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Turtles on the coast

Turtles on the coast

Added In: Places to Go › Outdoors › Coastal

Winifred Bird

Inside a small sunny building labelled “Sea Turtle Park,” on the stretch of Route 42 that winds through Mie Prefecture’s southernmost corner, four adult and three juvenile sea turtles float serenely in round blue pools. Only the gentle flapping of their flippers against the surface of the water breaks the room’s humid silence. I lean over the edge of the pool to look more closely at their bird-like faces. With short curved beaks and slanted eyes, they seem to me wise, severe, and accusing, all at the same time.

Five species of these ancient sea creatures are found along the coast of Japan and all of them are endangered. Three nest in Japan, and among these, the loggerhead sea turtle counts the sandy beaches from Okinawa to Shizuoka (including those along Route 42) as its sole spawning ground in the entire North Pacific. Once hatched, loggerheads swim as far as China, Vietnam, and even Mexico. They are Japan’s ultimate global citizens. Sadly, they are disappearing with shocking speed.
Late one drizzly June evening, I return to the Sea Turtle Park to meet Shinya Hagino. An energetic 53, Mr. Hagino is a founding member of the Kiho-cho Sea Turtle Protection Group, which bases its activities in the park’s office. Tonight he has agreed to let me tag along as he patrols the beach in search of nesting sea turtles.

Loggerhead turtles spend most of their life in the ocean, but they must come to shore to lay their eggs. Under the cover of dark, they pull themselves far enough up the sand to ensure the eggs won’t be washed away by the tide. They then dig a hole in the sand with their flippers, lay a clutch of between 40 and 190 eggs, cover them, and return to the sea.
Like similar groups all along the coast, the Kiho-cho Sea Turtle Protection Group makes sure the eggs stay safe until they hatch and counts them for research purposes. They are one of relatively few groups, however, that enjoy official support from the local government. A town ordinance written in 1985 protecting the turtles ensures that the group receives things like uniforms and flashlights – but not pay for its work. “We prefer to volunteer and keep our independent voice,” says Mr. Hagino.
I follow him across the highway, through a shadowy barrier of pine trees, and onto the long curve of Shichiri Mihama Beach. He switches off his flashlight and heads down the beach, listening for the sound of turtles dragging themselves up the shore and scanning the sand for trails left by their bodies. He finds neither. “These days I never find turtles,” he notes sadly. “It’s usually an early morning fisherman or someone out to walk their dog that finds the eggs and then calls us.” When his group began counting turtles 22 years ago, they recorded 37; last year, only one lone female made her way up the beach to lay eggs.

The reasons for this precipitous decline are complicated and numerous. Mr. Hagino tells me about one as we pick our way along the rocky shoreline. Ten years ago, his group began measuring the width of the beach. At that time it was around 100 meters wide. Since then, it has shrunk by over 30 meters. And not only is the beach getting narrower, it’s also getting rockier.

Neither of these developments are good news for loggerhead sea turtles. Narrower beaches mean fewer safe places to lay eggs while more rocks mean fewer places to dig. Add in the concrete tetrapods that liberally dot Japan’s coast and impede turtle traffic, the lights and noise from the nearby highway, egg-eating humans and animals, fishing nets that drown turtles by preventing them from coming to the surface to breathe, and egg-crushing beach vehicles, and you begin to form a picture of the challenges sea turtles face in the propagation of their species.

So Shinya Hagino is counting turtles. “I got involved with the turtles by chance, because we share the same environment,” he tells me over iced coffee in the Chamber of Commerce office where he works. “I’m not interested in ‘environmental protection’ per se. For me, sea turtles have the same level of importance as the butterflies or fireflies. It’s just that the beach is disappearing, and the turtles have fewer and fewer places to lay their eggs. I’m doing what I can to counteract that.”
Nevertheless, the early days of his turtle patrols had a shade of wild-West danger to them. In the 1980’s, he says, demand for turtle eggs in Tokyo sucked a steady supply from rural beaches. Egg collecting was serious business. So when he began patrolling the beach, he took along a police escort for fear of gun-toting egg collectors.
These days there’s no need for police protection, but the larger threats are not so easily chased away. The erosion of sand looms as one of the most serious and intractable of all. Though he can’t say with scientific certainty, Mr. Hagino feels sure that beach erosion is linked to the numerous dams and ports that prevent silt from washing down Japanese rivers and replenishing the beaches.

“But taking down dams isn’t easy,” Mr. Hagino says. “The balance between human and environmental needs is difficult, and I don’t feel like I have the ability to influence the government at that level.”

Takaaki Kagohashi, executive director of the Japan Environmental Lawyer Foundation (JELF), agrees that dams play a major role in the loss of sandy beaches. But, he says, while loggerhead turtles are protected both under Japan’s endangered species act and the international CITES treaty, neither gives the government the authority to halt or reverse dam and port construction. “Environmental protection groups are helpless to act against illegal coastal development and the like,” he says. “The Japanese people are not guaranteed participation in the democratic process when it comes to sea turtles and coastal protection. We need to give citizens the power to enforce laws against such illegal acts.”

JELF is currently working on lawsuits aimed at removing concrete blocks from sea turtle nesting grounds in Miyazaki prefecture (in Kyushu), and at halting the removal of sand from critical beaches by sand construction supply companies.
Meanwhile, Shinya Hagino and scores of ordinary citizens like him go on with their local efforts, hoping to gradually build up enough understanding and support to make real change. Yet 22 years after the creation of the protective town ordinance that Mr. Hagino had hoped would become an example for local governments throughout the region, neighboring Mihama-cho still doesn’t offer similar protection for sea turtles. That saddens him.

“From the point of view of the turtles, the whole coast is one,” he says. “Town and prefectural divisions don’t exist for them. So our protection activities must similarly transcend the boundaries people have imposed.”

What he says for Japan is true on an international scale as well. Success on Japanese coasts will remain meaningless as long as turtles are dying in the open seas and on the coasts of countries from China to Mexico.

Japan’s oldest global citizens, it seems, may still have a few things to teach us about inter-continental cooperation.

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