• The Associated Press

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Fisheries officials have launched a coral-growing project around two Pacific Ocean islets to bolster a reef and Japan’s claims in a territorial dispute with China.

Japan claims Okinotorishima — two uninhabited rocky outcroppings — are islands. China does not dispute Japan’s territorial claim over the islets but calls them mere rocks that do not qualify as a point from which to extend an economic zone, as Japan claims under international law.

The fisheries officials traveled to the islets last month with six colonies of baby coral they successfully grew, agency official Kenji Miyaji said.

The officials are planning another trip later this month to plant nine more colonies — each initially about the size of a fingertip — around the islets, he said. They are expected to grow larger, helping build up the islets over years.

Marine biologists are growing the coral at the agency’s lab in Okinawa and hope to eventually plant “tens of thousands” of colonies around the islets, he said.

The coral project is aimed at maintaining and building the islets — and at accommodating economic activity to make sure they keep their island status under the U.N. maritime convention, Miyaji said.

“We are in a desperate situation,” he said, adding the idea to grow coral around the islets is new and little background research was conducted.

“But corals can attract many fish, and on top of that, they can prevent shore erosion,” he said.

Japan has used cement embankments to fortify the islets against encroaching waves, and uses the islets to delineate its exclusive economic zone so it can lay exclusive claim to the natural resources 200 nautical miles from its shores into the Pacific. This allows it to claim a 400,000-sq.-km EEZ, which is larger than Japan itself.

In 2005, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which has jurisdiction over Okinotorishima, posted a large metal address plaque on one of the islets. Gov. Shintaro Ishihara has also announced plans to conduct bonito fishing and scientific research in the area.

For related stories:
Japan hopes to grow coral around disputed Pacific outcrop

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