Considering the Future of the World’s Oceans

Encouraging Study of the World’s Oceans Among Tohoku Youth

Ten young fellows of the Nippon Foundation’s Nereus Program recently visited the Tohoku region, which was stricken by the Great East Japan Earthquake, and gave special lectures on the world’s oceans at three junior and senior high schools in the area.


The World’s Interconnected Oceans

The Nippon Foundation’s Nereus Program fellows, who are conducting cutting-edge global research on the oceans, wanted to do something to support the recovery of the waters off the coast of Tohoku after the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. Initially, some of the fellows said any job that contributed to the reconstruction effort would be fine, but ultimately they decided to lecture junior and senior high school students who had grown up along the coast. The fellows wanted to make use of their background in the sciences to teach youth about the world’s oceans.


Three schools were chosen as venues for the lectures: Miyako High School and Miyako Fisheries High School (both located in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture) and Onagawa Daiichi Junior High School (in Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture). Each of the 10 fellows prepared a segment of the lecture, providing an easy-to-understand introduction to their research. They all consulted with each other and made final arrangements on the bus trip that took them from Tokyo to Tohoku. On the day of the lecture, they appeared before the students, somewhat conscious but hopeful that the students would discover the joy of studying the oceans—despite their experiences of the tsunami.


Onagawa Daiichi Junior High School was the last stop on the lecture tour. The fellows lectured two third-year classes. Ryan Rykaczewski, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina, was the first to take the podium. A biological oceanographer, Rykaczewski is currently researching the effects of climate change on the oceans. During his talk, he explained how a tsunami that follows an earthquake impacts oceans around the rest of the world.

“Because the world’s oceans are interconnected, changes in the seawater or nutrients in one ocean caused by changes in local water temperature or currents have an impact on oceans around the world. A tsunami is a mass movement of water. The tsunami after the Great East Japan Earthquake reached the United States. Driftwood and debris from Japan were discovered off the coast of the state of Oregon so the occurrence must have had a major impact on seaweed, plankton, and fish. In my research, I try to predict how changes in the condition of the oceans affect the distribution of seaweed. Once you figure this out, you know where the plankton is. And when you find out where the plankton is, you know where the fish are. Through our research, we aim to predict how changes in the ocean affect fish. The findings provide information that is useful to the fishing industry. Japan and the United States are located along the Pacific Ocean and linked by it. A growing number of oceanographers in the United States, as well as in countries throughout the world, are interested in collaborating with Japanese scientists. I hope you keep asking questions about the ocean and don’t forget that there are people out there who wish to be partners in ocean research.”

At Onagawa Daiichi Junior High School, Kelly Kearney from Princeton University described the mechanism of a tsunami, while Audrey Valls from the University of British Columbia Fisheries Centre and Chris McOwen from Cambridge University’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre spoke about biodiversity in the oceans.

The Mysteries of the Oceans

At all three schools, students had a chance to ask the fellows questions after the lecture. Initially they asked about places that the fellows had visited in Japan, whether they liked Japanese food, and other questions concerning their visit, but gradually the focus shifted to the oceans.

One student asked: “Will climate change affect Onagawa?” In response, Andre Boustany from Duke University explained: “A rise in water temperature can lead to a change in how fish move and which fish are caught where. Yesterday, we saw a large number of sunfish in fixed fishing nets in Miyako. Sunfish are normally found in the south. Was their presence here connected with warmer temperatures? Scientists need to be careful when examining the impact of global warming and consider other possible factors in the changing distribution of fish.”

A question was also asked about mermaids. Andrew Merrie, a researcher in resources management and policy analysis from Stockholm University and the only one of the 10 with a background in the policy studies, said: “Mermaids are believed to be modeled on dugongs [a large marine mammal]. Drunken fishermen mistook dugongs for mermaids. But this doesn’t mean mermaids don’t exist. For example, people in Europe used to believe that the ‘giant squid’ was only a legend. But we now know the giant squid dwells in the deep sea. Our knowledge of oceans is limited to the surface waters. We know virtually nothing about the living organisms in the deepest layers. So who knows? Maybe there are mermaids.”

Yoshitaka Ota, a senior researcher at the University of British Columbia Fisheries Centre and co-director of the Nereus Program, served as a moderator of the lectures. In his closing message, he thanked the students:
“We came to Tohoku to give lectures, but we were the ones who learned more. Researchers are knowledgeable and are characters [Laughs], but they also tend to live in their own little world and get too focused on their research. We constantly need to remind ourselves not to do this. We’re grateful for this encounter with you. Thank you.”

The lectures may open up new paths for some students. As one student said: “The class was really interesting. My grandfather’s aquafarm was damaged by the tsunami. Until the tsunami hit, we’d never thought of the ocean as being so powerful. I’d been thinking I wanted to help my grandfather out, but I wasn’t sure how I could. Researching the oceans may be one way.”

Photographs by Kei Kodera