World Ocean Weekly

For the Love of a Fish Market

Wherever I go, I am drawn to fish markets. Whether they be street stalls, neighborhood stores, city markets, or even the counters at supermarkets, I am inevitably attracted by the actuality of such places, the variety, color, and strangeness of the species, and the special beauty of life, lost life, and life enhanced by gifts from the sea.

Markets are typically animated by fishmongers, often immigrants, who bring to the place a social vitality derived from the old country: recipes, customs, and a certain animation and colorful exchange between workers, customers, and tourists. It amazes me how markets are so lively, even as surrounded by catch that is not really dead, but paused in waiting to serve us with life in a wonderful circle of natural reciprocity. Markets also evince the authenticity of work, hard work, dangerous work, by people often far away in places as foreign as the fish themselves. There is truth there, a challenge by a world so stark and different from the gloss and ease and normality of our privileged lives, so separated and protected from such distant reality. Markets are foreign, nurturing, exciting, connecting – this latter is their very purpose, to connect the world though the beneficence of marine life.

I was for twenty years the surrogate landlord for the Fulton Fish Market in New York City. As president of the South Street Seaport Museum and Development Corporation, the first line relationship between the market and city government passed through me and required that I work daily with the wholesalers and distributors, loaders and unloaders, to maintain the operational efficiency of a market that was itself an historical artifact, both in its overnight iteration and its business practice. I lived in the Seaport District and the market was right outside my door. My children would pass through it in the early morning on their way to school. I would sometimes walk out into the market in the after-midnight hours to experience it and try to understand how it worked and what it meant for the welfare of a vast urban community that consumed fish in enormous amounts,  harvested and distributed from all around the world. I would meet the market leaders at Carmine’s, the local bar that catered to their nighttime hours, to discuss problems and changes. It was the end of their workday, and I shared with them eggs and rye, their dinner, my breakfast.

In the past year I have visited markets in Lisbon, Portugal; Santiago, Chile; Nuuk, Greenland, and Tokyo, Japan, among others. The new Toyusu Market in Tokyo, a modern replacement of the very colorful Tsukiji Market that had served that city, that international exchange, forever, was designed to maximize access, operational utility, and working conditions with new systems, distribution structures, and health conditions. What the old facility lacked in organization, condition, color, and historical romance is now transcended by cleanliness, efficiency, and economy.

But still, when you attend the auctions, the old ways are evident: the mysterious hand gestures of the bidders, the frantic speed of transaction, and the understood accountability for each transaction. The individual stalls of buyers and sellers are still there, the ancient methods of cutting the fish remain, the perfect beauty of skilled hand and long knife cutting a tuna into perfect, deep red, small sculptural sections. The presentation of products has been dramatically modernized with vacuum packaging and aerated containers to protect the freshness and transportation beyond--whether to the sushi restaurant next door or the market 3,000 miles away.

Recently in my market here in Maine, I found a container of smoked mussels from Japan. Even though we have a similar product here, I bought these to discover extraordinary quality: plump meat, lightly smoked, sweetly brined. The same company also offered a package of tiny minnow fish, perfectly salted and dried. There is a saying that when a Japanese looks into a bowl of rice, she sees the shadow of each grain. Every grain among thousands. Think about those single mussels and single minnows among millions. Where did they come from? How were they caught and processed? How did they find their way from Asian catch to an Atlantic table? Each was perfect in itself; like the clarity of those grains of rice, each was once free, only to find its way to my dinner last night.

It is, by all explanation, inexplicable that one small fish taken from so far away is there to serve me, to sustain me, to share with me all the implications of engagement with the sea. Truth is in each single fish everywhere. It is a gift to us all through an ocean of giving.

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.

Eight Urgent, Fundamental and Simultaneous Steps Needed to Restore Ocean Health

A scientific paper published in May 2019 states that eight urgent, simultaneous actions are needed to head off potential ecological disaster in the global ocean. The International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) report warns that failure to act within the next ten years to halt the damage caused by human activities could result in catastrophic change to how the world ocean functions and pose imminent threats to vital ocean ecosystems.

The challenges facing the world ocean have never been more critical than they are today. Almost every aspect of the ocean — its health, its productivity, its management — is under attack, and, while there are thousands of organizations and millions of people engaged in response, we still seem to be losing ground.

How to choose among the issues and the strategies? What individual or organization makes the most sense as focused resistance? What specific action should be taken at what level of living? As an individual, a family, a community, a nation? And how do we project the outcome and by what measure? I ask these questions every day, and every day I can come up with a different conclusion about where to place my energy and resolve as a Citizen of the Ocean.

