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 Rachael Luru, of Papua New Guinea. Rachael is a PIRFO observer and debriefer assessor in the PNG Observer Programme, PNG National Fisheries Authority. The interview is published here to mark International Women’s Day.

“The most difficult part of being out at sea is getting used to being the only woman in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by men who are not your relatives, not your wantoks, and not your friends. You are there to do a job that they understand is going to show how good or how bad they are at compliance with the rules of fishing, and the best-case scenario is when they ignore you so you can watch them at work.”

I never grew up dreaming of a career in the fisheries sector. I wanted to be a lawyer, so when the time came, I was preparing to study law. 

It just happened that I was going through the newspaper and came across an advertisement for fisheries observers, and it caught my interest. I decided to take a chance and apply, and was shortlisted for the interview. Not long after that I got a shock to receive a letter and an airplane ticket. It was a job offer with the PNG National Fisheries Authority Observer Programme, and I was being flown to Kavieng for two months basic observer training. That was more than 10 years ago. I’ve been doing this ever since.

As a fisheries observer and debriefer assessor, my key role is collecting scientific data on fishing vessels, both domestic and international. The debriefing is where we analyse scientific data for fisheries management purposes. 

On top of these two key roles to my work, I started online studies for my Certificate IV in Compliance and Enforcement. I graduated in 2019. It provides me with a sense of achievement that being a fisheries observer is such a practical job but there’s the satisfaction too of having the paperwork credentials to add to my time on the field. When I look back, those moments at sea make you appreciate what we have in our oceans. 

To date, I have clocked 200-plus sea days – on purse-seiners mostly, but also including time on a mother ship, as well, observing transhipments from purse-seiners. When out on purse-seiners, you can be gone for 21 days on a fast turnaround, or most times around 30 to 40 days. As a parent, it’s not easy leaving children for these stretches of time, but I tell myself I must do it for them. I am doing it for them, for my kids. 

I’ve learned so much as well. How to be comfortable with being alone and away from family. I’ve learned to be stronger. To be honest, it can be quite lonely sometimes. You can be in some scary situations where being calm and protecting yourself is important. Not only does the work involve observing and collecting scientific data, but there is monitoring and compliance, surveillance work involved. The licence rules for fishing, pollution; as an observer, you must monitor all those things. Documenting, taking notes, taking pictures, especially for critical-incident reports, this can be sensitive and dangerous work. 

It takes time to develop the skills and mindset to thrive at sea, watching over the fishing practices and operations of a whole boat of crew who know you are there watching over how they are following the rules. 

You are far from land, their eyes are on the next fish, your eyes are on them, but who is watching out for you? 

So, yes, there are times of real danger. There was one job where I was using my camera to record a scene and one of the crew wanted me to put my device away because he felt threatened. He attacked me. I had my employers backing me with support all the way, helping to track down the crew member. It was the most terrifying thing I had ever experienced. My camera was lost in the middle of that fight. I went back and forth in court hearings for three years, and the case was dismissed. But I never let it keep me from the sea. I didn’t stop taking observer trips. If anything, it made me even stronger!

It can be hard being out at times, but I know I am working to eventually ensure a future for my family. I was three months pregnant on one trip, it was 40 days at sea and I was throwing up every day. I disembarked in Tarawa and switched to desk duties (debriefing and assessing observer data) while I had my baby.

Rachael Luru, PIRFO observer and debriefer assessor for PNG Observer Programme, talking in front of posters
Rachael Luru at work spreading the word on compliance in the tuna fisheries of the Western and Central Pacific Ocean

But being an observer is one of those things where, even on land, the sea will call you back. I am lucky, I love my job. And I must go back. It’s not a normal day in the office. It’s a great way to get away from problems! The sampling work, the languages, and different nationalities around you. I’ve had fun learning how to talk with sign language and a few words in other languages here and there. 

There’s so much to fisheries. We don’t only collect scientific data. We watch and record what other vessels out at sea are doing, and we speak to observers on other vessels using radio and onboard electronics. For me, there’s fun to it, seeing and watching how things work. Sure, sometimes, I feel like I want to go home. But most times, I am at home. The sea is my home away from home. 

My Mum is from the Highlands, so my people don’t get to see the sea that much. But I was born in West New Britain, in Kimbe. I grew there, and I learned how to swim there. And I had a lot of experiences in the coast, just being a young girl. But most of the time I was back in my Mum’s place up in eastern Highlands, in Goroka. I grew up there. And once I got to be an observer, well, I knew the only thing I was confident in myself is that I knew how to swim. When I went for the first training and I passed, they said, “Now you are going to swim.” I just said “Yes!”

The most beautiful thing I love about my work are the sunsets and the sunrises. I stay awake to see the sunrise and, I must be frank, we, the people out at sea, we see the most perfect, beautiful sunsets and sunrises compared to people on land. To see that big, round sun rising from the edge of the sea. To watch it go down and fire up the sky as it leaves another day behind. I just love that the most. 

The most difficult part of being out at sea is getting used to being the only woman in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by men who are not your relatives, not your wantoks, and not your friends. You are there to do a job that they understand is going to show how good or how bad they are at compliance with the rules of fishing, and the best-case scenario is when they ignore you so you can watch them at work. You have to trust your intuition a lot, to know your plan B in case anyone forgets the rules that are in place to protect observers.

Trust doesn’t come into it for me. As an observer, I am careful to avoid any situations that might flare up. I am there to observe and record. A visitor to a world where I don’t speak the language and I am not male. I am on their boat, watching them at their place of work, and for many of them, an uninvited but necessary guest in their home. 

I don’t see many women in this line of work. I have only ever met maybe three others among the hundreds of men in the same career of being an at-sea ocean fisheries observer. The women in this work eventually just move on. Out of maybe 18 of us when I started this work, it came down to a dozen or so, and then just myself and another female observer, one of my best friends. She’s married now, she’s settled down. So, they left, but I’m still here. I won’t be going anywhere. I love my job!

In the next 10 years, I would hope I am working somewhere other than PNG, to be out in the Pacific. I would like to be doing something involving other women of the Pacific who may be seeking guidance or support in this field or something like it. I would love to share my experiences, and what I can offer, in any way possible. 

I don’t know why exactly, but most of the women who I started with or met along the way have moved into other fields. From 18 to 12 to a few of us, they left. It’s good to have people who can support your journey. 

I would say my best friends and role models at home are my Mum and Dad. My father’s been the key mentor, my supporter. Along with my Mum, he has respected and supported my choices. My parents always respected what I wanted to do in life, and with the level four certification in 2019, I believe I am the first Papua New Guinea female observer to reach that level for my country. Workwise, my mentor is my former boss Philip Lens, who is now with FFA. He’s been there and done that so he can relate, and he has always guided me, giving me advice. 

The only advice I would give to other young women is to have that awareness that we are all born with a purpose in life. Everyone has their story, their challenges, their journey. And I would say, don’t doubt yourself, believe in yourself and just be confident. Be positive, no matter what. And know that whatever men can do, we women can do, too. That’s what drives me to do whatever I am doing now. And this is where I am now, because of that.