Considering the Future of the World’s Oceans

Safeguarding Our Oceans for Future Generations

Throughout history people have enjoyed the bounties of the oceans. But degradation of the ocean environment and overfishing have taken their toll and a resource people once took for granted is now in danger of depletion. A solution to this problem can only be found if a broad-based cooperative framework, both multilateral and multidisciplinary, is put into place. With that goal in mind, the Nippon Foundation has been teaming up with a number of foreign research institutes for initiatives that aim to protect the legacy of our oceans for future generations.


The Crisis Overtaking the World’s Waters

More than 30,000 species of marine life are said to inhabit the waters around Japan, where cold and warm currents intersect. The country is known as having one of the world’s biggest fishing grounds, with an abundance of fish always available. But change now seems imminent. Over the past few decades, the fishing catch in Japan has rapidly shrunk from its peak in the 1980s, when around 12 million tons of fish were caught annually and the country ranked number one in the world. By the first decade of the new century, the country had slipped in the ranking to number five, with an annual catch of just around 6 million tons.

There is equal cause for alarm when we turn to the situation outside Japan. The world as a whole has been eating more fish, partly because of growth in global population but also because fish is gaining popularity as a healthy food. Overfishing and environmental degradation are becoming even more rampant as a result of new fishing techniques. Despite the balance between supply and demand spiraling out of control, effective resource management policies are not yet in place. The rapid decrease in ocean resources has led some specialists to warn that fish will ultimately disappear from all but the deep seas.

In 2009, a work by the French scientists Philippe Cury and Yves Miserey titled Une Mer Sans Poissons (A Sea Without Fish) was published in Japan as Sakana no inai umi. Using a wealth of data, the authors show the impact that climate change and other forms of environmental degradation have had on the global fishing industry and warn that the resources of the ocean may one day dry up.

Yohei Sasakawa, chairman of the Nippon Foundation, commented that reading the book made him realize that comprehensive measures are needed to deal with problems related to fish and oceans, and that identifying the causes and finding solutions requires a multidisciplinary research approach encompassing everything from oceanography to policy research. A decision was subsequently made to establish the Nereus Program, involving the participation of researchers around the world. The program is being administered jointly by Canada’s University of British Columbia, which is known worldwide for its research on fishing industry resources management and oceanic protection, and the Nippon Foundation.


A Cooperative Framework

The Greek god Nereus was the protector of the seas, with the power to calm the waters and foretell the future. Wise and gentle, he was also called the “old man of the sea” and was believed to have the power to protect fishermen. The name “Nereus” was chosen for the program to reflect an emphasis on training young scientists so that they will have the knowledge and understanding to predict future trends and the desire to safeguard the legacy of the oceans for future generations.

Photo Nereus Program participants come from not only the University of British Columbia, but also Princeton University, which has an oceanic climate research institute, and Duke University, home to a renowned institute for research in biology, both of which are located in the United States; the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre and Cambridge University, located in Britain; and Sweden’s Stockholm Resilience Center, which is part of Stockholm University and one of the world’s leaders in environmental policy research. Young researchers working in these fields are sent as “Nippon Foundation Nereus fellows” to participating universities, where a cooperative structure for research and human-resource training is in place.

The program emphasizes a multidisciplinary approach, examining the physical changes occurring in the oceans from the perspective of scientific fields such as biology and chemistry, while also drawing on economics, governance studies, and other fields in the humanities to contribute a body of knowledge geared to the global implementation of sustainable fisheries and effective ocean governance. It is hoped that the Nereus fellows will forge bonds with specialists from other fields, thereby generating a synergistic effect.

Yoshitaka Ota, a senior researcher at the University of British Columbia who serves as Nereus Program co-director, points out how the program is making a positive contribution: “Bringing together researchers from various fields makes it possible to share knowledge, broaden the boundaries of our research, and get a more far-reaching perspective on the topics and questions we seek to address. Until now, most projects brought together specialists from a wide variety of fields to analyze a local problem. The Nereus Program is unique for its multidisciplinary approach toward addressing problems that are global in scale. During the first year of the program, researchers strived to make the results of their research known, and this in turn helped to get word out about the program. The recent trip by fellows to areas stricken by the Great East Japan Earthquake was especially important in heightening their enthusiasm to communicate their scientific knowledge to youth and the general public.

Ota’s area of expertise is cultural anthropology, and he says he is reminded of the vastness of the oceans when researching the relationship between people and these waters.

Photo of Yoshitaka Ota “In the course of my research, which as an anthropologist focused on people, I looked at the relationship people have with oceans and saw these bodies of water from many angles, including as a part of people’s lives or as a powerful natural force. I believe oceans are a reminder that there are things that are difficult for individual people to understand on their own. Since what we are dealing with is the expansive ocean, a solution is clearly not within the reach of a single person or even a single nation. As an initiative that transcends fields of specialization, universities, and even national borders, the Nereus Program is just what we need.”

The Nippon Foundation also provides support for initiatives by research institutions in Japan to cope with the crisis facing our oceans, including a joint symposium co-sponsored by the University of Tokyo’s Ocean Alliance and Kyoto University; and supports efforts within Japan at the local level that are guided by the principle that the oceans are a shared global resource and that problems connected with them cannot just be solved locally. At the signing ceremony marking the launch of the Nereus Program, Chairman Sasakawa stated that “humans cannot exist without the oceans,” and it is for this reason that the work to preserve their legacy must continue.