Ichthyology trip to Japan: Conference Piggybacking

At the end of June, my PhD student Bill Ludt and I went to Okinawa for the 9th Indo-Pacific Fish Conference (IPFC), and then traveled to Tokyo to do a market survey and collection at the famous Tsukiji Market. The IPFC is held every 4 years and it is a mix of an ichthyology and evolution conferences that is important for everyone working on fishes in the region. This year’s conference was particularly important for me because it included a Percomorph Symposium that dealt with higher-level fish systematics and included a series of well-known and well-respected speakers (obviously I wasn’t invited to speak), and it was one of the most important single days in systematic ichthyology signaling in a paradigm shift in our discipline.
Bill Ludt:Tuna Hunter
        The meeting is typically held in an interesting and beautiful location that is usually a great spot for collecting fishes too. The last IPFC in 2009 was in Perth, Australia; at that meeting I was able to get away to collect cavefish from Exmouth in the northern part of the country. This year’s conference was relatively small, with only 500 people, but it is a great conference for networking with other like-minded scientists. Both Bill and I left with several new collaborations that we are truly excited about.
Okinawa is at the southern reaches of Japan, closer to Taipei, Taiwan than to Tokyo and with a rich history of its own. (It may be fighting for its independence as a sovereign nation in the near future.) The conference center was a few steps from a beach and a crystal clear blue ocean, but there was little time to enjoy it. The talks were fantastic and groundbreaking with lots of new systematic efforts highlighting new molecular techniques. The next generation of sequencing is here and I was very excited to talk about ultraconserved elements and our project on using massively parallel sequencing to resolve the basal relationships of Ostariophysi (a group of 10,000 species that includes catfishes, electric knifefishes, tetras, piranhas, goldfish, and over 70% of freshwater fishes; this lineage alone represents 1 in every 6 species of vertebrate). After a few years of giving talks about projects I had just recently published I loved talking about something so fresh that I didn’t have results to talk about until a week before we were set to leave. Bill on the other hand was much better prepared and he gave an excellent talk on Prionurus, a group of surgeonfishes (so named because of razor sharp barbs near their tail). This genus of seven species are distributed in cold waters in disjunct areas that are essentially anti-tropical. Bill presented a dated phylogeny that helped explain their evolutionary history and unusual distribution. Directly following his talk several very well known scientists approached him and I was proud of him as he began making a name for himself in the fish world.
Tsukiji Market.
Bluefin tuna auction.
After the conference Bill and I flew up to Tokyo, which was another world all together. As a New York City kid that thinks he is well traveled (Japan was my 24th country visited) I was surprised by how mesmerized I was by this ultramodern city that still had plenty of old world charm. The largest city in the world humbled me in its size, diversity and culture. Along with exploring a new city, our main goal was to collect as many species as we could at the world’s largest fish market, Tsukiji. This is home of the world famous bluefin tuna auction where last year a single individual sold for 1.7 million dollars. The bluefin is highly endangered and could go extinct by the next decade or so. Sought after for its crimson meat that is a result of a countercurrent circulation that endows this great species with the ability to travel at amazing speeds also has made it one of the most sought after national resources in the world. Bluefin are flown in from around the world and I’ve actually seen individuals collected in Sri Lanka that would quickly make their way to Tokyo via private jet. Bill and I couldn’t resist heading to the market at 3am to observe the proceedings. The auction doesn’t take place until 5am but in order to get in to see the trading of bluefin you need to be ahead of the pack. The auction itself is rather quaint despite the high stakes: gentlemen (I saw no female participants) with flashlights and dower faces looked closely at the exposed red meat of the tunas like a mechanic evaluating the engine of a Lamborghini. The huge fish sold quickly and we were ushered away just as fast. Tsukiji itself was a bit of a disappointment to me. As the world’s largest fish market I was expecting to find a large assortment of species that boatmen were delivering directly to the wholesalers. In large markets in Thailand and Taiwan I saw enormous ships bring in thousands (if not millions) of fish to the banks and saw sellers buying up what they could: what they didn’t want was discarded in large piles. These large piles hide an exceptionally diverse assortment of rare species and often included deep-sea creatures that would be very difficult to get otherwise. Deep-sea research vessels can charge upwards of $30K a day, but at the bycatch trash piles the fish are free and the hard work is done for you. Unfortunately, Tsukiji is a different monster all together. The market is only open to the public from 9-10am. The rest of the time from 5am, the wholesalers are packing up specimens that are being brought in from all over the world and setting them up to be shipped out to other locations around the world. It is more of a post office sorting center than the all-purpose warehouse I expected. So that meant I found no bycatch pile and only fish that are being eating and sold for a profit. Many of the vendors’ booths, and there were over 100 of them, would not sell to us because they only sold 10kg at a time or some other fixed weight. We had a bit more luck when we explained we were scientists but because we came when the annoying tourists were also there we got many strange looks and curt replies when we inquired about purchasing the different species. In the end we only ended up with about 30 species and perhaps 50 individuals. However, since most of them are new to our collection it was certainly worth it. It just wasn’t what we expected from what we had heard about the market in the past.
Processing fish in the middle of a crowded Tokyo street.
Overall it was a memorable and productive trip both in terms of collaborations made and fishes collected. I most certainly want to return to Japan to do some proper collecting in the future.