Okinawa’s marine treasures at risk

At just 5 meters below the surface, the water is teeming with colourful tropical fish that dart around forests of coral. The seabed is covered with sea grass, where endangered dugong-a protected species-like to graze.

This pristine environment is Oura Bay, near Henoko point in Okinawa Prefecture, the designated replacement site for the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma that is now in Ginowan.

Clearly, the underwater ecosystem will be under threat once construction of the runway starts and actual reclamation work begins.

Local residents and environmental groups concerned with protecting the irreplaceable natural treasures are desperately trying to halt the project.

So I went for a dive on Nov. 11 to find out what the fuss was about.

Accompanied by Takuma Higashionna, 44, a diving instructor who also serves as secretary-general of the Save the Dugong Foundation based in Nago, we swam in a pale emerald sea about 100 meters offshore from the east side of Henoko point.

According to the relocation plan, this area will become landfill to make way for construction of an airstrip.

The Camp Schwab barracks were right in front of us. Military personnel were frolicking in the water. Others were busy playing water sports.

The white sandy bed was covered with a blanket of wispy sea grass that resembles tender wakame seaweed, gently dancing with the tide.

There were clumps of halophila ovalis, a type of sea grass the dugong feed on. Rays of bright light lit up the water. It felt like swimming in an underwater pasture.

As we proceeded south, swimming in parallel to the shoreline, the water became deeper. At a depth of 12 meters, we encountered a large boulder. Numerous colorful chromis fish were fluttering around.

In recent years, the only dugong sightings in Japan have come from Okinawa’s main island, according to the environment ministry. Dugongs have also been spotted in Oura Bay. Higashionna said he had seen them twice.

The dugong is listed as an endangered marine mammal and sightings are rare. During fiscal 2001 to 2003, only 13 dugongs were spotted, ministry officials said.

The military facility relocation project will deprive the dugong of a precious feeding ground, thereby further encroaching on their habitat.

Alarmed at the development, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) adopted recommendations in 2000 and again in 2004 requesting the Japanese government to take measures to protect dugongs.

Other environmental organizations such as the World Wide Fund for Nature Japan also expressed their opposition and called for a halt to the project after the Japanese and U.S. governments reached a basic agreement in the military airbase relocation plan in October.

Besides endangered dugong, another issue that worries environmentalists is the coral reef. At the deepest end of the bay, we found a large clump of finger coral. Measuring about 2 meters wide, it lay 5 meters below the surface.

Clown fish with zany stripes and giant cuttlefish called kobushime were playing hide and seek in the coral.

“Japan is now about to rob these natural treasures of their habitats. It’s a crying shame,” said Higashionna.

“We are going to disgrace ourselves before the world.”

Source: The Asahi Shimbun