Unsupported Browser Detected

Internet Explorer lacks support for the features of this website. For the best experience, please use a modern browser such as Chrome, Firefox, or Edge.

Meet Kilali Ala'ilima Gibson, Oʻahu Marine Wildlife Response Coordinator

May 05, 2022

Kilali’s unique experiences working with resource management agencies and native communities to manage marine wildlife in New Zealand and Alaska have prepared her for her new role in Hawaiʻi.

Photo of Kilali Gibson next to solar panels in Alaska. Kilali worked with the native tribe on St. Paul Island, Alaska, to build receiver stations with solar panels to pick up frequencies from tagged fur seals. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

What is your role within the NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands Regional Office?

I am the Oʻahu marine wildlife response coordinator. My job is to coordinate a team to respond to issues with Hawaiian monk seals, whales, dolphins, and occasionally sea turtles. A lot of that is connecting with native and local communities to learn more about some of those hot spot areas where issues may often occur.

How did you get interested in marine animals, and how did it lead you here?

I spent most of my childhood in the ocean surfing, scuba diving, and paddling in Hawaiʻi. Naturally, I knew I wanted to work in a profession where I could focus on protecting our marine ecosystem for the next generation to enjoy. Marine mammals, in particular, have always fascinated me since they have their own unique and complex cultures, social structures, and languages—just like we do! After high school, using my dual citizenship I moved to Aotearoa/New Zealand to get my bachelor’s in biology and master’s in marine conservation.

My first job was working in the New Zealand government as a fisheries policy analyst, mainly focused on marine protected areas. A lot of my job was bringing together other agencies and different internal teams, such as fisheries management, science, and customary experts, to navigate the varied interests. I was really interested in the customary team who were the bridge between the New Zealand government and local iwi (tribes) to uphold our obligation to Māori fishery rights. They invited me to join their team, and I became a senior customary fisheries analyst. I attended iwi fishery meetings to understand where we were falling short on our relationships, and then worked on creating tools and structures for our agency to improve our communication channels and meeting cultural protocols.

I then moved to Alaska where I started with NOAA as a marine mammal specialist. I focused on co-managing northern fur seals with the tribes on the Pribilof Islands. We worked together on research projects of fur seal monitoring, and collaborated on what management plans and research we wanted to prioritize over the next 10 years. When I felt like it was time to come home to Oʻahu, I was so happy to see this position available and am currently settling into my new role.

Profile picture of Kilali Gibson.
Kilali Gibson returns home to O‘ahu from Alaska, switching from handling northern fur seals to managing Hawaiian monk seals and other Hawai‘i marine wildlife. Credit: Kilali Gibson

What is your favorite marine animal and why?

My favorite animal has to be the mighty orca! They’re social, and family dynamics are so cool. I finally got to see killer whales while I was living in Alaska, and they definitely lived up to my expectations.

What’s a memorable experience you’ve had with marine mammals?

Last year, I got to do northern fur seal population surveys on the Pribilof Islands led by the Seattle Marine Mammal Lab. Part of that work required animal handling where we gave fur seal pups haircuts (for identification), and weighed and sexed them. In two weeks, I handled well more than a thousand pups! They can be pretty vicious when you pick them up, and the rookeries themselves can be dangerous with the bull seals. The fur seal whisperer team at the lab taught us how to properly handle them and kept us safe from the bull fur seals. Their help made the whole experience super fun, and it made me much more confident in my seal-handling skills.

Some of your previous work involved liaising with native tribes and Indigenous peoples, and working to get traditional knowledge and harvesting rights incorporated into management plans. Where does this passion come from?

I think it comes from seeing all of the great benefits of growing up in a multicultural environment in Hawaiʻi, as well as my multi-racial background. On my mom’s side, my family is very active in the traditional chiefly systems in Samoa. So from a young age, I was exposed to what management looked like in a Westernized way, a very traditional Pacific Islander way, and a hybrid of the two that Hawaiʻi somewhat reflects. All had so many advantages in different areas. I spent a lot of my time processing what the equivalent would look like from the other culture. I truly believe that we are better when we can work together and learn from our native communities, and that drives a lot of how I want to approach my work.

In what capacity will you be working with native communities in the Pacific Islands?

There are many aspects of this position where we will be working closely with the Native Hawaiian communities. A lot of it is creating space for dialogue to learn from their expertise and perspective. Through these conversations we can also identify issues and discuss how to improve our shared goal of protecting marine mammals and their habitats. When stranding events occur, we coordinate with a Hawaiian cultural practitioner to oversee and guide traditional and customary practices, and to conduct various cultural protocols.

What does Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month mean to you?

To me, it’s a great way to show our appreciation for the contributions of the generations before us who have paved the way. It’s also an awesome way to showcase all of the current contributions by our very talented community!

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

Definitely my mom. She is a retired medical doctor, expert in traditional Samoan medicine, and now a farmer and village chief. What I’m most impressed by is her ability to lead with so much warmth and encouragement. She believes that every single person has something to bring to the table, and it’s about finding the right environment for them to shine their brightest. I really resonate with that, too, and am appreciative to have her as an example as I continue to develop my own strategies for pulling more seats to the table.

What advice would you have for youth interested in a career with NOAA Fisheries?

I think we get a lot of advice about getting good grades, going to a good college, and hunting for volunteer or internship opportunities, which I believe are all true! What I would add to that is to also look into your upbringing and your own local knowledge you’ve acquired. There could be something within your culture, your family history, sports you grew up doing, or even your knowledge of your local surf break that could help to solve a problem.

Last updated by Pacific Islands Regional Office on May 12, 2022