Case study: Katy Soapi – A Leader in Ocean Science and Conservation in Fiji and the Solomon Islands

The Commonwealth Blue Charter is highlighting case studies from the Commonwealth and beyond, as part of a series to spotlight best practice successes and experiences. Share your own case study with us.

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“We need to start changing what our young people think of when they think of a scientist. My hope is that I see more Pacific Islanders, and women, taking up leadership roles, being successful in their career and thriving.”

– Katy Soapi

Background

Katy Soapi is the Coordinator for the Pacific Community Centre for Ocean Science at the Pacific Community in Fiji, a position she took up in January 2021. Before that, Soapi was the Manager of the Pacific Natural Products Research Centre at the University of the South Pacific (USP) in Fiji. Soapi grew up on the island of Rendova, part of the Solomon Islands, in the Pacific.

She completed her bachelor’s degree at the USP, a master’s at the University of Sydney in Australia and a PhD at the UK’s University of East Anglia. Soapi then returned to the Pacific, taking up a position at the USP as a lecturer and eventually becoming the Manager of the Pacific Natural Products Research Centre, housed at the USP.

Katy Soapi conducting seawater carbon chemistry analysis in the lab. Photo credit: The Ocean Foundation

In the Solomon Islands, Soapi is a founding member and board member of the Tetepare Descendants’ Association, which is dedicated to conserving the largest uninhabited island in the Southern Hemisphere. As part of that work, she supports a seagrass monitoring programme that is led and conducted by women. For the past ten years, the programme has been gathering annual data on seagrass coverage, diversity and health, all of which are ecosystem health indicators for the island’s lagoons.

Soapi is also part of the advisory team to the Office of the Pacific Ocean Commissioner (OPOC) supporting Pacific Island Countries on the marine genetic resources component of the UN Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) negotiations (an international instrument under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the BBNJ, once finalised, will address the management of marine biological diversity of ocean areas beyond countries’ ocean borders).

Soapi attributes her success to good mentors and seeking out and pursuing opportunities. Having grown up in a matrilineal culture, Soapi has always felt her voice is important in her community. Even away from her coastal village, she says that a sense of empowerment has stayed with her.

Women conducting seagrass monitoring for the Tetepare Descendants Association. Photo credit: Katy Soapi

What is your background and the path that led you to where you are today?

I grew up on a small island called Rendova. My village was right by the sea, so I grew up by the sea. My primary education was on that island in the village. Later, I went to boarding school on another island for high school.

After completing high school, I went to the USP to do a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. I decided upon further studies at the University of Sydney in Australia on chemistry. I wanted to investigate the natural products from medicinal plants, such as plants that were used traditionally in my village, that I grew up using as a child. I wanted to look at the links between traditional medicine and bioactive natural products isolated from the medicinal plants.

However, when I got to the University of Sydney, it was hard to get the plants that I wanted to work on from the Solomons, so I changed my course and studied synthetic chemistry instead. My study involved working towards the synthesis of a natural product called Phomopsin which has anticancer properties. I continued my research in synthetic chemistry studies, enrolling in a PhD program at the University of East Anglia, when my family moved to the UK. I was successful in receiving a scholarship to study nitrogen-containing biologically active compounds.

At the end of my PhD, I returned to Fiji with my husband who had found a job there. I went to visit some of my old professors at USP. One of them, the late Professor Aalbersberg, who I had worked with previously as an undergraduate encouraged me to apply for a position as a research fellow in a project on marine natural products in Fiji and the Solomon Islands. I applied and got the position.

After about a year, I got a job as a lecturer in chemistry, and eventually as Manager of the Pacific Natural Products Research Centre. I was at the USP for almost 13 years teaching and later, leading the research efforts of the Centre investigating antibacterial, antifungal and anti-cancer properties of marine natural products from marine invertebrates, algae, soft corals and bacteria in sediments.

In January 2021, I joined The Pacific Community (SPC) as Coordinator for PCCOS. It’s a new role and I am really excited about this new challenge and the opportunity to work for and with our members states within the ocean space.

