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Assisting Marine Conservation Efforts in Tropical Pacific Islands: Tavailau Segi

A Polynesian man in a black shirt stands with his back to a railing overlooking a wide building with taxidermied goats.
Photo by Tanner Frost

While finishing his undergraduate degree at BYU-Hawaii, Tavailau “Stau” Segi, PhD '24 (BIO), wanted to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Hawaii. Weighing his options, he met with professor John S.K. Kauwe III, now president of BYU-Hawaii, who encouraged him to attend Brigham Young University in Provo. Learning that Richard Gill conducts scientific research with BYU students in Samoa, Segi decided to come to BYU.

Segi prepared his thesis proposal during his first year. His plans to conduct research in his native Samoa were all set, but tragedy struck. Almost immediately after his submission, the COVID-19 pandemic paused all international travel, and he had to scrap all of his hard work and pivot from his dream. Still, the disruption in his studies proved to be a blessing in disguise.

Segi shifted his focus to look at satellite imagery to create an erosion risk model of watersheds on the east coast of Savai’i, Samoa using remote sensing. This risk model helps to assess and predict coral reefs vulnerability to sediment runoff from land. He believes the technological skills he gained from this experience are exactly what people need. "A lot of people can do field work, but when it comes to technology and using those images to provide solutions, I think that’s more effective and needed to enhance conservation efforts in Pacific islands,” mused Segi. “COVID-19 allowed me to learn advanced skills in scientific research.”

Two men stand in the middle of the ocean holding onto kayak and testing device.
Photo by Richard Gill

While COVID did ruin Segi’s thesis research plans in Samoa, not all was lost. He salvaged his original research goal with two extra field studies in Hawaii. Pacific island nations depend on the ocean and coral reefs as a food source, supporting national economies and sustaining culture and human well-being. Like the forest, coral reefs of the ocean house significant diversity of fish and other organisms. Runoff from human activities in the mountains harms these coastal ecosystems and pollutes the water.

His other study in Hawaii looked at the effect of fishponds on the southern coast of Moloka’i in retaining land derived sediment. High accumulation of land derived sediment in coastal areas and within fishponds lead to non-native mangrove overgrowth that are replacing sandy beaches. While one solution is to remove the mangrove trees, corals at the reef crest and outer reef would then incur the same pollution. The sediment build-up impacts humans as the accumulation of trace-metals when ingested can be toxic to the human body.

Segi is finalizing four peer-reviewed articles as a PhD student and recently defended his thesis. Segi accomplished all of his research while raising a family with two kids at home.

Two men, stand next to a kayak-like buoy and hold a tool that is testing the water.
Photo by Richard Gill

Segi continues to prioritize assisting his home country (Samoa) and other Pacific islands in enhancing conservation. To accomplish this, he has worked with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), representing the Pacific Islands. Along with others representing the region, Segi collaborated on conservation efforts and initiatives. He also learned from other professionals what research is needed most in Samoa and other islands.

Pursuing a PhD degree can be a daunting task, but Segi is grateful he pushed himself further than he ever has before. He owes his success to his belief in God and the divine help he receives from Him. “I didn’t think I would make it this far, but I've always kept the faith,” reflected Segi. “When things get tough, I know who to turn to. I put full faith in God that tomorrow will be better.”

After completing his degree, Segi hopes to work for an organization that conducts conservation efforts in the Pacific islands. He hopes to leverage his biological acumen to help his family and community.