How Japan Is Promoting Ocean Sustainability Through Science And Startups
Individuals and organizations around the world are racing to cut emissions to prevent the worst outcomes of global warming. These efforts usually focus on the atmosphere, but the oceans of our planet absorb about 30% of human-generated carbon dioxide. The U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) call for the conservation, sustainable use of oceans, seas and marine resources as one of 17 strategies to transform our world. In Japan, a maritime nation of over 6,800 islands, scientists and entrepreneurs are applying leading-edge science and technology to change our relationship with oceans and protect them, and our planet, for future generations.
Capturing the dynamics of climate change
The Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC) is one of the world’s leading ocean science organizations. From the north and south poles to the depths of the ocean to the deep interior of the Earth, JAMSTEC researchers go to Earth’s extreme environments to learn more about ocean and earth science in pursuit of sustainability.
JAMSTEC’s mission is to develop “new scientific and technological capabilities which contribute to the sustainable development, and responsible maintenance, of a peaceful and fulfilling global society.” Part of this goal is developing an integrated understanding and prediction of global environmental changes. For instance, JAMSTEC scientists are monitoring 289 offshore sites around Japan to see how ocean absorption of human-generated carbon is making seawater more acidic. This phenomenon threatens marine organisms and fisheries.
In the fight against climate change, scientists at JAMSTEC’s Research Institute for Global Change (RIGC) recently helped shape one of the most important documents guiding international policy. The Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the U.N. body assessing the science on climate change, is a critical document for leaders around the world, and was presented at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) held in Glasgow from 31 October to 12 November 2021.
There are 149 JAMSTEC research papers cited in the report. One cited paper from Japan about the Earth system model for long-term simulations used in the IPCC report was awarded the top 0.1% most cited paper on the Web of Science, a database of citations of papers from scientific and other disciplines. It was written by a team led by climate modeling scientist Hajima Tomohiro of the RIGC.
“Our mission is to grasp the current status of global environmental change and to provide data for future forecasts through international cooperation,” says RIGC Director-General Harada Naomi, who became interested in climate change after joining research expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic. “We are conducting research at all depths of the ocean and examining acidification, deoxygenation and the warming and reduction of biodiversity and the impact of pollutants. We are trying to elucidate the environmental changes and make predictions ranging from a few years to one century.”
In addition to helping understand and model how Earth’s climate is changing, Japanese scientists are putting their boots on the ground to see that change up close. Running from June 2020 to March 2025, the Arctic Challenge for Sustainability II (ArCS II) is a national flagship project aimed at understanding the current state and rapid environmental changes in the Arctic as well as their impact on global climate and society. Working with colleagues from other institutes and universities in Japan, researchers embarked on Arctic expeditions to study the phenomenon of how the Arctic Ocean is warming quicker than lower latitudes because melting sea ice exposes the water to sunlight.
They discovered that in addition to this process, rivers flowing into the Arctic Ocean are warmer and have greater volumes of water than in the past. This is also contributing to sea and air warming and thinner ice coverage. One possible effect on society is that Arctic warming may be linked to the polar vortex, a phenomenon in which Arctic air dipping south can bring dangerous conditions to people living much far below the Arctic Circle.
“The ArCS II project will clarify the climate and environment of the Arctic area, which was a blank area of oceanic data on the Earth,” says Harada. “It will elucidate how the Arctic Ocean is tightly connected to the global climate system.”
Eyes on the sea for a more sustainable future
JAMSTEC is also fostering innovation in the private and public sectors through joint projects with startups and local governments. It’s doing this in part by commercializing its scientific research. One example of this is an artificial intelligence model developed by JAMSTEC and Kyoto University that can forecast the best fishing grounds for fisheries workers, a project funded by the Japan Science and Technology Agency’s CREST program. This is one example of fishtech, the application of information technology to fishing, and it has been shown to be more accurate than traditional methods.
The technology was commercialized as Ocean Eyes, a startup founded in Kyoto in 2019. To determine the best fishing grounds, Ocean Eyes uses information from satellites and marine IoT sensors, and produces estimates through the deep learning model. It has much broader coverage than other fish-finding approaches such as sonar and drones, which are ineffective beyond the fishing grounds. The technology can reduce the fuel and emissions of fishing vessels by shortening the time they spend seeking fishing grounds, and help to sustainably manage marine resources.
“For long-distance fishing vessels targeting catches like bonito, fuel accounts for some 20 to 30% of operating costs,” says Ocean Eyes co-founder Kasahara Hidekazu. “The consumption of fuel is mainly a factor of searching for good fishing grounds. Our service allows fishing fleets to lower their search costs, cutting fuel costs by about 10%. Lower-cost fishing can contribute to achieving catch quotas and sustainable fisheries overall.”
Ocean Eyes’ commercial service is called Fishers Navi, a deep learning and numerical model-based fishing grounds prediction tool that can be used on mobile devices. It combines sea surface temperature data with weather satellite information, updated hourly, in a handy map format that automatically removes cloud cover. Ocean Eyes is also working with local governments in Japan to enhance the efficiency and sustainability of local fisheries. It aims to expand its services beyond Japan and the Pacific Ocean to the Americas and Europe.
“This effort is part of the digitization of the fisheries industry and making it more sustainable,” says Ocean Eyes President Tanaka Yusuke. “If fishermen can maintain low-cost operations, they can contribute both to the achievement of catch limits and ocean sustainability overall.”
Through scientific research and innovative business startups, Japan will continue to pursue the SDGs for the sustainability of our oceans, on which our planet depends.