We like lists, as order and instruction, and here is one published in May 2019 by a collective of 15 distinguished international ocean scientists and policy experts, under the coordination of the International Programme on the State of Ocean (IPSO) entitled Eight Urgent, Fundamental and Simultaneous Steps Needed to Restore Ocean Health, and the Consequences for Humanity and the Planet of Inaction or Delay. There are other such lists, but this one will serve to illustrate the need, the range, and the urgency of directed response.

The questions posed are as follows:

  1. What are the major gaps in ocean protection and conservation?
  2. Which three interventions would make the biggest positive impacts in arresting the trajectory of ocean decline?
  3. What one action should be taken within the next three years if we are going to make a difference in time, or what do we have to do now because delay will mean the negative impacts will be irreversible and catastrophic?
  4. Are there recent trends in ocean change that, in your view, are cause for concern and need more attention?
  5. If you had the power, what would you change or implement tomorrow?

In its published report, the group consensus identified the following eight priority actions needed to divert ecological disaster in the global ocean:

  1. Address climate change and implement policies to limit temperature rise to 1.5 C, but to prepare for 2–3 C rise;
  2. Secure a robust and comprehensive High Seas Treaty with a Conference of the Parties and a Scientific Committee;
  3. Enforce existing standards for effective Marine Protected Areas…and extend their scope to fully protect at least 30% of the ocean, including representation of all habitats and the high seas, while ensuring effective management to prevent significant adverse effects for 100% of the rest of the ocean;
  4. Adopt a precautionary pause on deep-sea mining to allow time to gain sufficient knowledge and understanding to support informed decisions and effective management;
  5. End overfishing and destructive practices including illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing;
  6. Radially reduce marine water pollution;
  7. Provide a financing mechanism for ocean management and protection;
  8. Scale up scientific research on the ocean and increase transparency and accessibility of ocean data from all sources.


The paper adds one important perspective not always included: “Once detrimental or negative changes have occurred, they may lock in place and may not be reversible. Each change may represent a loss to humanity of resources, ecosystem function, oxygen production and species. Thus, we may think we can simply stop doing things and assume that previous conditions…will return, when in reality the longer we pursue damaging actions, the more we close the path to recovery and better ocean health and greater benefits for humanity in the future.”

The prospect described is daunting. Just pick one recommended action, and consider how much planning, effort, funding, and governance would be required to come close to meeting the transformative objective. The paper concludes, “The challenges may seem insurmountable, but if we act now, and enforce the eight themes outlined, even with our current state of knowledge…a more positive and sustainable future for the ocean is possible. Acting now with urgency and a massive increase in the level of ambition has to be the no-regrets policy to protect us and future generations from our short-termism and ignorance about why a healthy ocean should and does matter to all of us.”

Do we have the ambition to survive? Now, there’s a question.

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.

Tokyo: A Water City

Tokyo is a network of often unseen and forgotten rivers, streams and canals. There is now a budding plan for their restoration and revival.

Meguro River, Tokyo, Japan. Photo by Zhaoli Jin

It is pouring a mighty rain outside and the sound captures my memory, the so many variants of water moving through the atmosphere, falling on lakes and streams, down through cascade and rock formations, over dams and through sluices, into backwaters and turning eddies, over sand and stone along the coasts, and then amplified to crescendo of breaking water, waves returning from land to sea, breaking around me in my small vessel of a sensibility listening here.

I reflect often on the magic of water. Here is an excerpt from Nature writer Annie Dillard from her wonderful book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

“It has always been a happy thought to me that the creek runs on all night, new every minute, whether I wish it or know it or care, as a closed book on a shelf continues to whisper to itself its own inexhaustible tale. So many things have been shown so to me on these banks, so much light has illumined me by reflection here where the water comes down, that I can hardly believe that this grace never flags, that the pouring from ever renewable sources is endless, impartial, and free.”

But water is not limited to the pastoral place; it defines major cities like London, Shanghai, and New York. It presents river confluence on which inland cities are built. And it outlines the histories of first civilizations where water flowed in aqueducts, hidden pipes and submerged ponds, and then canals built for the distribution of goods, the provision of services, the movement of people from place to place. We know these cities: Venice, St. Petersburg, Amsterdam, Suzhou, Bangkok, and more. Many such cities polluted these waterways with manufacturing run-off, toxic and human waste. They were filled and covered over to make streets, while the polluted water was conveyed invisibly through engineered underground tunnels and sewers ultimately to empty into lakes, inlets, and industrial harbors from which the modern city frequently turned away.