Results, accomplishments and outcomes

What has been your impact on gender equity in your field and region?

At the community level, I am engaged with one of our conservation projects, the Tetepare Descendants’ Association, which has been on-going for almost 14 years. It is a project where we’ve conserved one of our islands and tried to sustainably use and manage our island’s resources through monitoring efforts to inform decisions. We have set aside the seagrass monitoring especially for the women.

Tetepare Descendants Association (TDA) women conducting seagrass monitoring

For seagrass monitoring it was easier for the women because they are already involved in artisanal fishing and often spend time on the reef or mudflats to collect shellfish for food. The women were quite keen on being part of the monitoring activities and it was quite an appropriate activity for them, being in shallower areas and sometimes involving their children. I have done it many times dragging along all my kids. I am glad that this activity was set aside for women because being in their own space, they were free to lead the monitoring activities and to participate fully.

How did you support the marine genetic resources component of the BBNJ negotiations?

One of the key elements in the BBNJ instrument is marine genetic resources. When the negotiators from New York came to Fiji, we were able to present our work to them and talk about what is meant by marine genetic resources, the importance of drug discovery and pharmaceuticals. They also visited our labs to see our collection and our testing facilities. We tried to show them the whole process from extraction to testing and purification of bioactive compounds including how and to whom we send our samples. We wanted to ensure that they have a good understanding of the research and development processes involved in biodiscovery and pharmaceutical research to help them with their BBNJ negotiations.

Overcoming barriers

What do women in your region need to become ocean leaders?

In the Pacific, where there is such a strong family network, often it is the female who must drop out to look after a parent or the wife who must drop out to look after the children. We need to raise more awareness that women do not have to do that. I think that more should be done to create an enabling environment for women to continue working and to not have to choose between a career and a family.

I think we are getting more marine science graduates in the Pacific now, but getting a job in marine science is very hard. Most of them end up as teachers or in a non-marine science job. This affects both men and women, but I think it is worse for women. If recruitment for a science job is between a female and a male candidate, often it is the man who gets selected. There is also a lack of funding, for women and men, to participate in ocean science projects and ocean science employment.

One of the barriers is not having enough women scientists to look up to. Sometimes it is hard to imagine where and what you can be when you do not have that image of a woman you want to aspire to. Female role models help overcome those barriers, so you do not have that feeling of being an imposter because there is no one around you who is like you, who is doing the same kind of work that you are doing.

What allowed you to succeed despite the barriers?

I think it was a combination of many things. I was lucky to be given opportunities, but I also had to seek out these opportunities, like scholarships or employment opportunities. I was quite determined as well and from a young age decided that if given an opportunity to study on a scholarship, I would do my best to do justice to the opportunity.

I also had good mentors and a partner who encouraged and believed in me. The late Professor Aalberberg was one of those mentors who gave me a chance. When I was a student at USP, I assisted him on a research project for six months and it was an amazing experience that really opened my eyes to research work which I was so grateful for. When I returned to Fiji after finishing my PhD, I again worked with him and had another opportunity to learn from him.

At the community level, despite the barriers we face as women, I find strength in culture. I grew up in a matrilineal system and heard stories of fierce tribal women who made decisions about the land and settled disputes. I also grew up observing the strong voices of my mother, my aunties and grandmother. Sadly, in our modern society, women’s voices are not as elevated anymore. But I ride on the recognition my culture gives my voice and I find it empowering. I am often consulted on matters relating to our tribal land or our conservation projects back at home and I am grateful for that. Solomon Islands is so diverse culturally, and I am painfully aware that the voices of women are often overlooked or ignored even now in my own community as society, culture and lifestyle change.

My mother has always been my biggest supporter, always encouraging me. She was a school teacher. She said to me, “Go as far as you can.” Even after I finished university, she said, “I’ll leave it to you to decide when you want to stop studying.” She encouraged me to go after what I wanted and supported me as much as possible financially. Having somebody who believed in me and encouraged me has been quite influential in my career.

