By the time we reached Sendai, we were heading into our fourth week of sharing one tiny suitcase of clothes, while bags of silica were luxuriously spread across three large suitcases! Games of Jenga in the teeny rental cars were losing their initial appeal and humor!
We’d seen varied land- and seascapes, but our third stop was home to one of the Three View of Japan, Matsushima Bay. There are over 250 pine (matsu) covered islands (shima).
Despite the proximity of these picturesque islands to the devastation wrought by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Matsushima was largely protected.
This was not the case for the rest of the northern Honshu coastline, particularly in the Miygai and Iwate Prefectures.
The earthquake was the fourth most powerful recorded, worldwide, since records have been kept and even shifted the Earth on its axis. A New York Times article following the catastrophe described how Japan jumped about 4 m (13 feet) closer to North America. In addition, a 400 km (250 mi) stretch of the Japanese coastline dropped in altitude by half a meter (2 feet), facilitating the tsunami to travel farther and faster over the coast inland.
The tsunami reached over 40 m (greater than 130 feet!) in the Iwate Prefecture.! In Sendai, where Tohoku University and our hosts are located, water traveled up to 10 km (6 mi) inland.
The earthquake and tsunami clean-up continues to this day. The drives we took around the area were sobering. Foundations are all that is left of once thriving towns. Eerily, the GPS in our rental car (we thought we should rent Lamborghini), still showed where hotels and restaurants should have been.
During our brief stay, we were fortunate enough to be hosted by the Marine Plant Laboratory, Graduate School of Agriculture, Tohoku University in Sendai. The laboratory is directed by Professor Yukio Agatsuma and Associate Professor Masakazu Aoki.
Professor Agatsuma is an expert on sea urchins with particular focus on sea urchin fisheries. These fisheries were hit hard following the tsunami. One of the students we met is working on alternative aquaculture methods to entice fishermen back to the area and industry after they lost everything. Professor Aoki is an algal-invertebrate community ecologist specialising in caprellid amphipods.
The lab works predominantly in subtidal reef systems, with frequent field trips to the Tohoku coastline and other places throughout Japan. In particular, the lab is part of the TEAMS project set up in Japan to examine the changes following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
Current students are working on a number of topics: gastropod genetics, kelp community ecology, urchin life history, urchin biology, urchin genetics, urchin fisheries, urchin aquaculture, kelp aquaculture, kelp chemistry and fucoid communities.
We were met and guided around the Tohoku coastline by Hikaru Endo, an assistant professor in the lab, and Dr. Jacqui Pocklington, a JSPS Postdoctoral Research Fellow.
Endo-San has been part of research investigating aquaculture of kelp species, such as Undaria pinnatifida. This kelp species is not only an important aquaculture crop, but also widely-introduced around the world. In Japan, it is spread over a large latitudinal range in which populations will be exposed to very different temperature regimes. Gao and colleagues (2013, J Appl Phycol 25: 567-574) collected and transplanted individuals from a southern population and from Matsushima Bay in northern Honshu. Plants from the northern population died at high temperatures, but the southern population did not. Moreover, the southern individuals exhibited the greatest capacity to accumulate high nitrogen reserves. The temperature differences were likely due to genetic differentiation and not phenotypic plasticity as they were maintained after multiple years in culture.
In addition, he is interested in fucoid community ecology. For example, he has shown the palatability of Sargassum yezoense to a sea urchin species might not be affected by temperature, but, rather could be increased with nutrient enrichment (Endo et al. 2015, American Journal of Plant Sciences 201: 275-282).
Jacqui has been investigating Sargassum confusum invertebrate communities and the impacts of disturbance, urchin grazing in fucoids and kelps and the invertebrate communities associated with the kelp U. pinnatifida in both native and introduced populations. She’ll be taking up a new postdoc position in Newcastle, in the UK at the end of the year.
On the Gracilaria front, we first went to Matsushima Bay. The economy of this area is primarily built on tourism and fisheries, particularly oysters. Imported oysters likely were sampled from here and this may be an important place in terms of seaweed invasions associated with oyster vectors.
We were also guided to another area of significant aquaculture a bit further north of Sendai.
Before leaving Sendai, Jacqui took us to a sushi restaurant with a conveyor belt! Another Japan bucket list item checked off!
This area of Japan was one of the most challenging to sample due to the fisheries collectives monitoring sites. It would have been impossible to obtain these very precious samples without the help of Endo-San. Dōmo arigatō!
And, for this seaweed geek … teaching me some Japanese! A new language and a red algal life cycle … can’t get much better than this!
Next week will mark the final Japanese installment and the beginning of a few highlights from North America before crossing another ocean to Europe in pursuit of this slender seaweed.