Pacific Ocean’s hidden figure: Sangaalofa Tooki Clark

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

Dr Sangaalofa Tooki Clark, CEO of the PNAO

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 Dr Sangaalofa Tooki Clark, of Kiribati, and Chief Executive Officer, PNAO. It is published here to mark International Women’s Day.

“These are fascinating and exciting fields to be in and being able to use the skills to assist your country and your people – that is hard to beat! In this field and area of work, I think you need to be able to work alone when necessary and be self-contained. But the perception that maths and science require a cool, detached, robotic approach is definitely not my reality!”

I came into fisheries through my love for science and maths.

The 70s and 80s were a big coming of age for my country. Kiribati and Tuvalu emerged from the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, and I was looking for jobs that could capture my interests in science and maths. At that time, fisheries work was the only work that came close to combining those interests for me. It was either that, medicine or teaching. I ended up going to USP in Fiji, but there was no fisheries degree at the time. There was biology, that was the closest, or a diploma in tropical fisheries. I did a Bachelor of Science degree in maths and biology.

When I first started working in fisheries after I graduated, it was early days for the Convention on the Law of the Sea; it was all coming together. The EEZs [exclusive economic zones] and licensing were coming in, and I was the Kiribati Fisheries Statistics and Licensing Officer. Those were the early days of Pacific nations taking back their rights to their seas. In 1982, PNG arrested the Danica and two years later, the Solomon Islands got tired of reporting all the US fishing vessels in its waters to the US government. They seized the Jeanette Diana. When the US government launched its embargo, the Solomon Islands responded by kicking all the US fishing boats out of its EEZ. 

In Kiribati, where there was also lots of sighted unlicensed fishing, we followed suit and licensed Russian fishing boats to come fish in our waters, because of the stand-off between the Pacific and the US. Vanuatu also did the same, in solidarity with what was happening in PNG and the Solomon Islands. That situation with Russia licensed to fish in Pacific EEZs lasted about a year, and given the geopolitics of the time, it eventually brought the US to the Pacific table. By the time they had drafted and agreed on the signing of a unique fishing agreement between the United States and all the Pacific island countries of the Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA), I happened to be there. I had just joined FFA at the time on attachment from Kiribati, so went to Port Moresby in 1987. It was a major moment for the Pacific, and a privilege for me to be there! 

Being at FFA took me on another adventure: I met my husband Les and we got married in Honiara, then went to Fiji, Oman and on to Namibia. Wherever we lived, I did some part-time roles – teaching science to school kids in Namibia, helping a local fishing company there with their database and finance systems, and witnessing the growth of a country that was coming out of apartheid and into a process of what they called Namibianisation. But in the end, we needed to come home to the Pacific.

In 2000, we came back from Namibia to the Solomon Islands. Les took up a job with FFA but, due to the tense period and the ages of our children, I stayed with them in New Zealand while he worked in Honiara. 

I thought I would use the time to get back to school and update my skills, so took on post-grad studies in computing. Just catching up on the advances in computing was a big leap. My first experience of computing at USP was during the age of cards, where there was a card for every character, so, for an algorithm, you would have a big bundle of cards which had to be taken to be run on the one computing machine in the city. Now, there I was trying to catch up on the past 10 years’ advances in computer technology. It was like jumping into deep water without learning how to swim first!

Our children and I joined Les in Honiara in 2002, after which we all moved to New Zealand in 2004, with our children going through their final years of secondary school and on to university. It was around then that I went back and started part-time studies again at Lincoln University. That led to a PhD in mathematical and computational modelling.

In 2010, when the Parties to the Nauru Agreement Office (PNAO) was first set up, I was recruited by the office to do consultancy work on the PNA Vessel Day Scheme (VDS). This included looking at the VDS and determining what information would prove helpful to countries for managing their VDS days. The work included reviewing the VDS text as well as analysing the data available on effort in parties’ zones, and presenting the information to parties in a useful and comprehensive way. It was exciting to see countries make use of the information to start formulating strategic plans and collaborating together to maximise benefit from their VDS.