Advice for the next generation

Do not wait for opportunities, look for them or create them. Seek out opportunities to do an internship or temporary work or scholarships or even volunteer work. Be proactive. I did the same when I left University and this approach has benefited me over the years. I got my PhD scholarship by directly contacting the university and they responded with potential opportunities for scholarship.

The other advice is to not give up easily. Always remember that if it were easy, somebody would have done it already. I was the first in my family to go to university and it was not by luck that I ended up there. It was through hard work and perseverance that I progressed through my studies and my career. STEM is hard for everybody and there were many, many times I wanted to give up, but I kept going. It was all worth it in the end.

Maintain your network

We do have a good number of women scientists but there’s not enough networking. We need to work together to provide a platform for women to learn from each other. For small communities, like those found in the Pacific, it is important for women to maintain their networks. You need these networks as you progress in your career and they can become your support system during tough times or when you need career advice or just to connect and share experiences in a safe space.

You can influence the world, wherever you are along your path. A lot of young people think that they need to be a leader to influence others. It is important to start where you are. You can learn so much and be a positive influence even through volunteer work. My community engagements are all voluntary work. I enjoyed the opportunity to experience conservation work while at the same time participating in community science. The work has kept me grounded and connected to my community even from abroad.

Hopes for the future

I hope to see more Pacific Islanders, if not Pacific women, in positions of leadership. We need role models for the younger generation. We need to learn, hear and see what our Pacific Island women are doing and their contributions to science and development so our young people can see themselves in these leaders. My hope is that we have more Pacific women in leadership whom our young people can look up to.

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Robotic floats give hope for tackling ocean climate change

Close to 4,000 robotic devices deployed in oceans around the world will soon be upgraded to collect a wider range of vital data on ocean health – this will help researchers better understand the impacts of the climate crisis on ocean life and blue economies.

The ocean-monitoring programme, Argo, was highlighted at a webinar co-organised by the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Government of Canada, which champions the Commonwealth Blue Charter Action Group on Ocean Observations.

The event focused on the need for robust ocean observations and scientific data to achieve sustainability goals, providing the basis for accurate weather forecasts, climate change monitoring and sound environmental policies.

Opening the session, Ocean Science National Manager at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Andrew Stewart, said: “Ocean observations are essential to improving our ability to predict and adapt to the increasing pressures facing our oceans, including those that arise from anthropogenic activities.”

He said the webinar helped to advance the work of the Commonwealth’s action group on ocean observation, including sharing data and knowledge, promoting innovation and making ocean science more inclusive.

webinar speakers

Watch the full webinar

Monitoring ocean climate change

In his presentation, ocean scientist at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Blair Greenan, who leads Canada’s contribution to the Argo programme, outlined the science behind Argo.

Using a fleet of robotic devices that drift with the ocean currents, Argo collects information on temperature and salinity of the upper 2000m of the global ocean. The data is sent through satellites and made publicly available within 24 hours. The free and open-access data has helped to improve weather and ocean forecast systems around the world.

“This has transformed our capability to monitor ocean climate change,” said Dr Greenan.

Building on its 20-year record of conducting ocean observations, supported by more than 30 countries, Argo is now embarking on a new initiative, Biogeochemical (BGC) Argo, to collect additional data on ocean chemistry and biology. This will enable scientists to improve computer models on fisheries and climate, and to monitor and forecast the effects of ocean warming.

Canada’s BGC Argo lead, Dalhousie University professor Katja Fennel said: “Global warming is, first and foremost, ocean warming. Ocean heat has increased at a staggering rate, equivalent to five Hiroshima-class nuclear explosions every second for the past 25 years.”

Together with the uptake of human CO2 emissions by the ocean, this has led to ocean acidification, declining oxygen levels and diminishing plankton, which negatively impact marine ecosystems.

She stressed that sustained measurement programmes of ocean biology, chemistry and physics together are essential to understand these impacts and take action to address them.

