Meet our Early Career Ocean Professionals: Gabriel Mara (Fiji)
Gabriel is a Pacific Island marine scientist as well as an Archipelagic and Island States Forum Scholar. Gabriel is dedicated to exploring sustainable development through effective evidence-based policies in Oceania.
1. Why did you decide to study marine science?
What began as a fascination for the Ocean, its flora and fauna that piqued my interest in the Marine world as a boy, I owe to my grandparents and parents who share a great appreciation for it. As an Indigenous Pacific Islander, it holds a significant cultural, traditional, social, and historic place in both Fiji and the Pacific. The region has shared a generational relationship with ‘Na Wasawasa’, or Ocean.
This and my childhood fascination for it turned into a purposeful passion to expertly understand the Oceanic processes, the life that inhabits it, and the Pacific’s traditional practices and knowledge linked to it, to better conserve and sustain it. Particularly, in a region where it is a major part of our identity. This led me to complete my Undergraduate program and pursue Postgraduate studies in Marine Science at the University of the South Pacific.
In Fiji, the most pressing challenges are marine pollution, overfishing, and exploitation. They cause significant harm to the local marine life (corals, mangroves and seagrass, reptiles, fish), birds, as well as tourism, and existing conservation efforts such as the Locally Managed Marine Areas (FLMMA).
Each has a domino effect whereby the sources of marine pollution are human activity-based, with effects varying in the aquatic environment. Overfishing removes specific marine life, and localized extinctions cause deleterious effects on the surrounding populations of marine organisms and habitats, further exacerbated by the exploitation through the expanding and lucrative aquarium coral and coral reef organisms trade that induce severe environmental consequences for the ecosystem and its dependents.
3. In which way are you contributing to the UN Ocean Decade?
Through continued partnerships and forming new ones with grassroots and international non-governmental organizations, multilateral entities, and development agencies.
For example, I have supported Project AWARE’s Dive Against Debris through the removal of discarded long-line fishing gear from a coral wall that had been ghost fishing for years. Joining over 50,000 other divers in 114 countries around the world for increased ocean ecosystem health through localized volunteer efforts, while informing policy change. I led the development, management, and implementation of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Pacific Volunteers Programme, managing a network of 200+ volunteers as Conservation Coordinator.
I was a tutor, marker, and laboratory demonstrator on marine policies/law, as well as marine resource management, among others, at the University of the South Pacific. Additionally, I have experience in research, data analysis, information/knowledge management, community engagement, and conducting scientific studies and assessments. I support the strengthening of grassroots organizations, such as the local marine resource management support team, through coastal and marine resource management by way of village awareness programs and rapid marine surveys.
More recently, I conducted an assessment of the economic impact of marine protected areas on regional economies in Fiji’s highly touristic areas in the Nadroga-Navosa and Ba provinces. It was one of the four case studies presented at the 2020 Convention on Biological Diversity to update the Convention’s strategic plan and adopt a post-2020 global biodiversity framework.
4. From your experience, how can we facilitate a harmonious coexistence between humans and nature? How does this fundamental relationship play out in your region?
Drawing from my home region, Oceania, and personal experiences – it is essential that humans establish and maintain a respectful relationship of mutual care towards the natural environment. A deeply-rooted connection that sustains both the natural ecosystem together with its services and humans with our activities. Even considering, learning and taking practical lessons from the thousands of years of rich custodianship heritage with the environment by Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Islands. Without these, we will continue wreaking detrimental effects on the planet and its life.
5. If you were an early career representative at the 2022 UN Ocean Conference, what would you propose in order to achieve the ocean we want by 2030?
If we are to achieve the desired outcome for our ocean by the next decade, we need to increase the inclusion and participation of underrepresented communities and indigenous peoples as traditional custodians of the environment – with the wealth of generational traditional local and ecological knowledge – in all facets of concerted efforts to bring transformations for a shared solution to the existing problems now exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
6. What are the biggest challenges for you as an ECOP in the Pacific SIDS region?
With the world quickly advancing in technology and innovation, it must also actively contend with some of mankind’s mammoth challenges; the likes of biodiversity loss, climate change, natural and epidemiological disasters that are brought on anthropogenically. As a Pacific ECOP, the biggest challenge is effectively addressing existing issues in addition to the new and mounting threats from the region’s proposed deep-sea mining and modern development due to limited land area. That, in turn, impacts island ecosystems. This is finding the right synthesis between sustainable development through effective evidence-based policies benefiting and maximizing economic growth, while accepted Pacific-wide.
7. What are some opportunities available to ECOPs in the Pacific SIDS region that you would like to share with our audience?
While opportunities for ECOPs in the region might appear scarce at times, joining and surrounding yourself with like-minded individuals, associations, and initiatives that share our passion to make an impact for the ‘Ocean We Want’ is critical – not forgetting that together, we are a global collaborative and purposeful community working towards this common goal, the Ocean We Need.