National

Tama-chan slips through net to foil daring abduction bid

Kyodo

A local citizens’ group that teamed up with a U.S.-based animal protection organization tried unsuccessfully Tuesday to capture and “rescue” Tama-chan, a seal who has taken up residence in Yokohama’s Katabira River.

About 20 Japanese and foreign members of the U.S.-based Marine Animal Lifeline and the local group, which says it wants to protect the seal, tried to catch the popular Tama-chan.

The attempt was made by divers cordoning off a section of the river with fishing nets.

Marine Animal Lifeline, headquartered in Maine, provides rescue, first aid and transport for stranded animals and returns them to their natural habitat, according to its Web site. Tama-chan is believed to be from the Bering Sea.

Yuji Awano, who heads the local group, told reporters they had hoped to transport the seal to Hokkaido and release it into the Sea of Okhotsk.

“Authorities say they will act to protect (Tama-chan) when they see it weakening, but that will be too late,” Awano said, noting his group asked Marine Animal Lifeline for assistance.

Greg Jakush, a representative of Marine Animal Lifeline, told a news conference later that the seal is not really happy as it is living in a polluted river.

Jakush said he arrived in Japan on March 4 at the request of Awano’s group.

After monitoring the seal, he decided it should be moved to a more appropriate environment as it appeared to be below the average weight for seals, he said.

The local group falsely told the Yokohama river management office that it wanted to study the river to learn what the seal was eating. Officials questioned members about the day’s events and issued a warning.

According to members of the seal’s fan club, Tama-chan was lying on the concrete embankment of the river from around 10 p.m. Monday night to about 5:30 a.m. Tuesday.

At around 6 a.m., the two groups strung fishing nets across the river and cordoned off a section about 100 meters wide. They then gradually closed the nets together with the help of divers, and pulled up the nets at around 8 a.m. The divers said they had been waiting for instructions from the two animal protection groups since Saturday.

The seal, however, managed to escape through an opening between the nets at around 7:30 a.m., fan club members said.

Some 40 residents, alerted to the events, tried to stop the dragnet, saying it would only disturb the animal. The commotion led to the dispatch of police to the scene.

Akio Fujii, a resident of Yokohama, said, “Tama-chan is adapting to the environment of the river. Why meddle?”

Tama-chan was first sighted last August in the Tama River, which borders Tokyo and Kawasaki, prompting its eventual nickname.

It was later sighted in the Tsurumi River in late August and then in the Katabira River in September. Both rivers flow through Yokohama.

Many experts frowned upon the actions of the two groups, saying that a sudden change in habitat would only weaken the seal.

“It is perfectly understandable for some people to question whether Tama-chan’s life should remain what it is now,” said Kazutoshi Arai, an official at the Kamogawa Seaworld aquarium in Chiba Prefecture. “However, authorities and experts have continuously discussed the issue of capturing the seal but have decided to go about it cautiously because a change in its environment could have adverse effects — and also because it is technically difficult.”