Cooperation with small states

Head of Oceans and Natural Resources at the Commonwealth Secretariat, Nicholas Hardman-Mountford, added that the Commonwealth Blue Charter action groups serve as valuable platforms to encourage science-backed decision-making by governments and institutions.

The Commonwealth Blue Charter – an agreement amongst all 54 member countries to work actively together to solve ocean challenges – is implemented through 10 action groups, led by 15 champion countries, focusing on a range of ocean priorities.

Dr Hardman-Mountford said: “Importantly, the Commonwealth includes the majority of small island – but large ocean – developing states in the world, which are some of the most risk of ocean climate change.

“Through the Action Group on Ocean Observations, we’d really like to see more of these countries equipped to participate in ocean observing. This way they gain the knowledge and scientific capacity to collect and analyse the data needed to manage their marine estate, develop sustainable blue economies and build climate resilience.”

He added that the Argo programme requires partners to deploy floats in deep ocean sites around the world, providing a “great opportunity” for cooperation with island countries, supported by the Commonwealth Blue Charter.

The webinar is the sixth in a series seeking to showcase innovative solutions and best practices being implemented by the Blue Charter Action Groups and their partners.

PAST EVENT: Argo – A Global Fleet of Robotic Floats to Monitor Ocean Climate Change and Health

Thursday, January 21, 2021 1:00 PM – 2:00 PM GMT

Watch the full webinar

Argo is a key component of the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) that collects information from inside the ocean using a fleet of robotic instruments that drift with the ocean currents, and move up and down between the deep ocean and the surface.

Over the past 20 years, Argo has collected more than 2 million temperature and salinity profiles of the upper 2000 m of the global ocean. This has transformed our capability to monitor ocean climate change.

Argo floats provide data through satellites when they are at the ocean surface, and this information is made publicly available within 24 hours. The free and open access to data is a critical element of the Argo program, which has facilitated significant improvements of many weather and ocean forecast systems.

Argo float network design

The Argo program is now embarking on a new initiative, Biogeochemical Argo, which will collect observations of ocean chemistry and biology. This will enable scientists to pursue fundamental questions about ocean ecosystems, observe ecosystem health and productivity, and monitor the elemental cycles of carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen in the ocean through all seasons of the year.

Such essential data are needed to improve computer models of ocean fisheries and climate, and to monitor and forecast the effects of ocean warming.

Join us on January 21 to hear from speakers:

  • Dr. Blair Greenan, Research Scientist, Fisheries and Oceans Canada
  • Prof. Katja Fennel, Killam Professor, Department of Oceanography, Dalhousie University, Canada
  • Dr. Nicholas Hardman-Mountford, Head of Oceans & Natural Resources, Commonwealth Secretariat
  • Moderator – Ms. Kacie Conrad, Science Program and Policy Advisor, Fisheries and Oceans Canada

webinar speakers

New study calls for gender equity in ocean science

A newly released report funded by the Government of Canada has called for better opportunities in ocean science for women and those who identify as non-binary, in order to achieve sustainable ocean governance.

Based on an extensive literature review and expert interviews in 11 countries, the research is part of Canada’s commitment to gender equity, as the Ocean Observation Champion of the Commonwealth Blue Charter.

The study found that women and those who identify as non-binary are under-represented across the world in ocean science, particularly in decision-making positions.

They also face challenges such as unconscious bias, low involvement in work at sea and care responsibilities that limit opportunities for work and promotion.

The findings showed that while efforts are being made to increase opportunities for these groups, they still need better networks, more mentors and stronger communities to succeed.

Tackling these issues would boost innovation and discoveries by ensuring “all the best people come to and stay in ocean science”, as well as help deliver global goals for the ocean.

Recommendations

Spearheaded by Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the study outlines six recommendations to support gender equity in ocean science, relevant to all those involved in ocean science.

These include ensuring gender equity in decision-making, creating leadership and mentorship opportunities, building capacity, and collecting gender-disaggregated data in the sector.