During a special meeting in Nauru in 2010, in response to the analysis showing that Nauru’s days were due to run out, Nauru announced that they would close their EEZ when that happened. I personally think that that marked the turning point in zone-based fisheries management and the VDS. It would have made companies realise also, that the traditional annual fishing licenses could no longer provide certainty of their fishing activities in PNA zones: they needed to buy VDS days. 

Subsequently, Nauru and the Solomon Islands became the first countries to close their zones the following year, when their PAEs were reached. This coincided with a special PNA official meeting in Nadi and certain companies that were fishing in Solomon Islands at the time came to Nadi to negotiate on the side of the PNA meeting, on how to continue fishing in Solomons EEZ. This led to the US$5,000 per day price that became the minimum benchmark, signed by PNA ministers at the FFC [Fisheries Forum Committee] meeting in Apia straight after the meeting in Nadi. The rest is history.

When I look at the journey and how far we have come as a region, I think the biggest change I’ve seen in the last four decades has been the confidence and the respect that Pacific nations have gained as they asserted their rights over their resources and their waters. 

When I first started attending WCPFC meetings, it was to represent Tokelau, because I used to do some fisheries consultancy work for them and, sometimes, when they couldn’t attend, they would kindly have me attend on their behalf, which was a great privilege for me. At the time, we would just sit and listen to the big countries talking to themselves, and we were always quiet and never said anything. I would wonder, “How does this work? Do we just sit and listen to these people discuss and decide what to do with our zones and our fish? There’s something wrong with this.” But all that has changed now – it is quite different.

My new role as Chief Executive Officer to the PNA Office starts when I travel to take up the post in Majuro, having worked for the office formerly as a consultant and then as a policy manager. I have been in this field this long because of the great people I work with. If I wasn’t working at the PNAO, I would likely be doing research work somewhere, as I love to learn and study how things work and find solutions to problems.

There’s still a lot to research and analyse in oceanic fisheries. With good management, the tuna resources in the WCPO should remain sustainable and increase in value, and foreign fleets will systematically be replaced by domestic vessels. Revenues from the tuna fishery will continue to provide funding to Pacific governments for work, especially in health and education projects. It will also continue to increase benefits in employment and processing for Pacific people, which is what I want, as any Pacific Islander would.

As for younger ones eyeing careers in mathematics, computing and science, I am excited for them and hope they get to do it. These are fascinating and exciting fields to be in and being able to use the skills to assist your country and your people – that is hard to beat! 

In this field and area of work, I think you need to be able to work alone when necessary and be self-contained. But the perception that maths and science require a cool, detached, robotic approach is definitely not my reality! I’m a big softy and am driven to tears over the slightest emotional things – an inspiring speech, a moving story or movie, disagreements, you name it. 

I haven’t really felt the gender dimension of being a policy adviser. I believe that how things affect you is entirely up to you, so it is very important to know who you are and what you’re capable of. 

When it comes to the work–life balance for working mums, that’s a delicate and sensitive question. It depends on each individual mother and her circumstances. In this day and age, often both parents will be working away from home. In my case, I was lucky to have the choice of being a full-time housewife and mother to my children, because that was what I aspired to be – to look after my children and be just like my mum, Eimi. She was my role model: she loved me unconditionally and was always there for me. She died when I was 15, but the love she gave me has been with me and sustained me all my life, and it’s a bond I wanted my children to have as well. I also see them as my role models because they make my life complete and, like Les, are a constant source of inspiration. When they got older and didn’t need my full-time support, I was lucky to have been able to go back to school and, from there, get back into the workforce and be of some use. I couldn’t ask for more.

I’m happy where I am now. I am committed to the work I do for PNA. It is very rewarding, especially when I feel like I’m contributing something. Otherwise, just put me in a room with a computer, problems to solve and a lot of data – and I’ll be happy.