to improve what our nations are doing, and how we work in this field, it’s exciting work. Even though it’s been my only career choice, I feel like there’s fresh directions every time I look. I don’t feel myself feeling tired and wondering what the next move will be. I just know that in less than a decade this sector is going to look different – an improved version of what we see now. In that sense, I want to continue to be the best that I can be in this role of service to the Pacific, with all its exciting challenges and opportunities. 

Through all my meetings and travel to Honiara or around the region and beyond to represent Samoa Fisheries at the FFA level, I was inspired by the work here and had my sights set on eventually doing the same. Working at the regional level requires a step up in professional intensity and approach. It’s a chance for those who want to take national experience and career networking to the next level. 

But whether you are national or regional, one thing doesn’t change: at the centre of all the work we do is the humble tuna fish, which feeds millions and millions of dollars into our Pacific nations and is eaten all over the world. 

There have been many standout memories along the way. When Tokelau was chair of the Forum Fisheries [Committee], hosting the forum officials in Nukunonu and then the ministerial [meeting] in Atafu, it struck me how many fisheries officials and leaders were affected by the boat travel between Apia and Tokelau—talking about oceanic fisheries is one thing, and being out in the ocean habitat of the tuna was another! 

A more solemn moment was the presentation of the Samoa Fisheries Management Bill to a parliamentary review committee, and with members of parliament invited to sit in. I was head of fisheries at the time, holding a bill with all its clauses in English and doing my translation and discussion in Samoan to the elected leaders. I thought of my parents and all they had done for me—especially my father and his “get a job” push for me, which started it all. It was a huge moment. The bill went through to its third and final reading with no changes, although it was almost 10 years of drafting before it made it to Parliament, and I don’t think there’s many women who’ve been able to have that memory of Parliament. 

Fisheries is the same kind of space: more men than women across all senior levels, unless you are in the cannery or the market. But things are changing. I know when I started, I was one of a handful of women fisheries officers back then. There’s still an imbalance in the numbers, but the scale of our contribution is equal, and I think there’s a camaraderie and support which is above gender issues. I don’t think coming into a male-dominated environment bothered me that much. It helped strengthen relationships for us female colleagues; we were like sisters in fisheries, and it was the same at the regional meetings and networks, to this day. From the early days of my career, I brought an attitude with me which refuses to let gender be an issue for anything. I’ve always had that strong-headed approach to life, so if it was happening around me, I was probably a bit blind to it, to be honest.

Realistically, the future of fisheries will remain challenging. There have been so many changes, both natural and man-made, and it will continue to require all the demanding work to continue what those who’ve come before us in setting up arrangements and processes have started. I have faith in the Pacific way of producing solutions to fit our circumstances, even while we are nodding at everything that’s happening in the world around us. We’ve worked very hard over the years and put together many arrangements, systems and processes that allow us to work within ourselves to withstand our changing environment. It’s important to improve, to be ahead of the times, such as with technology.

Ten years ago, everything was a paper trail. Now we’re talking about electronic monitoring, electronic reporting, and that is making us look across at everything else we do – our systems and processes across the board. These also need to step up and maybe transform to another level of management where we’re no longer talking about just identifying risk, we are implementing risk management and improving systems for monitoring and evaluation in a timely way. It’s got to be a constant part of work because fisheries management is constantly changing, enforcement is always expanding, and change is a fact of everything we do.

Pacific nations are sovereign owners and responsible for the world’s largest ocean areas and EEZs [exclusive economic zones]. The management of the tuna resources is something that heads of fisheries and anyone who works or studies in this field takes so seriously, because the oceans are connected to everything else in our communities. That’s how engaged people are. 

Acronyms are part of any regional organisation’s work. It’s not just in fisheries. I would say WCPFC is probably my favourite. I just like the way it sounds. But imagine having to say that whole Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission every time you talk about the Tuna Commission [laughs], so that’s a definite favourite, simply watching people trying to get through the mouthful. The least favourite depends on what pops up at any time. Right now, it’s the CMS, or catch management system, where the specifics of fisheries gear and species are so detailed and there’s so much data around each species, bycatch from fishing, and so on. [But it’s] an important part of keeping on top of fisheries licensing compliance and sustainable management. 

Ten years down the track, I’d like to be in a role where I am providing experience and knowledge to those countries that need it in fisheries, maybe working for myself, if I am not still in regional service with FFA or from another corner of the region. 

Advice to my younger self? I would say, take more risk, look beyond and outside of the box. When you’re young, you can take more risk and have a go. You don’t have to be the smartest in the room. You do have to work hard and be prepared for challenges and opportunities in equal measure. What I’ve seen is the ones who seem smartest are often just the best-prepared, and anyone can do that. I think strong work and team ethics go a long way in any career. For regional work, they are essential.

In this field, I have so many people that I look to for inspiration. They are too many to name. Of course, our Director-General, Dr Manu Tupou-Roosen. I’ve known her prior to that role, and seen the work she puts in. I’ve seen so many fellow friends and colleagues from my years in fisheries accept senior roles at national and regional levels, and they’ve all taught me something. They take the time for conversation, and it’s always the type of talk where you leave inspired and wanting to do better and work harder.

The wisdom I would share comes from my faith. One phrase I often pull out to gain strength or live by is that the will of God will not take you where the grace of God will not protect you. It really sums up everything for me, and the other comes from an economics teacher back in Samoa, who told me: if you fail to prepare, then prepare to fail. 

As a mum, I also believe in balance. My rule is never taking my work home. At home, there is a whole other set of commitments that kick in. In our family and communities, we all have cultural ties and obligations that you must balance. At the end of the day, keeping that balance is so important to being a better person, wherever you are.