Wetland conservation efforts gain ground

by Mick Corliss

Wetlands have long gotten short shrift in Japan and around the world.

These mucky troves of biodiversity may have less allure than beach resorts or amusement parks, although they often supply the reclaimed land to build them.

But the tide of public opinion toward wetlands is subtly shifting. One person happy to see this change in attitude is Delmar Blasco, secretary general of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.

“Wetlands have had bad press over the centuries. It is only in the last three decades that we have started to focus on wetlands from a different perspective.”

The convention, signed in 1971 in Ramsar, Iran, is a framework for countries to conserve and wisely use wetlands. So far, 1,085 sites totaling 82.2 million hectares have been registered.

This attitude shift may have been a little slower coming to Japan than to other countries, but indications are that wetlands here are now getting more attention.

Blasco, a native of Argentina, has been watching wetland issues in Japan from a distance — the convention headquarters in Gland, Switzerland.

On a recent visit here, three years after a disappointing first trip, he said that he has seen some hopeful signs:

* Citizens groups and the then Environment Agency nixed a plan to convert the Fujimae tidal flats in Aichi Prefecture — one of the nation’s most important stopover points for migratory birds — into a garbage dump.

* Debate has erupted around the reclamation project under way in Isahaya Bay in Nagasaki Prefecture, as flagging water quality, seaweed and fish harvests have forced the government to review the project.

* A plan to develop the Sanbanze tidal flats in Chiba Prefecture — one of Tokyo Bay’s last two chunks of wetland — has been sent back to the drawing board, and is potentially headed for the scrap heap under the new administration of Gov. Akiko Domoto, who is sympathetic toward environmental concerns.

“I think it was a much different atmosphere this time. One reason may be a change in the perspective on wetlands, and maybe the convention is being taken more seriously.”

Japan lags behind other countries, with only 11 sites designated under the treaty. Procedures have been put in motion to register Fujimae tidal flats, but the process may take up to a year.

Under the convention, countries must conserve or carefully use registered wetlands and report their status to the secretariat.

While domestic concern about the areas may be gradually growing, Japan’s efforts to protect them remain slightly behind those of the rest of the industrialized world.

Japan’s number of Ramsar-registered sites “is a bit below average. I think it can and should do more,” Blasco said, adding that all industrialized European countries comparable to Japan in size have at least twice as many registered sites.

The criteria for deeming whether wetlands are internationally important include the supporting endangered species; flora or fauna that are vital for maintaining biodiversity,; and significant numbers of water birds and fish.

“Japan has been overcareful in designating sites. Japan only seems to want to designate sites when it is 200 percent sure,” he said.

However, more Ramsar sites may be in the pipeline. During Blasco’s visit, Environment Ministry officials indicated to him that they are looking to raise the number to around 22.

“They hinted that they are planning to double the number of sites, as that is one goal of the convention — to double the number of Ramsar sites (worldwide) by 2005.”

The Environment Ministry is also seeking money for the first time in the fiscal 2002 budget for nature restoration projects. Wetlands, including Sanbanze tidal flats, are among the 10 candidate areas being considered.

While in Japan, Blasco visited the Fujimae and Sanbanze tidal flats and said both are suitable to register under the Ramsar convention.

“They are both typical tidal flats, but both are sort of relics of nature within heavily developed areas and very much worth maintaining.”

Blasco also met with Chiba Gov. Domoto.

“After talking with her, I am confident that none of the threats to the wetland will materialize. She confided she was interested in maintaining the naturalness (of Sanbanze).”