World Ocean Weekly

A Tale of Two (Ocean) Cities

"it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…”

These are the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ 1859 novel, A Tale of Two Cities, one of the most popular fictions of all time. Dickens was writing about the French Revolution, a period of intense social turmoil and political upheaval. The book’s first paragraph concludes:

“we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

Noisy authorities. Superlative degree. Light. Darkness. So far like the present?

Reading those lines, I cannot but compare them to the circumstance we face today; the similarities are evocative certainly, coincident at worst. Thinking on this, it occurred to me to exemplify the irony through a tale of two ocean cities: far apart, one smaller, one larger, but faced with the reality of our time so socially and politically uncertain and affected by disruptive consequence from premeditated action against the nurturing continuum of water.

The first is Newtok, Alaska, a Yup’ik village on the Ninglick River on the Bering Sea, population 380. In a recent National Geographic article, the situation was described as follows: “Thawing permafrost and erosion has increased flooding risks and caused the land around homes to crumble and sink. The community landfill has washed away, fuel storage tanks lean precariously, and some houses have already been torn down because they were in danger of collapsing…So, after years of planning and construction, families began arriving in the freshly minted village of Mertarvik, about 10 miles southeast on Nelson Island. During breaks in the high winds and heavy rains that lashed the Yukon Delta, eighteen families made the move and began unpacking belongings in their newly built energy-efficient homes.”

There is only housing for one third of the Newtok families, with electricity, but no public water and sewerage systems, no school. This small event, planned since 2003, is a front-line consequence of climate change. For those moving, for those forcibly staying behind, which is it? Best of times? Or worst of times?

Now, transport yourself over 6,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean to Jakarta, Indonesia, a mega-city of over 30 million people that is confronting similar cause and effect: global warming, subsidence as result of over-consumption from the water table, industrial and human pollution of fresh water systems, sea-level rise compounded by extreme weather, land erosion and indiscriminate filling of coastal lowlands to house economic expansion and population increase, corruption of existing governmental regulatory controls and proposed construction of new, very expensive mitigation structures. All these to an extreme that paralyzes response in place and time. Enormous geo-engineered solutions such as giant offshore barriers, dikes built on top of existing dikes, new dams, canals, giant water collection areas, and complex control technologies — all these have been proposed at astronomical cost of trillions on trillions, typically under-financed or realistically beyond financial possibility. And finally, there is the unimaginable social prospect of relocation of millions of people, facilities, housing, and services to some other, perhaps safer, more-protected place in what is essentially a low-lying island nation surrounded by water. Worst of times? Best of times?

The exponential magnitude between Newtok and Jakarta is almost beyond calculation, but the impact on the people who live there, desperately responding to changing climate conditions, disruption, community resilience is tragically the same. Dickens writes:

“It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Which is it? Which will it be? What will it take?

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.

How Many Ways Do We Hear the Sound of Water?

How many ways do we hear the sound of water? Just to think about it demands a total immersion in sensory memory and anecdotal recall. What was that sound? When was it? Where was it? How do these questions pertain to its articulation in words, a medium fractured and evocative, but ultimately limited in comparison to the infinite euphony of water?

Think of water as many sounds in one sound: myriad compositions, with ripples and waves as notation of melodies and embellishments. Every performance is unique; the players invisible; the conductor, wind and weather; the orchestra, a system of conveyance that responds to the direction of planetary turning and gravitational force. Think of the earth as a vast concert hall for the appreciation for how we, as individuals and cultures, explore the extent of water, Nature’s most essential element, and interpret its meaning, overtly, or covertly through our senses to our minds.

But who is the composer? Is there a creator? Every culture has its story of origin, often connected to manifestations of water. The great flood. The drowning. The miraculous survival. The baptism. The burial at sea. We want to explain, attribute the making of the ephemeral and fluid to a hand that often looks like ours, as if we are both an expression of the divine and its maker. Water lies at the core of mystery, the miraculous, the appearances that dissolve into the inexplicable and unknowable. There is no definitive answer to who or how, only the certainty of movement.

Think of the sound of water on water: rain on the pond, incoming waves on the receding. This is the percussion, the underlying rhythm of constant motion, the fluid beat of time, and change. This is the code we seek to break when we sit by the stream or walk alongshore, looking for answers, reasons, place, and value. That search is universal, not exclusive to any one of us apart from all the others. What would it be if we all found what we look for when we go to the ocean in search for life in a single drop?

That would be value beyond value: a crest of understanding, of spiritual meaning and psychological solace, that might unite the world just as, together, the whales swim long distances north to south, the salmon return home to spawn, the turtle lays her eggs for the next generation to risk its life in the sea. If that is so, why would we do anything to put that conjoining medium at risk by consuming it to extinction, or by poisoning it beyond utility, or by failing to conserve and sustain it as key to our survival? As with so many things that shape the human quandary, it makes no sense.

What would it mean if there was no water? What if all the rain is acid, the wells are exhausted and the aquifers finally run dry? What if we pollute and consume without limit? What if changing climate and increasing temperature do create conditions that so erode our industrial, agricultural, sanitation, and urban systems that society is compromised toward chaos? Think about that future as drought, and drought as silence, and silence as the expression of emptiness inside. Who are we then, without vitality, movement, aspiration, security, continuity, hope of a future?

The sound of water is the music of life. Without it we are hollow and dry, deaf and dumb, silent and deadly, useless and unworthy. We need it to birth and grow. We need it to nurture body and soul. We need it to sustain our families and friends, our communities and nation states, our sense of possibility and optimism for a world somehow better, less fraught, more equitable and just through the magical sound of water.

Go down to where that water flows: as you drink, remember; as you listen, resolve, that such beauty must be shared, and that you are now creator, conductor, and virtuoso performer in the symphonic masterpiece called water.


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.

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.