More than a job: Latishia Maui-Mataora

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

Latisha Maui-Mataora, senior fisheries officer and observer coordinator at Cook Islands Ministry of Marine Resources

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 Latishia Maui-Mataora, of Cook Islands, senior fisheries officer and observer coordinator in Cook Islands Ministry of Marine Resources. It is published here to mark International Women’s Day.

“The excitement, the deadlines, the frustration, the people – the list goes on. Fisheries is not your usual 8 am to 4 pm government job. The work requires a radically different mindset because you are dealing with many moving parts, each with its own competing priorities. Just when you think you’ve gotten the hang of something, the obligations change, or new technology is rolled out requiring implementation … Many think we count fish all day, but that’s far from the truth.”

I’ve been seven years in fisheries and am currently a senior fisheries officer and observer coordinator with the Ministry of Marine Resources (MMR) in the Cook Islands. I had come from my studies in Auckland and a few years of working in high-performance sport and living the inner-city life with my husband. We had moved home to instil in our children the same cultural values we grew up with, and I was keen to explore a fitness or sports-oriented start-up. Not to be. With a small island market not able to handle my big business dreams, I was soon needing a paying job, and ended up responding to a call for applicants from MMR, who were looking for an assistant fisheries officer to run the Vessel Management System.

On the day I was interviewed, I remember walking into the ministry offices wondering what I was letting myself in for. I realised I knew nothing about the job title, and focused on just being me – keen to learn and take on new directions, happy to be back home, and giving back in a natural resource area that’s so important for the country. I must have said something right, because I got the call a few days later offering me the job.

I have never looked back.

In seven years, I have learned so much about fisheries and our ocean resources. My primary role as the observer coordinator is to manage the Cook Islands Observer Programme, which deploys trained independent fisheries observers on fishing vessels licensed to fish within the Cook Islands exclusive economic zone, and Cook Islands-flagged vessels fishing in other regional fisheries areas.

Fisheries observers are frontline when it comes to our tuna. They are our eyes and ears out on the water. They collect scientific data used to monitor fisheries, assess fish populations, set fishing quotas, and inform management. Observers also support compliance with fishing and safety regulations.

I love the challenge! The excitement, the deadlines, the frustration, the people – the list goes on. Fisheries is not your usual 8 am to 4 pm government job. The work requires a radically different mindset because you are dealing with many moving parts, each with its own competing priorities. Just when you think you’ve gotten the hang of something, the obligations change, or new technology is rolled out requiring implementation. No day is the same at the office.

Most encounters start off with correcting the perception of fisheries officers and what we do. Many think we count fish all day, but that’s far from the truth. Our mandate sees us working with fishers to ensure the data collected is of high quality, boarding fishing vessels port side (in Rarotonga or Pago Pago, Apia, Papeete, Mauritius) or at sea, doing logistics for observer placement, serving on a round-the-clock shift for a patrol or operation, going into schools to promote awareness and fisheries education, and attending meetings to discuss the management of fisheries.

Opportunities are endless and I love talking about my job. During my seven years, I have been on several surveillance flights with the Australian, New Zealand and French defence forces. I’ve boarded fishing vessels to conduct at-sea inspections with the US Coast Guard in Hawaii, travelled to 15 countries to attend meetings and training workshops, and have worked alongside so many awesome people.

Special moments abound. Sitting in a cockpit of the Australian P3 Orion landing at night in Papeete was awesome. Seeing the runway lights from 100 nautical miles out, then 50, 20, 5 – and finally landing. It’s a memory that makes me appreciate and love the field I’m in.

There’s humour, learning curves, even a bit of irony to the claim that we are born seafarers –at least in my case. My first time at sea sorted out my thinking that I was made for the ocean. It was a rude awakening from day one to day seven. Jumping at the opportunity to board Arago, a French patrol vessel, I told many who had been to sea before me that I didn’t need the seasickness pills, cabin bread and all kinds of sea-legs support. I’ve been on so many boats, I told them. I will be fine. As we departed Avatiu harbour I was feeling great – until the first swells hit. For the rest of the one-week journey I was stuck in my cabin, feeling super tired and seasick. I laugh about it to this day and share that lesson with everyone. And of course, after that I learnt a lesson that applies on land as well as at sea: always take advice and support from the pros.