National Manager, Ocean Science at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Andrew Stewart said: ‘’Canada recognises the importance of inclusivity and empowering women in the ocean science community.  We must continue the dialogue, but most importantly, we need to take action towards gender equity.’’

Head of Oceans and Natural Resources at the Commonwealth Secretariat, Nicholas Hardman-Mountford said: “This valuable information can lay the groundwork for discussions around key policy changes and support a shift in culture that engages and retains more women, at all levels, who have the skills and passion to make a difference in this vital field.

“The Commonwealth Blue Charter remains committed to inclusive, sustainable and responsible ocean governance and gender equity is a critical part of this vision.”

The Commonwealth Blue Charter is a commitment by 54 Commonwealth countries to work together to solve ocean-related challenges. Under the Blue Charter, 10 action groups coordinate around key ocean issues, led by “champion countries”.  Canada champions the Commonwealth Blue Charter Action Group on Ocean Observation.

 

Read the English version of the report (PDF, 10MB)

 

 

 

Read the French version of the report (PDF, 10MB)

 

 

 

 

Post-COVID recovery should lock in ocean sustainability, says Commonwealth Secretary-General

The Commonwealth Secretary-General is urging governments to ensure their countries’ post-COVID economic recoveries are environmentally sustainable and safe for the ocean.

Forty-seven of the Commonwealth’s 54 member countries have a coastline while 25 are either small island developing states or ‘big ocean states’ relying heavily on the ocean for food and income.

Sustainable blue and green economies

On World Oceans Day (8 June), Secretary-General Patricia Scotland calls on countries to reform development strategies in a way that supports vibrant and sustainable blue and green economies.

She said: “The ocean is the life blood of so many Commonwealth countries and our environment should be the cornerstone as we put plans in place to recover our economies. The Commonwealth covers more than a third of coastal oceans in the world, contributing to a global ocean-based economy valued at US$3 to 6 trillion per year.

“COVID-19 impact has radically altered some of our key economic sectors and transformed the way we live, communicate and do business. While the fallout from the pandemic has had a huge impact on our blue economies, it also presents a crucial opportunity to strategise on how to accelerate the transition towards more sustainable economic practices built on climate resilience and ocean sustainability.

“The Commonwealth Blue Charter is one of the most effective platforms for global ocean action in the international landscape today. I commend the work of our member countries through the action groups and welcome the support we have received from national, regional and global partners, enabling us to mobilise together for ocean health.”

Blue Charter action groups

The Blue Charter is the Commonwealth’s commitment to work together to protect the ocean and meet global ocean commitments. Ten action groups, led by 13 champion countries, are driving the flagship initiative. More than 40 countries have signed up to one or more of these action groups, and counting.

Commonwealth Blue Charter action groups include:

  • Sustainable Aquaculture (led by Cyprus)
  • Sustainable Blue Economy (Kenya)
  • Coral Reef Protection and Restoration (Australia, Belize, Mauritius)
  • Mangrove Ecosystems and Livelihoods (Sri Lanka)
  • Ocean Acidification (New Zealand)
  • Ocean and Climate Change (Fiji)
  • Ocean Observations (Canada)
  • Commonwealth Clean Ocean Alliance (marine plastic pollution – United Kingdom, Vanuatu)
  • Marine Protected Areas (Seychelles)
  • Sustainable Coastal Fisheries (Kiribati)

Members of the private sector, academia and civil society – including Vulcan Inc, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Association of Commonwealth Universities, Nekton Foundation and many others – are also engaged as Blue Charter partners.

Commonwealth Blue Charter – All Champions Meeting

Countries driving the Commonwealth Blue Charter project will meet in Cyprus from 21 to 24 March 2020. They will reflect on what they’ve achieved over the past year, and agree on a strategy for the coming year.

The Commonwealth Blue Charter is a landmark agreement by leaders to cooperate on ocean action. Since launching in 2018, 10 action groups led by 13 ‘champion’ countries have rallied Commonwealth members around pressing ocean issues like marine pollution, coral reef restoration and climate change.

