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Islanders take initiative to save their coral reefs

Date Posted: 2007-08-09

Worried about warming sea temperatures and government inaction to protect the Yaeyama Islands environment, a group of Ishigaki citizens have begun their own project to save endangered coral reefs.

Ishigaki's Shiraho Sakana-Waku Umi Council is drafting its own environmental rules on protecting the fragile waters surrounding the southern islands, with tourism companies being the first to be told to change operating procedures.

The councilís name means 'Seas rich in fish', and it wants to keep it that way. Itís been watching coral reefs decay and die in recent years, damage attributed to combinations of global warming that boosts ocean temperatures, manmade construction projects, and the growth of crown-of-thorns starfish populations.

The Councilís environment-oriented members have been active for decades, first launching fierce opposition in 1979 to a planned new airport to be built in the Shiraho district of Ishigaki. They were afraid the airportís construction would displace fish populations and damage the coral. They succeeded in blocking the project, sending planners back to the drawing board to find a new location.

The new airport is now to be built several kilometers north of Shiraho. Opponents still arenít happy with that decision, afraid it could still destroy the eco-structure. What it will do to the coral is uncertain, but environmentalists are equally worried the work will endanger and contaminate local groundwaters.

The Council has been successful in getting the Environment Ministry to declare the area a national park, but says it still doesnít guarantee the coral will be safe. Itís being joined by the International Coral Reef Initiative, a coalition of groups from 44 countries, lobbying to protect the reefs.

Rising sea temperatures kill off endozoic algae, essential to providing coral with sufficient nutrition. Adding to that concern, scientists have discovered nearly two dozen different diseases that are adversely affecting the coral.

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