In 2015, I attended an Australia Awards Fellowship at ANCORS [Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security] to do with developing management capacity to ensure sustainable fisheries in the Pacific Ocean region. During the first class, I was blown away with the journey that we as a Pacific nation and people have had to endure through the decades, from receiving zero dollars to the creation of maritime zones and having sovereignty over our oceans. That history class was a pivotal personal moment for me. I saw myself in that class being part of why our founding leaders of the region worked so hard to take on the world and fight for the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, to create the global rules for oceans. It was an unforgettable moment where I silently acknowledged all who’ve gone before me and paved the way for future Pacific islands custodians of our ocean resources to continue the work.

I realised then, and at every meeting I attend, that the old saying “We are stronger together” is so true of fisheries management through regional solidarity – especially when we as small island, large ocean states are among the bigger and stronger countries. I want us to realise that just because we are small developing countries, we have a voice, and it is only as strong as the bigger countries if we stand together.

Although we have awesome programs in place to combat IUU [illegal, unreported and unregulated] fishing in the region, there will always be the “pirates” who try to ruin this for the rest. I would like my grandchildren and great-grandchildren to able to see and eat the fish that we have available today. If we don’t have sustainable practices that are both safe while still being able to provide economic benefits, then a change of mindset is required. Fish need to regenerate and be resilient to the fishing effort and catches. If the balance of fishing outweighs the ability of fish stocks to replenish over time, the bad practices win, and the vision will be lost.

As a woman in this field, especially out at sea, it’s a world of men. Sometimes, you are reminded of that. On my first vessel boarding to conduct an inspection, the captain was horrible. I felt so intimidated and nervous being a woman. It was a novelty for the captain and crew at the time to see a female fisheries officer giving instructions. Luckily, I had a supportive boarding team and colleagues who ensured I was safe and able to complete my part.

As the years progressed, I keep that memory of my first boarding in the back of my mind. It gets me through the moments when I need a tougher, stronger skin. The men may outnumber the women at sea, but one thing that outnumbers everyone is jargon. The language of fisheries is full of acronyms, my least favourite being the WCPFC, for the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission. It gets me all the time. To this day, I still mix up the F before the C and drop the P in the wrong place. It ends up starting as a stutter and finishes with the giggles. Speaking of which, my favourite acronym is BOJAK, for the Boarding Officers Job Aid Kit – it has a very cool ring to it.

Where to next? I am keen to keep progressing and to get some papers in fisheries management, so study is eventually in the plans. I plan to gain more experience before potentially looking for a regional role. To keep me focused, I often use this quote from Jon Steward as something to live by: “I want to look back on my career and be proud of the work, and be proud that I tried everything.” It inspires me to always give 100% to the task at hand!

Sharing with youth eyeing careers options, I just say give it a go! At times, many feel intimidated by the study of fisheries and marine biology, but I can tell you from experience that you will love it.

I encourage them to identify and treasure the role models in their lives, because I can’t picture my own without the role models who have surrounded and shaped me into the person I am today. My parents, grandparents, especially my grandma. I take lots of inspiration from my faith. Through my busiest, most stressful moments, a little prayer and leaning on scriptures for those moments of struggle goes a long way. Especially for helping you to get up and keep trying in those moments when you fall. Because those moments are just an unavoidable part of life.

I try to live by two things. Family is important. I make time for family and kids, and schedule like a ninja so I can avoid pushing family time aside to meet deadlines. Which brings in the second thing: time management. I use the calendar feature in Outlook for everything. There are reminders for meetings, report due dates, kids’ appointments, my appointments, bill payments and so on. Then I sync this to all my devices, so I am reminded even when I am away from my laptop. Thank God for technology! At the same time, although you can’t pre-plan everything, it’s amazing how much you can plan.