Only in recent decades has there been a resurgence of urban waterfront development whereby the rotting abandoned urban water’s edge has been reclaimed as filled land on which entire new areas of city are constructed or restored as linear parks and recreational facilities or as high-rise expensive apartment buildings with water views. Given the ubiquity and need for water for health and solace, it is hard to believe that the water connection could have been so easily abandoned, now so expensively recovered as a civil space.

Shibuya River, Tokyo | Wikimedia Commons

When this essay posts Iwill be in Tokyo, a city known for its intense, quirky modernity, an inner-directed hive where people work and play with special abandon. To move through Tokyo is to submit to its manic system of transportation — subways, trains, congested traffic, effusive sidewalks, under and over passes, and labyrinthine passages that often duplicate the activity on the surface, a second, even third, level of city, illumined artificially with light-marks by which to navigate and artistic neon that is as sculptural as it is informative.

When we read about Tokyo history, we think of the floating world, a system of stylized behaviors and formalized structures that express the special cultural identity of Japan. We think of ukiyo-e woodblock prints of ladies and gentlemen in bright kimono, smiling and whispering behind their fans, reading and writing poetry, and engaged in political and romantic intrigue in a watery world of manners, expectations, and traditions.

But I recently discovered that this Tokyo hides a neglected, seemingly forgotten, network of several rivers — the Arakawa, Sumidagawa, Edogawa, and Tamagawa, — and over 100 natural streams and man-made canals — that wind often invisibly through springs, ponds, , hollows and hills, reservoirs, parks and neighborhoods to which residents have been long indifferent as a coherent, integrated element in the urban topography. But today, a group of passionate urban historians called Suribachi Gakkai (see Recovering Lost Tokyo in The Japan Times), are engaged in advocacy, planning, and public communication toward their restoration as the physical embodiment of memory and a pastoral softening of the hard edges of Tokyo city life. And so the revival begins. I intend to take part, having found a guide to show me by kayak through this vestigial labyrinth of water-ways and by-ways that once were the circulating force of Tokyo, the water city. I intend to paddle quietly in the great noisy city and to listen for the water, for the grace that never flags, that “pouring from ever renewable sources (that) is endless, impartial, and free.”


PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, a weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.

It's a Great Time to Be a Citizen Scientist

The phenomenon of citizen science has two excellent outcomes: first, it provides information that cannot be collected by the traditional methods of field research, transcending the challenges of time and cost; and, second, it enlists non-scientists — students at many levels and curious individuals — in the exploration of a challenging question, its solution, and the expansion of public awareness and action from the project derived. Add to this innovation easy access via the Internet and social media to reach other similar citizens worldwide and you have a powerful tool for study and education.

This value is especially true for ocean science wherein the need for observation and data collection is distributed across a vast horizon of geographical, physical, and biological inquiry, none of which is easily or cheaply accessible. The costs to build, maintain, and operate research vessels are enormous and are mostly provided through government funding and some dedicated private philanthropy. New remote, technologically advanced observation systems are proliferating ocean wide; similar vehicles and technologies for access to the water column and sea floor are also in place. These amplify the collection of data for the most focused experiments, but are exclusive to very precise experiments and data collection and are not available to a large majority of scientists eager to investigate an almost infinite number of questions — a stunning measure of our ignorance about the ocean — how it is, how it works, and what is at risk due to change in critical environmental conditions.

Let me offer some examples:

Let’s say you love penguins, and want to study their behavior and count population numbers over a period of year in places you can never visit. To do so otherwise would be prohibitively time-consuming, physically demanding, and very expensive. Enter Penguin Watch, established by Oxford University in England, which enlists over 4,000 volunteers to monitor aerial and time lapse images from rookeries in the southern ocean, taken by remote cameras to record size and structure of populations from year to year, and to observe molting cycles, predation, and novel behaviors otherwise unobserved. It’s penguins 24/7.

Whale lover? Go to Happy Whale, created by the Cascadia Research Collective, Olympia, Washington, and Allied Whale, College of the Atlantic, Bar Harbor, Maine, where you can track whales all over the world by their unique tail markings as documented by algorithm analysis of photographs taken in the most remote whale breeding habitats, migration paths, and feeding grounds. You can locate and follow, even name a particular whale from place to place, year after year. You can learn, and share, everything you want to know about whales.

