こんにちは from the Akkeshi Marine Station in Hokkaido, Japan!

We are Kyoko (21) from Japan and Lilli (26) from Germany and are working for this year’s GAME project at the Akkeshi Marine Station in Hokkaido, Japan.

Kyoko and Lilli on the pier of the Akkeshi Marine Station. In the background you can see the guesthouse of the station.

Akkeshi Marine Station (AMS) is one of the facilities of Hokkaido University and it belongs to the Field Science Centers for Northern Biosphere. The main campus of Hokkaido University, where I (Kyoko) study, is located in Sapporo, the biggest and central city of Hokkaido. Hokkaido University is one of the oldest and largest universities in Japan. It holds 12 undergraduate schools, 21 graduate schools and 5 research institutes, which are not only located in Sapporo, but also in Hakodate in the south of Hokkaido. There is a campus of the Graduate School and of the Faculty of Fisheries Sciences. Some further aquatic research stations, forest research stations, and agro-ecosystem research stations are spread all over Hokkaido. The AMS is staffed by three professors who are specialized in marine ecology, biological oceanography and ethology, and who give us advice about our experiment when we face difficulties. Furthermore, there are two technicians, who are helping us greatly with conducting our experiment.

With our project, we are continuing the experimental series on the effects of artificial light at night that has started in 2021. Our group is the biggest GAME group yet, and instead of running a lab experiment, we are challenging ourselves with a field experiment this year. And let us tell you, it really can be quite a challenge. But before diving into our experiences, difficulties and our experiment, let us enLIGHTen you a little bit about the topic of LIGHT pollution or artificial light at night.

The set-up with the white LEDs on the pier of the station.

Before hearing about GAME and the current research topic, I (Lilli) didn´t know anything about the term light pollution, let alone that such a thing existed. But what is it exactly? A simple definition is that light pollution introduces light in places, at times and intensities at which it does not occur naturally. You could therefore say, that light pollution started with the invention of electric light in 1879 (through Thomas Edison), making light pollution a pretty new human made stressor. It seems easy enough to avoid light pollution by simply turning off the light! But light is used almost everywhere: at home, on the streets, in stores and even on the open ocean. The purpose of using light ranges from safety when it gets dark, over advertisement, to simple comfort and even to purposefully attracting other organisms such as fish or squid, like it is done on fishing vessels.

Whereas light pollution has already been acknowledged on land, the effects of artificial light at night on marine ecosystems have so far not received much attention. The most popular example that people know of is probably the issue of sea turtle hatchlings not finding their way into the water, because of the glow of the city in the background. And while this is a very important effect, it is definitely not the only one. Not only hatchlings of sea turtles are attracted to and misdirected by light, but also some species of fish and this behaviour is used by many fishermen on the open ocean who attract fish with spot lights to fish them out of the water more easily. This practice is also very common in Japan.

Particularly polluted by light are the coastal areas of the continents, which may cause changes in the structure and functioning of their marine ecosystems. Our experiment is therefore focusing on the recruitment of sessile invertebrates and macroalgae on hard bottoms under the influence of artificial light at night to investigate whether it changes the composition of benthic communities.

Before deciding on how to test this, all participants of GAME 2023 met in Kiel in March for a preparation course. We decided on things like response variables, experimental design, the set-up and how to statistically analyse our data in the end. Especially the statistical part was explained by Mark Lenz in much detail for everyone to understand. This way it was really comforting to start the experimental process with a feeling of being prepared. The time in Kiel was also great, because we all got to know each other better and met our partners for the first time. Every Monday we went to a pub quiz together and in the 3rd week we went to Hallig Hooge, where we got to spend more time with each other to create some memories. The end of March was therefore bittersweet. On the one hand some of us became quite close, which made it harder to say goodbye…on the other hand the adventure of going to a different country was about to start!

JAPAN – here we come! When you first arrive in Akkeshi, Japan, you might think there is not much to it, but as time goes by Sakura (cherry blossom) starts and after that nature turns into all shades of green. The saying is “the grass looks always greener on the other side”, but here in Akkeshi it truly does!

A view on Akkeshi.
The harbour area. The bridge crosses the entrance to Lake Akkeshi.
The guest house of the marine station. From no green…
to all shades of green.

Akkeshi, a rural and very small town, is located on the east coast of Hokkaido, the most northern island of Japan. During December to March, the average temperature falls below zero, and even during summer it can stay below 20°C. Therefore, the people here face a severe cold and plenty of snow in winter, but have a cool and comfortable summer. Akkeshi is surrounded by nature, for example Bekanbeushi-Shitsugen (the second largest marshland in Japan), Ayamegahara Genseikaen (a vast wildflower field), Daikokujima (a deserted island, which is a special wildlife protection area and is a very important breeding ground for harbor seals and seabirds such as the Leach´s Storm petrel, Spectacled Guillemot and the Rhinoceros Auklet). Also, several large marshlands and forests are near Akkeshi, so it is very common for us to see wild animals like deer, foxes, eagles and cranes. The east coast of Hokkaido is famous for fishery, and especially around Akkeshi oyster and clam farming are thriving. So, while in Akkeshi you can enjoy the beautiful nature, landscapes and delicious seafood.

