September 26, 2022


It's Your Education

Wanted: More Pacific Islands women in marine sciences

By Juney Ward -Ecosystems and Biodiveristy Officer, Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme *

Opinion – An interactive dialogue that was part of the UN Oceans Conference in Lisbon, from 27 June to 1 July, shone a light on the increase of scientific knowledge, research, and marine technology – and marine scientist Juney Ward* says more Pacific women are needed in this sphere.

Marine scientist Juney Ward wants more Pacific women to get into the field of marine conservation, to help add their knowledge to saving the ocean.

“Let’s stop talking about the challenges and focus on doing what we can do to be the solution for our ocean’s health”, says marine scientist Juney Ward (left).
Photo: Supplied/ Pacific Regional Environment Programme

When I was growing up, the potential careers I knew of were limited. I knew about being a doctor, a nurse, accountant, lawyer, shopkeeper, or a teacher, but I wanted to do something to help save our ocean. Only I didn’t know what there was out there.

My siblings and I spent most of our weekends as a family at the beach. My dad was a surfer when in Australia and so driving 30 minutes away from town to the nearest beach is where we would end up every weekend. Naturally my passion for the ocean and environment started from there.

The day I wanted to pursue a career in marine conservation was when I was watching tv and there was a news item on whales getting harpooned for scientific purposes. It was very upsetting as a young girl to see how whales, including mothers and their calves, were getting chased and killed.

A whole world opened for me as I learnt what I could be – a marine scientist working in ocean science for conservation. It’s a career path I embarked on and haven’t looked back since.

This week, as the UN Ocean Conference has just finished in Lisbon Portugal, it’s fitting to reflect upon statistics that were shared from the 2017 UN Ocean Conference. We must keep these issues current and part of the conversation at all times.

At the academic level, statistics showed that from 2012 to 2017, women represented over 50 percent of the graduates, in both bachelors and masters degrees, from the University of the South Pacific’s marine science programmes.

Yet, despite the growing number of women enrolling in marine science university programmes, women accounted for only 18 percent of fishery science and management staff in the Pacific islands, according to a 2011 study.

In contrast, women accounted for more than 60 percent of administrative and clerical staff in government fisheries divisions.

When I was doing my degree in marine science, it was dominated by male students. There were very few female students taking this, and also there were only two of us from Samoa that were women.

It wasn’t a field that was promoted as you graduate from preparatory year, and a degree in biology, chemistry or geography were your usual fields that you are exposed to when trying to figure out what to take at university.

Luckily for me I had already known what I wanted to do.

Marine scientist Juney Ward's days 'in the office' are often an adventure.

Marine scientist Juney Ward’s days ‘in the office’ are often an adventure.
Photo: Supplied/ Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme

We need more Pacific Islands women working in ocean science. I know first-hand the importance of seeing people like me represented in all spaces.

As a Pacific Islands marine scientist, I would like to see more Pacific Islands women work in this ocean science field, like me.

As Pacific Islands women we know our ocean is our source of life, it underpins our identity – it is our home. Who better than us as Pacific Islands women, to play a critical role in conserving our ocean?

We already have years of traditional knowledge, practices and customs that strive for ocean protection. We as Pacific Islands women can merge the technical skills and experience to help our largest Pacific resource thrive.

Working in this field has seen me fortunate enough to do so many exciting things. I was able to do research and field work, and learn how to scuba dive. We did research that looked at the diversity of whales and dolphins found in Samoa and whether they were abundant or declining in numbers. This was especially exciting for me because I was the only Pacific Islander at the time that was doing research on cetaceans.

Part of Juney Ward's role as a marine scientist is working in the community to raise awareness about conservation issues.

Part of Juney Ward’s role as a marine scientist is working in the community to raise awareness about conservation issues.
Photo: RNZ/ Pacific Regional Environment Programme

We also worked with communities to control the outbreak of crown-of-thorns starfish, as well as working with them to protect their marine resources by creating marine protected areas, and training them to carry out monitoring surveys to see whether their marine protected areas were improving.

When I worked at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of Samoa, my focus was mainly on trying to improve marine conservation for my own country. However, working for SPREP and across 14 Pacific islands, each with their own unique biodiversity and their own challenges, I feel like I am putting my experience and expertise to better use by helping my fellow Pacific aiga (family).

Pacific Islands women are strong, we come from long bloodlines of ocean warriors that voyaged across oceans to settle on new islands. We can do anything we put our mind to.

If you are passionate about biodiversity and your marine environment, you should definitely pursue a career in this field. There are so many opportunities for Pacific Island women.

The first step would be to take a unit or a paper on marine conservation or management, or even marine biology to get a feel of what is required and to see whether it is something for you – take on that challenge.

We can all work together to play a role in bringing about a healthy ocean for us all.

At the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon, Portugal, there was an interactive dialogue on “Increasing scientific knowledge and developing research capacity and transfer of marine technology”. There is a shortage of ocean science experts from Small Island Developing States, and we as Pacific Islands people, Pacific Islands women, can make a difference here.

Legacy is important for us as Pacific Islands people. I would love for my children and grandchildren to be proud and say: “Yes my mom was known for her work in the Pacific, she helped protect our marine species and environment”, and hope that they would also follow a similar career path.

This may be a legacy you might aspire to as well. If so, go for it! Let’s stop talking about the challenges and focus on doing what we can do to be the solution for our ocean’s health.

* From Samoa, Juney Ward graduated with a degree in marine science and began her career in marine conservation with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of Samoa.

She worked in this space for over a decade, looking at protecting turtles and cetaceans (whales and dolphins), coral reefs and establishing Marine Protected Areas.

Juney then joined the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme as the shark and ray conservation officer, before becoming the ecosystem and biodiversity officer with its Island and Ocean Ecosystems Programme.