Staff writer

The Ramsar Convention is no longer just for the birds.

In order to boost the number of sites registered under the international wetland convention, parties to the treaty agreed this week in Costa Rica to reorganize and broaden the criteria used to determine a wetland of international importance.

As the seventh triennial conference of the parties to the convention on wetlands concluded Tuesday in San Jose, both Environment Agency officials and nongovernmental organizations heralded this and other changes as opening the door to an increase in the number of wetlands registered under the convention.

In all, parties to the conference adopted 32 resolutions — three of which are especially likely to affect Japan.

For Japan, the most headline-grabbing event was the designation of Lake Man, home to a mangrove forest in Naha, Okinawa Prefecture. But more subtle events will probably prove important as Japan struggles to preserve its wetlands. “So far, Japan has only used birds to decide if a wetland is suitable (to be included under the treaty as internationally important),” said Shinichi Hanawa of the World Wide Fund for Nature Japan.

Although the criteria were expanded to include fish at the previous conference in 1996 in Brisbane, Australia, this has not led to a surge in the number of registered sites, and Japan has remained hung up on waterfowl as the major indicator of wetland importance, according to Hanawa.

Toshio Torii of the Environment Agency echoes his sentiments. “The new criteria should make it easier to register sites,” said Torii, assistant director of the Wildlife Protection Division of the agency’s Nature Conservation Bureau. “I think the number (of sites) will gradually increase. “Until now, sites have been designated based on (their number of and importance to) water birds,” Torii said, adding that a lack of data on fish has made it difficult to use them as criteria.

The new criteria call on each signatory to establish biogeographic regions and identify and designate sites that are representative of, or unique to, a region. With the adoption of an Australia-backed resolution, Japan will also continue to cooperate indefinitely with Australia to implement the Asia Pacific Migratory Waterbird Conservation Strategy beyond its 2000 deadline.

Based on a biogeographic breakdown of the nation into 10 regions along natural ecological divisions created in 1995, the government will probably be able to look at areas in smaller blocks and register more sites, Torii said.

Hanawa said it’s about time. “Japan is on par with a developing nation when it comes to the number of sites registered. And they are small in area, too.” Japan currently has 11 registered sites. “England’s area is only half of Japan’s, and it has over 130 places. So Japan could have around 200 — or around 100 or 50 at the very least,” he said.

In addition, for the first time, NGOs were given an official slot to speak their collective piece during the opening plenary session. They lauded Tokyo’s decision to preserve the Fujimae tidal flats in Nagoya while criticizing the reclamation project that sealed off 3,500 hectares of Nagasaki Prefecture’s Isahaya Bay in April 1997.

Japan was also applauded by conference participants the following day when Environment Agency officials reported on the decision to nix the Fujimae landfill plan and the country’s rapidly growing awareness and appreciation of wetlands.

A Philippine-sponsored and South Korean-backed resolution that “urges contracting parties to review and modify existing policies that adversely affect intertidal wetlands” also promises to be important in Japan. It will probably become a new tool for environmentalists to call on the government to stop projects that could clearly be detrimental to wetlands — such as Tokyo Bay’s Sanbanze tidal flats, which are slated for development by Chiba Prefecture.

Hirofumi Yamashita, who for more than a quarter century has been a staunch advocate of the drive to preserve Isahaya Bay, applauded the gathering.

More indigenous people participated, NGOs are finally beginning to take a more active role and the Environment Agency is starting to be more active, he said, predicting the floodgates to Isahaya Bay will be reopened within the year. “I think this will lend a hand to the Environment Agency,” Yamashita said. “It should make it easier for them to preserve wetlands.”

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