Champion countries will share experiences, best practices and new ideas.

For more information, please contact Heidi Prislan, Commonwealth Blue Charter Adviser: [email protected] or [email protected]

Commonwealth countries taking lead on ocean-based climate action

A 14-strong international panel working to accelerate action for ocean protection features seven Commonwealth member countries.

Australia, Canada, Fiji, Namibia, Ghana, Jamaica and Kenya all helped produce a report unveiled at the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Action Summit which found that ocean-based climate action can play a much bigger role in shrinking the world’s carbon footprint than was previously thought.

In fact it could deliver up to a fifth of the annual greenhouse gas emissions cuts needed in 2050 to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C. Reductions of this magnitude are larger than annual emissions from all current coal fired power plants world-wide.

The report, launched in New York, is entitled ‘Ocean as a Solution for Climate Change: 5 Opportunities for Action’ and was produced by an expert international high-level panel made up of 14 heads of state and government.

The study is the first ever comprehensive, quantitative analysis into the role ocean-based solutions can play in the fight against climate change.

The report suggests the following solutions would help curb climate change, contribute to the development of a sustainable ocean economy, protect coastal communities from storms, provide jobs and improve food security:

  • Scaling up ocean-based renewable energy – which could save up to 5.4 gigatonnes of CO2e annually by 2050, equivalent to taking over a billion cars off the road each year.
  • Decarbonising domestic and international shipping and transport – which could cut up to 1.8 gigatonnes of CO2e annually by 2050.
  • Increasing the protection and restoration of “blue carbon” ecosystems – mangroves, seagrasses and salt marshes – could prevent approximately 1 gigatonne of CO2e from entering the atmosphere by 2050.
  • Utilising low-carbon sources of protein from the ocean, such as seafood and seaweeds, to help feed future populations in a healthy and sustainable way

Australia is investing AUD$70 million in the Blue Economy Cooperative Research Centre (CRC), a 10-year $329 million collaboration between 45 Australian and international partners to develop innovative and sustainable offshore industries to increase Australian seafood and marine renewable energy production.

Fiji is committing to making its shipping sector 100 per cent carbon-free by 2050 while Kenya will incorporate blue carbon ecosystems into its nationally determined contribution, in partnership with The Pew Charitable Trusts and WWF.

Namibia is committing an additional US$5 million towards ocean research and protection over 2019/2020.

The report comes on the back of significant progress on the Commonwealth Blue Charter, Agreed unanimously by leaders in April 2018, the Blue Charter commits all 53 member countries to work together on solving crucial ocean-related challenges.

To date, 12 ‘champion’ countries have stepped forward to rally fellow members around nine key areas, including marine pollution, ocean acidification and the sustainable blue economy.

‘Fiji is leading on the Blue Charter Action Group on ‘oceans and climate change’, Kenya on the ‘sustainable blue economy’, Australia is co-leading on ‘coral reef protection and restoration’ and Canada on ‘ocean observation’.

Commonwealth Head of Ocean and Natural Resources, Nick Hardman-Mountford, said: “This report unequivocally shows that ocean based climate action is integral to reducing the global carbon footprint.

“Commonwealth countries have already come forward with game changing commitments. The Commonwealth Blue Charter that all Commonwealth countries adopted last year provides an action-orientated collaborative mechanism for countries to address ocean issues. We look forward to working with the Commonwealth countries to share experiences, take real action and lead the way forward.”

Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said: “Fiji is leading Pacific Island States in a united and visionary response to the ocean’s untapped potential to combat global warming.

“We are collectively committed to cutting 40 per cent of emissions from Pacific shipping by 2030, and we’re making our shipping sector 100 per cent carbon-free by 2050. Together, we’re moving towards managing our waters sustainably.”

‘This report was swiftly followed by a study from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which warned that humanity is in a race against the pace of climate change and our ability to respond to it and calls for urgent, ambitious and collaborative action.