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Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month: Talking with Martina Sagapolu

May 04, 2022

Meet Martina Sagapolu, Assistant Director of the Office of Law Enforcement in the Pacific Islands.

Martina Sagapolu Pacific Islands Assistant Director Martina Sagapolu of NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement participates in a cover and shoot scenario-based drill. Using a barrel as cover to hide her position, she returns fire at a potential threat. Credit: NOAA

What is your key responsibility?  

As the Assistant Director for the Pacific Islands Division, I am responsible for protecting our oceans and marine wildlife. I oversee a team of law enforcement personnel in the Pacific Islands region. Our mission is to ensure the laws and regulations protecting and conserving our nation’s marine resources are followed. I also serve as an enforcement advisor to domestic and international stakeholders on enforcement related matters.

Where did you grow up?  

I grew up as an Army brat, so we moved around a great deal. Our family's last duty station was to Pago Pago, American Samoa, where I attended both elementary and high school.

Is there anything about your childhood or where you grew up that influenced your career path?

I love mystery stories and when I was a child; my favorite pastime was reading Nancy Drew mystery novels and trying to figure out who did it. I knew I had a passion for investigations, but I did not know which field specialty I wanted to study. During my senior year in high school, the American Samoa government hosted Seniors' Career Shadowing Day. I was placed at the Department of Marine & Wildlife Resources. I knew very little about their mission, but I love the ocean and was very eager to learn about the work they do. This was my first introduction into fisheries and the protected species in the territory—green and hawksbill turtles, dolphins, coral, fruit bats, and the Pacific pigeon.

I met with Director Henry Sesepasara who was a longtime member of the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council. He asked me what I wanted to do after high school and I said, "I want to work investigations, but I’m not sure which field." He replied, "We need Samoan biologists, but most importantly, we need folks who have a passion for marine wildlife and fisheries. You need to help preserve these resources for our future generations. When you leave, make sure you return home to help our people." Well, full circle, 20 years later, I work for NOAA, and American Samoa is one of the locations that fall under our jurisdiction. I work collaboratively with the local government and industry on a variety of enforcement related matters.

What is your educational background?

I have an undergraduate degree in Criminal Justice Management from Chaminade University of Honolulu and I am currently pursuing my Masters in Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership at the University of San Diego.

Are you a member of any community groups or other organizations?

Yes, I am an active member of New Hope Leeward, where I serve on both the Production and Worship team. I am also a member of the Hawaii Ballroom Dance Association, where I volunteer and teach a fitness class for members. I am an active member of the Women in Federal Law Enforcement Foundation, which focuses on mentorship and leadership. I am also an active member of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I volunteer for Hawaiʻi's Meals on Wheels, where I deliver hot meals for our kūpuna, or seniors. When I deliver meals, I also perform a welfare check-up, just making sure they are doing well. I look forward to these visits as much as they do, especially during COVID as many have not been able to see family. I also enjoy biking and hiking around Oʻahu. I love group exercise, which I do not see as "exercise,” but an opportunity to meet people at different stages of their fitness journey and help motivate them, as they motivate me.

Is there a book, quote, or person that influenced you to be the person that you are today?

I have always dedicated my career to my late father, Olive Sagapolu. Dad was truly my role model. He served 22 years in the Army (Infantry), and returned to American Samoa and worked for the local government for another 10 years before his sudden passing. He taught me the importance of serving others and being a public servant. He always said, "Life is more rewarding when you can serve others, than to be served." He also reminded me that nothing is ever free—you work hard for everything and remember that it's not just for you—it is for your family and the community you live in. The Samoan culture teaches you to take care of everyone, nuclear and extended family, but most importantly, to be a good steward of the land and sea.

What does being a career civil servant mean to you?

A career civil servant means someone who works for the people—our main function is to serve the community and its people.

What advice would you have for someone interested in a career at NOAA Fisheries?

If you have a passion for fisheries or marine species, then this is the place you want to work. If you don't know enough about NOAA's mission, research it or talk with others who work for NOAA. I highly encourage you to visit any of NOAA's offices for a tour. The mission is so diverse. And if you are interested in resource law enforcement, the Office of Law Enforcement is where you want to work. Give us a call at (808) 725-6100 or visit us at the NOAA Fisheries Office of Law Enforcement website.

What does this affinity month mean to you?

Being a woman of Pacific Island heritage and working in federal law enforcement is a huge milestone. There are very few women of Pacific Island heritage who are in federal law enforcement, and even fewer who have achieved one of the highest careers in federal law enforcement, an Assistant Director or Special Agent in Charge position. My ultimate goal is to continue mentoring and promoting gender equity through leadership and networking opportunities, in hope of increasing more minority women to join law enforcement.

Last updated by Office of Communications on May 23, 2022

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