Until pioneers came to Hokkaido in the 1800s, indigenous people called “Ainu” had lived here. Their culture is unique and very distinct from the Japanese culture, also their language isn´t Japanese. Including “Akkeshi”, most places names of Hokkaido are derived from the Ainu language, so the pronunciation is unique and complex. They have worshipped the nature of Hokkaido and treated animals and plants with great care. As a result, Hokkaido has few large Japanese-style castles or temples and shrines that are typical of the Kyoto culture, but a lot of untouched nature.

Akkeshi wildlife.
A deer in the Ayame Park.
The Shiretoko National Park.

Generally, people are very friendly here! Whether you need help with your work, need to go to the grocery store or if there is an event or special place you want to visit, you can be sure to find someone to take you along there. As soon as the weather starts being nice this means: BBQ-Party-Season! Since Akkeshi is especially known for oysters, they always end up on the grill. A Japanese party usually consist of cooking or barbequing, while talking and drinking and having the TV being on in the background with some kind of entertainment show. Another thing that is really famous here is soft ice cream, especially because Hokkaido is known for its good milk quality.
And even though Akkeshi is quite small, your daily life here doesn´t have to become boring. On top of the hill there is a little gym to work out at, where, we, the AMS students, go every Saturday to play volleyball and badminton. There are also at least two festivals to visit during the time you are here (one of them even has fireworks) and guest are flowing in and out of the station’s guest house. Also, besides working on our own project, we can join field trips of other students and researchers or help them with their work.

The Akkeshi Shrine.
Sakura – the Japanese cherry.

For me (Lilli), personally, it took some time to adjust to the life in the guest house and to working at the Akkeshi Marine Station. Maybe that is what they call culture shock,… but it obviously is not one situation in which you realize what´s all different, but differences slowly show up day by day. About some differences you can easily laugh, for example people here are very private and shy about their personal life, so it takes some time to really get to know a person, but it is very nice, when you start to notice that people start to feel more comfortable around you, or when you start to notice that is very normal here to take a nap at your desk 😊 They will pull out a little pillow and blanket and just take a nap right on the spot. Other differences might give you a little bit of a hard time, like for example the adjustment to working hours here. Most students in the lab stay until 9 or 10 pm or even midnight everyday (including the weekend). For me this was quite hard in the beginning, because it made me feel lazy, even though I already worked 8 h that day. Also, especially in the beginning, it can be hard to get a straight opinion from someone, sometimes it might feel like “maybe” is the most used word here. Something that I have learned from this is that when you do not talk about problems quickly, feelings and assumptions might build up and misunderstandings grow. I don´t think that it is easy to speak to someone you haven´t known for long about how you feel, but it truly helps to understand each other better. And this makes it easier to handle some situations J.

But now let´s get to work!

April was filled mainly with discussing, ordering materials and exploring the area. We discussed the experimental set up with our supervisor here at the AMS and the technician, held a presentation about our project to the other members of the AMS to get some input and waited for our materials to arrive. By discussing with the technician and by inspecting our experimental site, we quickly figured out that our main problem here is the strong tidal current, which makes the placement of the LEDs difficult. We initially planned to install the LEDs on land, but with this set-up the tidal current, which changes its direction every 6 hours, would permanently drag the frame with the settlement panels out of the light field of the LEDs.

Kyoko with Kombu – a brown macroalga – that floated ashore.

We recognized this, when we built a trial frame and therefore switched our set up to floating LEDs. Next, we sanded our PVC panels, soaked them in water for one week to release chemicals and drilled holes in all four corners. Building the frames themselves was pretty easy and we were done within 2-3 days. However, we did not expect that the electrical set up would pose some problems! Aftersome confusion about which of the elongating cables to connect to the positive and negative outlet of our control unit and trials and errors we faced two broken control units in the second half of May. At that time this was a pretty big setback for us that cost us some nerves! But obviously there is a solution to any problem and we had some great technicians making a new control system for us that is even nicer and easier to manage than the first one.

Lilli drilling holes into the corners of the settlement panels.
One of our frames during the process of construction. It turned out to be good for more things than just science.
Kyoko arranging the PVC pipes that we used for constructing the frames.

So, after almost 2 months of discussing, preparing, ordering materials, breaking materials, building trial frames and considering how to install the electrical part of the experiment safely, we officially started our experiment on the 5th of June, when we put our experimental set up in the water.

One of our frames still without the settlement panels in front of the Akkeshi Marine Station.
The frames after deployment.
The settlement panels.

Since then, we inspected our panels twice already and are happy to report that settlement of organisms like algae, barnacles, hydrozoans, tube-building amphipods and some unidentified mysteries took place. In two weeks, we will inspect our settlement panels for the second time and are very curious to see whether new species attached to them. We are also hopeful that some of the already attached organisms grew, which will allow us to identify them more easily.

A hydrozoen that colonized our settlement panels.
An amphipod that we detected while inspecting our panels.