Aquarium chief takes own path to saving sea turtles

by Hisashi Sasaki

Kyodo

Naoki Kamezaki, head of Suma Aqualife Park, Kobe’s municipal aquarium, is known as an expert on sea turtles, a status he acquired by being an academic maverick.

Raised in the coastal cities of Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, and Oita, Kamezaki, 57, was attracted to sea turtles when he was a university freshman.

“I saw sea turtle eggs sold at a market for ¥20 each and bought five,” Kamezaki said. “I ate two of them and tried to hatch the rest, planting them in flower pots. Of course, they did not hatch.”

He then became interested in marine life and studied fisheries at Kagoshima University.

Kamezaki joined Nagoya Railroad Co. upon graduation as it was about to open an aquarium in the town of Mihama, Aichi Prefecture. After working as a train conductor and station attendant for six months, he was transferred to the Minamichita Beach Land aquarium.

In 1981, the third year of his employment at the company, Kamezaki was informed that a sea turtle was laying eggs on a beach. He brought 20 of them to the aquarium and 16 hatched.

Kamezaki found that while the mother was a loggerhead turtle, the babies that hatched from the eggs were “hybrid” hawksbills. He reported the finding to a meeting of the Herpetological Society of Japan but was roundly criticized because such a phenomenon was unthinkable at that time.

In 1983, Kamezaki was assigned to a laboratory on Kuroshima, one of Okinawa’s Yaeyama Islands, to study the crown-of-thorns starfish, which were eating up the coral.

As there were some 600 egg-laying sites for sea turtles on the Yaeyama group, Kamezaki studied them as well. There he also found that hybrid turtles were born at about 1 percent of the sites.

He was criticized again for reporting these findings to the herpetological society. But as he kept releasing data, his reports gradually gained acceptance, prompting Kyoto University, for example, to send researchers to Kuroshima.

When his four-year assignment on the island ended, Kamezaki became a researcher at Kyoto University.

He later felt distressed, however, after realizing that his interests did not conform directly to prevailing academic methods.

“I wanted to know, for example, where sea turtles lay eggs and how many,” Kamezaki recalled. “I also wanted to know whether the population of sea turtles was declining.”

He said, however, that his goals were not readily accepted.

In 1990, Kamezaki founded the Sea Turtle Association of Japan to promote the research and preservation of sea turtles, not only among scholars but ordinary citizens as well.

The number of eggs laid by sea turtles in Japan has been on the rise lately due in part to the activities of the association.

As director of Suma Aqualife Park, Kamezaki is trying to reinforce its educational role, meaning the institution must go beyond the conventional role of an aquarium, he said.

As part of this, Suma Aqualife Park runs an annual free-admission campaign that lets people who bring in Mississippi red-eared sliders visit for free. The campaign is held as an incentive for people to learn more about the alien species, which is thought to be crowding out domestic species in Japan. The program will eventually help prevent the population of the common U.S. turtle from growing, Kamezaki said.

He also has many other pursuits, including getting children to feed animals to instill them with a sense of generosity and compassion

“Even toddlers give their snacks to pigeons. I believe they feel pleasure watching the birds peck at them,” he said.