The energy of summer comes in many forms: sounds, smells, tastes, temperatures and sights. The orchestrated buzz of the cicadas are strong indicators of summers in Japan. Omatsuriall over the country bring aromas and flavors experienced, typically, in melting temperatures among pounding Taikovibrations. Visually, summer energy fills the night skies with man-made fireworks and natural star-filled vistas. Japan’s oceans provide a cool reprieve and offer vibrant, coral communities to explore, filled with color, nutrients, and wildlife. However, these coral regions in Japan and world-wide are in rapid decline and in need of assistance.
On a recent trip to Okinawa, I was privileged to visit a small, neighboring island, Akajima, home of the Akajima Marine Science Laboratory (AMSL). My friends father, Dr. Makoto Omori, is the founder and director of AMSL. He was so gracious to give my husband and I a tour of the facilities, a mini-course on coral life, and an explanation of the challenges and perspective future coral reefs are facing. The Ogasawara islands (south of Tokyo) and the Ryukyu Islands (including Okinawa) represent Japan’s two major coral regions located in the northern limit of the global coral reef distribution. In the last four decades, nineteen percent of the world’s coral reefs have been destroyed. An additional loss of 15 percent is expected in the next 10–15 years. Coral reefs are extremely important to marine life. Coral provides essential habitat for around 100,000 species, allowing for breeding, feeding, and safe havens from predators. In addition to supporting fisheries, coral reefs contribute to the draw of tourism which helps the local economy, and the development of sandy beaches and structures that buffer waves and prevent further coastal erosion.
Currently, coral reefs have many challenges. The consensus is that most of these challenges are caused by nature adjusting to man’s activities. In the Okinawa region, Dr. Omori informed us of three conditions contributing to the decline in coral population. First is the run-off from the increase in beef and pork production, mainly in the Ichigaki area. The majority of fertilisers and waste run into the ocean, changing the chemical composition and temperature, thus making it more difficult for coral to thrive. The second condition has been a number of outbreaks of the large, coral-eating, crown-of-thorns (COT) starfish. Overfishing for human food essentially decreases the natural predators of the COT, which, in turn, allows for their population to increase. The third condition is the continuing increase in global sea surface temperatures (global warming).
Dr. Omori is realistic regarding the difficulties in changing human habits directly, such as lowering beef and fish consumption and its side effects, or even indirectly, such as the overall reduction in carbon emissions. Therefore, AMLS has taken a proactive approach to coral rehabilitation, similar to forestry silviculture. AMSL researchers can pin-point the one summer night each year (usually in May or June), that the coral release their countless sperm/egg bundles. These eggs and embryos are collected in ‘slicks’ that rise to the oceans surface. Following is a breeding process in large water tanks on land or floating ponds in the sea. The suitable environment is carefully manipulated to imitate the natural conditions in the ocean. After the coral has reached a safe mature age of 18 months, they are transplanted into natural, shallow, tropical environments to grow into productive biological communities.
If you are looking for a great place to snorkel and escape the heat this summer, or all year round, Akajima island provides beautifully maintained beaches, local island food and a sure escape from the busy city. And for those who want to learn more about coral life, stop by the Akajima Marine Science Laboratory and see for yourself, research at work. While Dr. Omori admits that rehabilitation of coral reefs is difficult and slow at best, he looks to the long time success Japan has had in silviculture on land, reforesting nearly 27 percent of Japan’s forest. Reducing some of the man-made problems like sedimentation, pollution, eutrophication, overfishing, and development would mean co-operation and strong support from government, the science community and individual citizens, likely going up against the desires of powerful industries. This has proved to be difficult and nearly impossible around the globe, in areas like nuclear energy and carbon emissions reduction.
Dr. Omori states that, “Some scientists warn that if we fail to act to the looming situation soon, almost all coral reefs on the planet will become extinct by the year 2100.” Many other integrated factors in our environment indicate change is needed in the shape of a major paradigm shift. In the meantime, this pro-active approach of coral reproduction is a positive step forward. Coral reefs are dying, we can only prevent it if we act now.