Home to Japan’s coral reefs, Okinawa (沖縄), a.k.a. Ryukyu Islands (琉球諸島), is one of the most visited archipelagos in the East China Sea (東シナ海). Famous for its rich marine life, turquoise waters, and tropical climate, Okinawa attracts many tourists from around the world. It is located at the southern end of Japan scattered across approximately 1,000 kilometers in the sea. The islands were once a tributary kingdom to China but later merged with Japan.
The native culture of Okinawans is unique with rich traditions. They practice their own religion called “Ryukyuan” which is based on animism but is influenced by Shinto, Taoism, and Buddhism. Due to their animistic beliefs, Okinawans have been protecting the natural beauty of their archipelago for a long time. However, due to rising temperatures and growing human contact, these tropical hideouts are being destroyed.
Climate change is as real as it gets. The global temperatures are going up year by year; the earth is getting warmer annually. There are many reasons for climate change, the main ones being human greed and the depletion of the ozone layer. With heavy industrialization and an increasing population come mass consumption of natural resources that affect the entire ecosystem of the planet.
Japanese summers are getting hotter, while winters are getting chillier. Due to these ill effects, the dynamic of Okinawa has changed dramatically over decades. Albeit called as Japan’s coral paradise, Okinawa has actually lost many corals due to climate change. The amount of fish available in the Okinawan waters has also been reduced.
Coral bleaching is a phenomenon where corals turn completely white after dying. This is actually due to the equatorial Pacific weather change called El Niño and exacerbated by pollution and global warming. Corals need medium air and water temperatures to survive and breed. They are very sensitive to changes in climate including human contact. For example, the largest coral reef in the Northern Hemisphere on the Ishigaki Island (石垣島) of Okinawa has been destroyed just this 2016.
It is said by the Ministry of Environment of Japan that at least half of Okinawa’s coral reefs are gone due to climate change effects. The emission of greenhouse gasses by large economies in Asia in the Indian and Pacific Ocean are contributing to the rise in water temperatures around the Okinawan region.
The scientists based at the University of the Ryukyus (琉球大学) have been studying the climatic effects in Okinawa for a very long time. They observed that most of the coral reefs around Sesoko Island (瀬底島) got destroyed in just one year in 1998. If corals are being lost at such a rate, it is said that people’s favorite holiday destination in Japan could be lifeless in a couple of decades.
Many people do not have much information about corals. Corals are like trees that balance out the ocean environment. They are also living organisms (invertebrates) that breed and live in colonies. They allow photosynthetic algae called Zooxanthellae to live on them and help them survive in low nutrient ocean soil. Many people mistakenly think corals are seaweed and pluck them. Plucking corals should be considered as an offense.
Many scientists are now producing artificial corals that can breed multiple times more than natural ones. These genetically made corals can withstand changes in temperatures and loss of habitat. However, these artificial ones are expensive and cannot replace the natural corals. Corals have a direct relationship with many aquatic animals. The Okinawan region was once famous for damselfish, which is now a rare sight as corals are being lost.
As mentioned above, increased human contact can be detrimental to the growth of corals. One’s holiday in Okinawa can be enjoyed without actually disturbing the corals. Since corals are very rare in the world, many tourists want to see them and take photos with them. And without prior knowledge, they try to pluck them or touch them roughly enough to destroy them.
Recently, a few tourists in Malaysia have caused a huge public outcry after they posted pictures of them holding corals on their social media. It has raised the need for educating tourists, wherever they are from, to not destroy corals or nature in general. Tourists may want to experience new things during their visit to Okinawa, thus they look for fishing or snorkeling activities to do. Even though there are nice places to do leisure activities, many tourists intentionally choose coral reefs as they could find unique coral reef fish.
Although the Japanese government has declared coral reef fishing as illegal, it has been said that some people still do it, and most of them are tourists. The government has allowed only a few native fishing families to continue reef fishing, so if there is any company that promises to take you reef fishing, simply say no.
Also, many young people who do not know how to swim stomp on corals while learning how to snorkel or scuba dive. You could enjoy snorkeling or scuba diving once you get good at it. A simple step on a coral can actually kill it and there is no guarantee that it will be replaced. Ask your tour operator if they have an adequate safety system to take you for coral viewing. Most of them have glass-bottom boats to take tourists for coral viewing.
Shiraho Village is located on the island of Ishigaki in Okinawa Prefecture. The village faces a 12-kilometer long coral reef which is the oldest and largest reef not only in Japan but in the entire Northern Hemisphere. You can find rare blue corals here.
The Shiraho Reef is a biodiversity reserve which is protected with the help of the local community and the Japanese government. According to WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature), the reef’s coral coverage have dramatically decreased year by year, and it reached just 6.4 percent by 2008. This has made the government start the Shiraho Conservation Council for Bountiful Seas (SCCBS) to take care of the conservation efforts in the Shiraho Reef. The council has drafted a few guidelines or etiquettes for tourists and guides to safeguard the corals. The council has also made the local fishing community use nets instead of stone walls to catch fish in the reef. This old method of using stone enclosures to catch fish is called “ishihibi/ishihimi (石干見).” Recent studies by WWF show that the aquatic life near the reef is slowly getting better after a series of conservation efforts.
The coral reef ecosystem is very delicate and there is a need to conserve it at a fast pace. Japan has been leading the world when it comes to replacing traditional ishihibi with modern fishing techniques. It led the World Ishihimi Summit in 2010 that was held in Shiraho in which countries such as Taiwan, the Philippines, France, Spain, South Korea, and Micronesia have attended. The Shiraho Conservation Council is also trying to regulate agriculture as red soil could cause corals to release mucus, which is not good for their health. Without disturbing the livelihood of local fishing and agricultural communities and reef ecosystems, one should achieve to protect biodiversity.
After reading this, you might have got an idea of how delicate the coral ecosystem in Okinawa is. You can also participate in the Shiraho conservation efforts and help the coral rejuvenation. Please take care not to disturb the corals at any cost during your activities in Okinawa.