Gifts to the Sea -- Part II: OIST Protecting Oceans

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December 2020

Set on the shores of Okinawa, OIST is the perfect place for students and faculty to study ocean ecology and marine life. The Marine Genomics Unit, Marine Biophysics Unit, Marine Eco-Evo-Devo Unit, Marine Climate Change Unit, and others offer robust opportunities for teaching, learning, and research in marine science.

OIST’s groundbreaking work in marine science has attracted the interest of several generous supporters in the last decade that supplement the substantial contributions made to OIST each year by the Japanese government.

In this two-part series, we take a deeper dive into OIST’s work in the area of coral research and conservation (part one) and ocean ecosystems and climate change (part two, below), as well as the philanthropy that helps to fuel these vital efforts.

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A database of coral reef studies dating back to 1974 has revealed an intriguing new trend: Coral reefs are actually moving away from the equator to establish new reefs in subtropical waters. This remarkable finding was made by an international group of researchers from 17 institutions representing six countries. One of them was OIST’s Marine Biophysics Unit led by Professor Satoshi Mitarai.

The work of this unit integrates oceanography, fluid dynamics, marine ecology, genetics, and genomics to understand how environmental changes affect the past, present, and future dynamics of marine ecosystems.

The discovery of “refugee corals” over the last four decades poses new questions for researchers in Prof. Mitarai’s lab: In more temperate regions will the new reefs be able to support the same incredible diversity of marine life that they do in tropical ecosystems? Where and when will migrating corals settle in the future, potentially bringing new resources and opportunities for local communities through fishing and tourism?

To answer these questions, further scientific efforts and financial resources for collecting genetic and species diversity data are needed in addition to previous investments. In 2012 and 2015, the university received two generous donations totaling about $300,000 from Aramco Asia Japan K.K. to establish the Saudi Aramco Marine Environment Fund. The fund helps researchers achieve greater understanding of complex ocean ecosystems. Omar M. Al Amudi, representative director of the company, commented: “In Okinawa, Aramco had launched a crude oil operation in 2010 using tanks at Okinawa CTS in Uruma City under the lease agreement with the Japanese government. This brought Aramco closer to the Okinawa community. Okinawa is a coral rich region. These corals lie within a biodiversity hotspot – they have been gradually decreasing since 1970’s. We hope our fund helps researchers at OIST to figure out the root cause of the issue to preserve oceanic ecosystems in Okinawa.”

Gifts like these and others have helped OIST to become a leader in marine science, attracting new students and faculty in the field, like Professor Timothy Ravasi.

Prof. Ravasi recently established the Marine Climate Change Unit to study the mechanisms of acclimation and adaptation of tropical fish to the environment. Studies have shown that different species of tropical fish respond in different ways to warmer ocean temperatures. In other words, genetic variations make some fish more vulnerable than others.

To further explore these differences and their implications, Prof. Ravasi set up a laboratory system to simulate heatwaves in controlled environments with fish. He and his team collected data on how different temperatures, and exposure to those temperatures for varying periods of time, affected the fish.

His research could potentially help in the design of marine protected areas. It also has implications for fish aquaculture, also called aquafarming, a major economic sector in Okinawa and Japan. Since 90% of the excess heat caused by global warming is stored in oceans, and since different fish respond differently to that heat, the fish supply could dramatically change by the end of the century. That would have a serious impact on Japan’s $14 billion/year commercial fishing industry as well as ramifications for policy makers. Prof. Ravasi has forged collaborations with the Okinawa Prefectural Sea Farming Center to ensure his research is helping to make an immediate difference.

He has also partnered with other Japanese institutions including the University of the Ryukyus, the University of Tokyo and the University of Tsukuba to expand the scope of his research. And, most recently, he has been invited to work alongside researchers of one of the most prestigious coral reef centers, the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, as an adjunct professor. Together, OIST and other institutions are achieving a better understanding of how ecosystems respond to climate change.

Research on climate change and marine ecosystems offers opportunities for collaboration as rapid environmental changes are seen and felt in Okinawa and across the globe. For instance, the information gathered by the Marine Biophysics Unit is used to promote conservation of marine ecosystems including coral reefs, mangroves, and deep-sea hydrothermal vents. Prof. Mitarai serves in a working group for the Japan Oil, Gas & Metals National Corporation (JOGMEC) to ensure the excavation of mineral resources on the seabed of Japan’s exclusive economic zone can be conducted without causing serious environmental impact.

The OIST Foundation is also playing a role in fostering collaboration, particularly between the U.S. and Japan, by bringing OIST faculty together with other leading scientists. In November 2020, with support from the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership the Foundation launched a new initiative focused on climate and the environment. “The Future of Climate” is a three-part webinar series that will culminate in a strategic report to help expand partnerships and guide policy makers on climate change. The webinar topics — island biodiversity, oceans, and alternative energy — all have implications for marine science.

Investments in climate change research at OIST made by the Japanese government, industry, and individual donors are allowing scientists and graduate students to make groundbreaking discoveries for the benefit of our planet. But there is more work to be done. We invite all who are passionate about this urgent issue to help expand OIST’s research by making a gift. U.S. donors may make a tax-deductible contribution through the OIST Foundation.

By Emily Weisgrau