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Onna-village seawall threatens sea turtle survival

By: David Knickerbocker

Date Posted: 2003-07-11

One little know fact about Okinawa is that for thousands of years this island has been a breeding ground for sea turtles. Mention this to a local and they might look at you like you have no idea of what you are talking about. However, it is true. Every year, many turtles return to the Okinawan islands to lay their eggs. But, due to modernization and carelessness, sea turtles have been on the decline. This is not just a problem that is happening "somewhere else"--the problem is local, and you have a chance to help change things for the positive.

For thousands of years, one beach in Onna village has been used as a breeding ground for Loggerhead sea turtles. But, two years ago, a massive sea wall was built along the beach. This has had a very negative effect on the Loggerheads. In many instances, the sea turtles come onto the beach and head towards their old egg-laying grounds. However, time and time again they find them self standing against something that didn't exist in the years these turtles have been using these grounds--a giant concrete wall. They head up and down the wall looking for a place to lay their eggs and since much of the beach has been taken away from them by the wall, they lay their eggs in the most convenient place. But, because the wall has taken away so much of the beach, when high tide comes, the water rises up over the eggs killing every one of the baby turtles before they even have a chance to hatch. Because of the wall, these turtles have been denied a chance to procreate on a beach that has been theirs for thousands and thousands of years.

According to the Japan Sea Turtle Association, sea walls and breakwaters have been a huge threat to the ecology. "As you may have noticed, beaches throughout Japan are equipped with sea walls and breakwaters," says their website. "These shore defenses are essential to protect local residents from stormy seas and high tides. However, when shore defenses are created, other things are lost. To elderly people who used to enjoy going down to the shore and gathering shellfish and seaweed to eat, shore defenses are a major obstacle. Moreover, the vegetation that used to keep the sand from blowing away is lost when shore defenses are built. Sand is also washed away from the beach leaving it narrow and depleted."

Sea turtles have been reported to be on the decline around the world. Since the 1990's, the number of Loggerheads breeding in Japan has decreased by over half! Japan is the only Loggerhead breeding ground in the North Pacific. If this breeding ground is destroyed, the Loggerhead will disappear.

There are a few people on Okinawa who have decided to come to the aid of these turtles. The Maeda Umi-game (sea turtle) Association is a small group of people who aim to educate both kids and adults alike on the plight of these turtles. "Education is not just for kids," says one of the volunteers. "Education is for adults first."

"It's really terrible what has been going on because of this wall," another volunteer says. "Because of the seawall, many turtles are dying every year. You can see it in front of your own eyes! Our purpose is to educate. To teach elementary schools and teachers to teach about sea turtles in the classroom. We want to make waves in the right direction and make people more aware. People need to be more aware of what is around them and not take nature for granted."

Though education is key to saving the turtles, the sea wall was a very hot topic of discussion. "For thousands of years, these turtles have migrated to this beach in order to lay their eggs. However, after the seawall was built the turtles have been unable to properly do so, and as a result, thousands of sea turtle eggs are destroyed every year. The wall was built two years ago, and since last year the turtles started having a hard time. There were probably more than 3,000 casualties in 100 meters last year!"

"This beach is all concrete wall from here to Hanby town. Our ultimate goal is to tear down these walls and give this beach back to the turtles and the people. This wall has done more damage than anybody could possibly dream. We need to give back what we should. We will appeal to Okinawa about the seawall and the turtles when we get our information together. We hope that everybody will stand up and say, 'yes, this is a problem'. But right now we're just planting seeds. However, things will not stop! It is difficult to bring change but if we spark interest in the minds of the locals then things will come together."

Now, the turtles' only chance lies in the hands of those who help move the turtle eggs to a new, safer place. The Maeda Umi-game Association has been active in watching for turtles and moving the eggs to their own incubators. "We are currently incubating about 1020 sea turtle eggs and they are expected to begin hatching in about two or three weeks."

On average, most sea turtles lay about 120 eggs at a time, but they are able to come back three or four times in one season to lay eggs. About 60% of the eggs actually hatch. So far, about thirteen turtles have come to lay eggs as well as others who were unable to lay eggs due to the seawall or other bad circumstances. The turtles usually show up during high tide. After the Maeda Umi-game Association spots a turtle, they check to see if it has been 'tagged'. If it doesn't have an identification tag, then they place one on them. These tags help with studying sea turtles around the pacific.

"There isn't a lot of knowledge out there about sea turtles or migration, so we hope to study this," says a volunteer. "The Japan Sea Turtle Association gave us thirty tags, and we have so far tagged four turtles. We were so happy when one came back after four weeks to lay more eggs. This happened twice with two separate turtles."

The Maeda Umi-game Association was started after a few of the volunteers saw their first turtle this year. A few people have volunteered to help and some have taken an interest in the group, but they say that they always need more volunteers as well as others who would like to learn more about these animals. If you are interested in helping or watching the group release newborn baby turtles, call them at 098-965-3337 or email okinawadushi@jp.bigplanet.com. Also, if you want more information, the Japan Sea Turtle Association is another good group to contact. Call them at 072-864-0335 or check out their website at www.umigame.org.

If you would like to help save the turtles, do not build campfires on the beach in the summer, do not throw eggs against the rocks or seawall, and if you find a nest of turtle eggs that looks like it is in a bad place, you should call someone with a license to remove them. In this case, call the Maeda Umi-game Association at 098-965-3337 or the Japan Sea Turtle Association at 072-864-0335. Protecting sea turtles is a difficult task. However, man and nature must learn to coexist. Otherwise, it won't be long before these turtles are nothing but a memory.

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