Perishing Isahaya marine life looks to court for salvation

ISAHAYA, Nagasaki Pref. — As authorities stand idle and let the entire ecosystem on this tideland perish by the day, marine creatures on the brink of extinction are fighting back against the human race — in court.

Since last July, six plaintiffs, each claiming to represent a species that inhabit areas undergoing reclamation work in Isahaya Bay, have turned to the Nagasaki District Court to seek a halt to the central government project. In court hearings, they speak for the animals whose survival is being threatened. Although their action is largely symbolic, they hope to promote the notion that other living creatures besides humans have the right to live.

“In my childhood, my parents always taught me never to be the bully,” said Keiichiro Harada, 45, one of the plaintiffs. “Men have the means to fight back against men, but other creatures can only put up with human bullies.” The 3,000-hectare tideland, known worldwide for its rich ecodiversity, has been disappearing fast since a 1.2-km part of the 7-km embankment that blocks the flow of tide was closed April 14 amid angry protests by locals.

In a recent report issued by the Worldwide Fund for Nature Japan, at least three species of crabs and four species of clams may become extinct well before the project is completed in 2000 as planned. “We are afraid that such rare migratory birds as Sanders’ Gulls, which number only about 3,000 worldwide, may not be seen here anymore,” WWFJ official Shinichi Hanada said. “For those birds, the tideland in Isahaya is an oasis in their annual journey from south to north.”

The lawsuit Harada and five others have filed against the state emphasizes the “rights of nature,” an emerging legal concept that insists nature has the right to live. Such suits are classified as a kind of representative action, in which the plaintiff speaks on behalf of animals, trees or the environment as a whole.

Because animals or trees cannot become the subject of legal action, this type of lawsuit primarily aims at making a social impact by letting Mother Nature speak up against development projects. Since the 1970s, a number of lawsuits based on this concept have been filed in the United States.

In Japan, three such suits have been filed with courts since February 1995, when residents on Amamioshima Island, Kagoshima Prefecture, in the name of nationally protected Amami black rabbits, sought to invalidate the prefecture’s approval of construction of a golf course on the island that they said would endanger the rabbits. In a suit filed December 1995, plaintiffs representing “ohishikui,” or bean goose, which inhabit Lake Kasumigaura, Ibaraki Prefecture, sought about 22 million yen in damages against the prefectural governor for his failure to designate the birds’ habitat as a protected area. Both cases are pending.

The lawsuit in which Harada and others represent six endangered species on the Isahaya tideland is the third such case. Standing in front of the court, Harada, a native of Isahaya, claims to represent “mutsugoro,” or mudskippers. The fish, well known for their cuteness, have long been a symbol of the Isahaya tideland and the movement to preserve it. “Although mudskippers used to inhabit many areas in the Sea of Ariake, the tideland here is their last home now,” Harada said. “The reclamation project is no doubt driving the last nail into their coffin.”

Environmental experts say it will take 2,000 years to get back the lost tideland. But mudskippers, which have been there since ancient times when Japan was still a part of the Asian continent, will never return, they add. “We have only one demand for the authorities,” Harada said. “That is, think it over and stop it once and for all.”