About 50 environment-minded residents of the Shiraho district on Ishigaki Island — whose livelihoods depend on marine life — have taken the initiative in trying to save endangered coral reefs through their own conservation measures.

“The coral reef is rapidly becoming emaciated. The number of species caught is also on the decline,” said Tsunekazu Yamashiro, 75, leader of the Shiraho Sakana-Waku Umi (Sea Rich in Fish) Council. “Many marine animals depend on coral.”

The council has drawn up a set of guidelines for local tourism companies on use of the sea, to be followed by similar rules for fishermen and researchers.

The group also sponsors an event to teach local children the traditional fishing method called “kachi,” in which fish are caught when they come within a rock fence set up in a reef’s shallow waters to eat seaweed.

“The children were delighted with the traps. . . . They enjoy catching fish there and the rock fences will remind them of the richness of the sea,” Yamashiro said.

The son of a farming couple, Yamashiro would dive for moray eels and large white-spotted parrot fish in his youth, using a set of wooden goggles he made himself and wearing only a loincloth.

Back then, everyone thought the catch was inexhaustible. But since the rapid development of the subtropical island following Okinawa’s return to Japan in 1972, locals have watched the marine paradise come under threat.

A spate of construction projects and an abrupt increase in the population of crown-of-thorns starfish had heavily damaged the coral reef habitat.

When it was announced in 1979 that an airport — aimed at increasing the number of tourists — was to be built on an artificial island off the Shiraho district, local residents and environmentalists across the nation were outraged.

“We cannot allow the authorities to reclaim land from this sea,” Nae Keinou, 93, said. “No matter what anybody says, I’m 100 percent against the plan.”

Keinou said she was taught the importance of the sea habitat by her parents. Then the sea saved her family, who faced hunger due to poor crops during World War II, with marine products such as seaweed, shellfish and small crabs. Her husband was bedridden and there were children to feed.

“We were able to live without a lot of money. The first wealth is the sea. We cannot thank the sea enough, as our ancestors well knew” she said.

News reports showed Keinou crying out in anger and excitement and clasping the legs of one of the riot policemen sent to line the seashore where prefectural officials were to conduct a preparatory survey.

The opposition movement lasted more than a decade.

In 1988, the General Assembly of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources unanimously adopted a resolution saying the airport construction would cause irreparable damage to the coral habitat and urged the central government to take protective measures.

The airport site was changed in 2000 to another location on the island, only 2 km north of the sea area.

Shigekazu Mezaki, 61, a professor of environment policies at Nanzan University in Nagoya, went diving in the area for the first time in 1986 when he was making a map of coral reefs in Okinawa.

“This sea is a miracle!” he thought as he saw coral reef like a dense forest and large schools of colorful fish.

Studies and surveys by Mezaki and other scholars at private bodies have determined that the finger-tree or milk-bush coral communities are the largest and oldest in the Northern Hemisphere. The independent habitat retained its original form because its bottom topography kept the sea protected from foreign invaders.

“The coral reef off Shiraho is particularly splendid,” an official at the Environment Ministry said. “We plan to preserve it by designating the area a national park.”

However, the designation, planned for this month, guarantees no protection of the coral reef.

Although the site has been moved, the airport’s impact on the coral habitat is an unknown. Some say the construction could contaminate groundwater.

“There is no way to save coral reef except by terminating development of nearby land and by not tampering with nature,” Mezaki said.

The International Coral Reef Initiative, made up of 40 organizations from 44 countries, is to launch a worldwide campaign next year for protection and conservation of coral reefs, which are also threatened by global warming.

“The higher sea temperature will enhance the risk of coral disease,” said Hideyuki Yamashiro, 50, a professor of coral reef habitat at Okinawa National College of Technology. “Coral is a sensor of deterioration in the sea environment.”

Coral reef accounts for only 0.2 percent of the world’s sea area but one-fourth of marine fish depend on coral habitats.

Endozoic algae, which live within coral bodies and provide coral with nutrition by photonic synthesis, are disappearing due to an increase in sea temperatures, making the coral “white,” or dead, a phenomenon that has been notable worldwide in the past 10 years.

Along with “white syndrome,” about 20 kinds of diseases affecting coral have been discovered.

To combat the global threat, the Ishigaki islanders are doing their part to “think globally, act locally.”

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