Japan: Looking Beyond the Nesting Beach
By Yoshimasa Matsuzawa
Japan, the sole breeding area for loggerhead turtles in the North Pacific, was recently ranked as the country most detrimental to sea turtle conservation in James R. Spotila’s Sea Turtles: A Complete Guide to Their Biology, Behavior, and Conservation. Despite Japan’s hawksbill shell (bekko) trade and its far-reaching fishing fleets, it has one of the longest histories of nesting beach conservation and research in the world.
The effort began in 1950 on the southern coast of Shikoku island. There, in the town of Hiwasa in the Tokushima prefecture, Yasuo Kondo, a junior high school teacher, and his students launched a conservation and research project. Ten years later, the municipal government took over the project and established a beach ranger system. The nesting beach and its loggerhead sea turtles were designated a national natural treasure.
In the 1970s, conservation of rookeries dramatically progressed on the southern island of Kyushu, which is home to many of the country’s loggerhead nesting beaches. Until that time, consumption of turtle eggs by the local people had been commonplace.
In 1971, Hiroshi Takeshita, founder of Miyazaki Wildlife Research Group, found that 85 percent of all the nests were poached in Miyazaki, a key loggerhead nesting beach on the eastern side of Kyushu. The research group began nightly patrols on the nesting beach, tagging nesters and relocating nests as necessary, and conducted a nutritional analysis of sea turtle eggs. With the results of the nutritional research, Takeshita’s group implemented an educational campaign to communicate to the public that sea turtle eggs are no more nutritious than chicken eggs. Within a few years, the egg poaching had ceased. Soon after, the local government designated the loggerhead sea turtle a protected species and began to support the conservation activities.
South of Kyushu on Yakushima Island, an area where approximately 40 percent of all loggerheads in the North Pacific nest, some local communities had a bidding system for the right to collect eggs. In other communities, children collected and sold eggs to buy school supplies. By the end of the 1970s, a conservation ordinance and beach ranger system implemented by the local government had completely halted egg consumption throughout the area.
These are but a few of the examples of nesting beach protection in Japan. Over the past 25 years, conservation initiatives have continued to increase protection of nesting females, their eggs, and hatchlings on the beaches throughout the country.
Despite these long-standing efforts, Japan’s loggerhead nesting population has not recovered. Initial short-term increases in the population during the first years of conservation led to a longer-term decline. While nesting has been increasing since 1998, the population is nowhere near restored. For example, in Kamoda on Shikoku Island, nesting turtles came ashore almost 800 times in 1959, while fewer than 50 have emerged each year over the past decade. Also, at least 300 loggerheads are found stranded on Japanese beaches each year, emphasizing what we already know. These facts emphasize that no matter how well we protect the nesting habitat, conservation on the beach is not enough.
Conservation of such global animals must be addressed on a global basis. In Japan, we must work with other conservationists to mitigate the hazards that our nesting loggerhead population confronts in the open ocean and along their foraging grounds in the eastern Pacific, where they feed. By cooperation and collaboration, we will one day succeed in protecting the loggerheads throughout their migratory paths, and we will welcome hundreds of nesting loggerheads to our shores once again.
This article originally appeared in SWOT Report, vol. 2 (2007). Click here to download the entire article as a PDF.