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Future environmental educators receive training in Yomitan

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1998-03-28

About 20 citizens from Yomitan participated in the first marine ecology training course within the Prefecture. The three day training session was held on March 14,15, and 21. It was planned and funded by the Yomitan Village Government, under the direction of the Yomitan Commerce and Fisheries Division. The primary reason for holding the course was to invite residents of Yomitan to be trained in teaching children about marine ecology. The two major objectives were to train individuals in teaching methods that are enjoyable and easy to understand for children, and to better educate the trainees in coastal and coral reef ecosystems. "Everybody is aware that the oceans are becoming polluted. We wanted to help come up with a solution to the problem, and decided that more experts were needed that could educate children," explained Isamu Owan of the Fisheries Division.

The course was broken into three separate areas of study, each taking one full day to cover. The first day had trainees doing field work in the mangrove tree area of the Hija river in Yomitan. A boat excursion took members up the river, while the trainees learned how the mangrove forest plays an important role in the mouth of the river's ecosystem by providing food for small crabs through decaying leaves.

The second day of study focused on coastal plant life extending from the beach area, to the aquatic plant life, such as sea grasses. This part of the session took place at Toguchi beach, where the group was shown how plants and trees introduced from outside the area have almost completely displaced the indigenous plant life. Like the mangrove forest, the relationship between the trees and plants that line the coast, and the different species of marine creatures living in the shallow waters is very critical. "There is virtually no area along the coastline, where only the original indigenous species of plant life exists. This includes outer islands also," pointed out Kensuke Yokoi, who was one of the instructors that helped plan the program.

The mokumo is a perfect example of how the introduction of a non-indigenous species can upset the balance of the entire ecosystem and also change the entire landscape. The mokumo tree, also known as the Australian pine, was introduced into Okinawa just after World War II. Heavy bombing had stripped the island of most of its tall trees, leaving vast areas unprotected from the strong typhoon winds Okinawa is known for. The Australian pine was planted because it grew fast, and was very adaptable to the salt air and poor soil conditions of Okinawa's coastline. However, the fast growing mokumo soon spread throughout the whole prefecture, creating competition for indigenous species. "It was found out later by biologists that the mokumo also emits a gas that makes it difficult for other plant or tree species to exist in the same area," explained Yokoi.

This not only changed the landscape of Okinawa's coast line, but it has also affected the marine ecosystem inside the reef. The adan tree, which is a thorny "screw pine", has always been abundant along the shoreline. It also produces a fruit that is non edible for humans, but is a food source for the giant palm tree crab and other species of crab that live on the beach. The mokumo however, has infiltrated much of the coastline, taking away space for the expansion of the adan tree and eliminating an important food supply within the food chain. The result has been a decrease in the amount of crabs, which means a decrease in the amount of fish that feed off their eggs.

The third part of the training course, took trainees on a snorkeling excursion along the reef. Students were able to see the different coral species that make up the majority of Okinawa's reef, while learning how some species have become nearly extinct do to stress from coastal development and other related activities.

Other instructors that participated were coral researcher Kazayuki Shimoike, Okinawa Environmental Analyst Center's Tadanori Nishime, Okinawa University Professor Fujio Uehara, and Eiji Nakada from Okinawa International University.

Yomitan plans to continue the program every year, gradually increasing the amount of qualified ecology guides. People who complete the course, will not only have a good understanding about coastal ecosystems, but will also be trained on how to teach children in an enjoyable way. "We need to educate children about the damage coastal development can cause," mentioned Yokoi. It is important for people to realize that the beach is not just a place to enjoy, but that there are also living creatures there," added Owan.

Hopefully, programs like the one created by Yomitan will expand throughout Okinawa, and a new generation of environmentally conscious Okinawans will be able to co-exist with nature and not destroy it.

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