Head in the clouds? Go to the International Cloud Atlas, sponsored by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), a global reference system for observing and identifying clouds including classifications, historical information, measurements, changing characteristics and other related meteorological phenomena such as halos, snow devils and rainbows, and now publicly accessible in digital format, presenting thousands of examples of cloud formations in ten accepted categories. You can also join the Cloud Appreciation Society, created by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, where you will find cloud images and events, observation tools, information on clouds in art, music and poetry, cloud facts emailed daily, and access for upload of your personal cloud-spotting efforts.

Or, if you are one of those mesmerized by phytoplankton, yes, there is a place for you too: Fjord Phyto, sponsored by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where you can train to take water samples in Arctic and Antarctic fjords and submit them for comparative study of these key, ubiquitous, almost invisible exemplars of intense biodiversity.

Follow turtles? Count birds? Pick your interest. For the citizen scientist, there has never been a better time nor more prolific means to be curious about our ocean world.

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, a weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.

The Outlaw Ocean, Part Four: The Vast Expanse

image credit: Adam Dean for The Outlaw Ocean
Crime and Survival in the Last Untamed Frontier


This week we conclude our four-part series dedicated to The Outlaw Ocean by Ian Urbina, Investigative Reporter for the New York Times and new advisor to the W2O.

After 4 years of reporting across the world on vivid and corrupt aspects of the ocean, what comes of it? What conclusions can be made? How can we apply what is to be learned from this remarkable adventure?

Urbina writes, “Impunity is the norm at sea not just because of the lack of enforcement but also due to the cast of characters out there who, with questionable credentials and motives, are left to take up the slack. Bureaucrats rather than investigators conduct what rare inspections actually occur on vessels suspected of environmental or labor abuses. Vigilantes and private mercenaries, as much as police or navy officers, patrol the high seas and pursue scofflaws on the floating armories or in the chases. What rules apply in international waters have been crafted over the years more by diplomats and the fishing and shipping industry than by lawmakers or labor lawyers. This had made commercial secrecy a higher priority than crime prevention.”

"Mostly I explored the dark underbelly of this offshore frontier, places where the worst instincts of our human species thrive and flourish. But I also witnessed unparalleled beauty and true marvel."

“I met bizarre, sometimes heroic characters in a setting that drowned the senses, a world with brighter sun, louder waves, and stronger wind than I previously knew to exist, as if I’d been parachuted into one of those fanciful maps the medieval cartographers dreamed up.”

“One particular afternoon comes to mind. I stood on the front deck of a ship in the South Atlantic Ocean. Under an apricot sunset, I watched a winged fish fly through the air for hundreds of feet. Moments later, several birds dove into the ocean and swam deep underwater equally as far. That night was cloudless, the sky was big as it ever gets. A night, shooting stars left white slashes like chalk lines on a blackboard. The most dazzling streaks, though, were not in the sky but underwater. As fish darted through certain areas, the sea was slashed with glowing blue lines, the result of a mesmerizing defense mechanism of bio-luminescent plankton that allows them to produce the light. “

“What grabbed me that day was how much of this place is magically upside down: fish in the air, birds underwater, white streaks above us, blue below. Part of its beauty is its exotic unpredictability. The wonder of it all is magnetic, and each time I returned to land, I felt an intense longing for this place, homesick for a location not my home, despite the suffering I’d seen there.”

“But there was something else that…transcended both the darkness and the beauty offshore. I thought back on the black expanse that swallowed that small airplane in Palau or how that same sort of vastness had long provided an excuse for dumping waste into the world’s oceans. I thought about the crushing boredom at sea and the distinct way it tortured seafarers on abandoned vessels and armed guards on the floating weapons depots. I thought about the silence that fed gruffness on so many ships and how it bred resignation among the raped, robbed, and drowned men of the Oyang fleet. While some of those men paid a heavy price for breaking this silence, I also recalled the regard reaped by the magic-pipe whistle-blower who spoke up.”

“The snapshots seemed to demonstrate that the outlaw ocean and the ships that traverse it are defined not just by the people who work these waters but also by intangible forces like silence, boredom, and vastness. I’d go a step further: the ocean is outlaw not because it is inherently good or bad but because it is a void, like the silence is to sound or boredom is to activity. While we have for centuries embraced and touted the life that springs from these waters, we have tended to ignore its role as a refuge of depravity. But the outlaw ocean is real, and has been for centuries, and until we reckon with that fact, we can forget about ever taming or protecting this frontier.”

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, a weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.

IAN URBINA is an award-winning investigative reporter with the New York Times. Urbina’s new book The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier is now available wherever books are sold.