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Ocean Genome Legacy Newsletter
October 2013
In This Issue
Fukushima: 2-1/2 Years Later
OGL Kicks Off 2013 Fundraising Appeal
Annual Open House a Hit!
Looking for DNA?
Coming Soon...
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In March of 2011, a devastating earthquake and tsunami hit the coast of Japan. In addition to the terrible loss of life and destruction of homes, businesses and farmland, the tragedy also lead directly to one of history's major nuclear disasters -the explosion and meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Read below to find out how this event may be effecting our planet's oceans.


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The Fallout of Fukushima on Marine Life

Fukushima Daiichi Plant
Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant, 11 March 2011
Photo:  Science Media Centre
Who can forget the terror and devastation wrought when an earthquake and tsunami hit northeast Japan on March 11, 2011? The disaster took over 15,000 lives, destroyed or damaged nearly one million buildings, and caused great suffering across Japan and the world. In addition, the quake and tsunami lead to one of the worst nuclear disasters in history -the level 5 meltdown of 3 reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. 

Computer models have predicted the extent of radiation fallout from Fukushima, showing it to spread in a plume across  the Pacific ocean and eventually reach the US coast in March of 2014.  While the plume is expected to be dilute enough at this time and distance from Japan to be within safe levels (<10 becquerels/liter according to the World Health Organization), there is concern that migratory species caught in US or other national waters might pose a risk to human consumers. However, a recent study of Pacific bluefin tuna shows that levels of radioactive isotopes traceable to Fukushima are well below levels of other radionuclides naturally occurring in the fish.

A Lagrangian particle dispersal model for March 2012, one year after the disaster, shows the estimated spread of free-floating radioactive material (fish larvae, algae, phytoplankton, zooplankton, etc.) from the Fukushima disaster through the Pacific Ocean.  
Courtesy: ASR
While global risks seem relatively low, the fallout within Japan continues. Vast quantities of water needed to cool the damaged reactors have become contaminated. Human error and poor planning have resulted in continued leakage or dumping of this contaminated water and other radioactive material into the sea. As recently as last week (9 October 2013), radiation levels reached a 2-year high when more than 7 tons of contaminated water from a treatment system were accidentally leaked into the harbor surrounding the plant. Not only that, but methods used to contain contaminated water at the reactor site are driving contaminated soil into ground water and into the harbor.  To date, Fukushima has leaked a total 20-40 trillion becquerels of radioactive material into the Pacific ocean.

In August, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ordered the federal government to take over the remediation project from Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), and on October 7 Abe formally requested international assistance to decommission and dismantle the plant.

In the meantime, high levels of near-shore radiation continue to be of concern to Japan's food supply and ecosystems. Although data is still hard to come by, a 2012 study published in Environmental Science and Technology, showed little radioactive contamination in marine birds, but higher levels in fish, molluscs, and crustaceans (potentially sufficient to cause reproductive problems and deformities), and higher still in microalgae. However the downstream biological effects are difficult to assess in such a short time frame. 

Economic effects are more immediate. Commercial fishing has been indefinitely banned along Fukushima's coast, leaving local fishermen to survive on compensation provided by the Japanese government and TEPCO. In a recent survey of 170 types of fish caught off the Japan coast, 42 fish species tested as too radioactive for human consumption, while another 15 species showed little or no signs of contamination, according to a report by The Associated Press. While cesium-134 and -137 (the predominant radioisotopes originally released in the plant meltdown) were detected in few fish, strontium-90 and tritium (hydrogen-3) were more frequently detected - these radioisotopes are in high concentration in the contaminated cooling water.  Strontium can accumulate in bones and so officials are keen to watch out for it, the AP said. 

In a country like Japan where seafood is a primary staple for much of the population, the economic and human impacts of the Fukushima disaster are clearly evident.  However, only time will tell how this event will ultimately pan out for global marine ecosystems.
Wastewater containment tanks at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Courtesy AP/TEPCO

2013 OGL Campaign:  Adopt a Sargasso Sea Species!
Sargassum Crab
As the leaves start changing color and the mornings become crisp and clear, it's again time for OGL's annual fundraising appeal.  This time we're asking for your help to cover the cost of extracting and archiving the DNA from our June collection trip in Bermuda and the surrounding waters of the Sargasso Sea; a collection that was inaugurated in order to provide baseline information on biodiversity in the region in support of efforts toward establishing an international Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the Sargasso Sea.  Your tax-deductable $50 donation helps us to:
  • Process and store samples of the named species in perpetuity in our genomic archive
  • Publish provenance and taxonomic data in our online catalog
  • Support research that helps to protect Sargasso Sea marine species
  • Please help us build the Sargasso Sea Marine Genome Sanctuary, or contribute to any of our other efforts toward protecting and preserving marine biodiversity by visiting our Support page at Thank you for your gift!
    2013 Northeastern University Marine Science Center Open House in Nahant
    You're never too old (or young!) to learn how to extract DNA, as demonstrated by OGL Research Technician Cedric Hill (top) and OGL Intern Megan Gutwillig (bottom) at Northeastern University's Marine Science Center annual Open House.
    On October 5, almost 900 adults and children of all ages congregated at the far end of the Nahant peninsula, where Northeastern University's Marine Science Center is located, to enjoy exhibits, demonstrations and activities
     at the annual MSC public Open House.  Of Course, OGL was there to join our new colleagues in the adventure.  Thanks to everyone who came to visit and got their passports stamped!
    GGBN Data Portal Goes Live!
    Our collaborators at the Global Genome Biodiversity network (GGBN) have announced the opening of their new data portal in a whitepaper published this month in the Journal of Nucleic Acids Research.  The data portal enables researchers to search an entire network of biodiversity repositories (including OGL) for high-quality, well-documented samples of DNA and tissue from marine and terrestrial species.  Need something in particular?  Just visit the portal at

    Coming Soon...
    We've all been feeling the pinch in various ways from the federal government shutdown this month as our representatives and senators have struggled to come to agreement on a national budget.  But what has the fallout been on researchers, conservationists, custodians, policy-makers, and non-government employees of marine related industries and organizations, or on their programs?  Read next month as we find out where the future lies for "Marine Science Nation".
    NOAA Shutdown


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    Dan Distel
    Ocean Genome Legacy               Find us on Facebook      Follow us on Twitter