Japanese Coral Bleaching
News from the Japanese government today shows that more than 70 percent of the country’s largest coral reef is dead due to warm temperatures. While the headline sounds dire, the decline of coral health in Seiseishoko reef did not happen over night.
The Ministry report, released on Jan. 10, was based on a study conducted in November and December on bleaching conditions at 35 different dive points on the Sekiseishoko coral reef. The previous figure of 56.7 percentbleaching was based on a survey conducted in September and October.
Headlines like the one we saw today “Coral bleaching kills 70 percent of Japan’s biggest coral reef” are misleading and do not tell the whole story behind the slow and gradual degradation of our world’s unique habitats.
Reading Between The Lines
The Sekisei Lagoon, located between Ishigaki and Iriomote Yaeyama Islands, is the largest coral reef sea in Japan and was designated as the Iriomote National Park in 1972. However, corals in the Lagoon continue to suffer since the park designation because of various reasons: terrestrial runoffs of red clay and wastewater, coral bleaching due to high water temperatures, and outbreaks of the predatory crown-of-thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci).
In the Sekiseishoko area, widespread coral bleaching occurred in 1998 and then in 2007 while deforestation and coastal development causing sedimentation continued. Without solving the negative landbased influences, the reef grew weak and vulnerable to bleaching.
Too Little too Late
Japan has been focused on restoring the Sekiseishoko reef since 2005, while also trying to mitigate land-based runoff. One of the challenges with coral restoration is to not only physically replanting the corals, but also to reducing the cause of degradation in the first place.
In an article from 2009 the New York Times wrote “since 2005, the project has planted around 13,000 pieces of coral, at a cost of some $2 million,” said Hajime Hirosawa, a preservation officer at the Environment Ministry who helps oversee the transplanting. This is a far cry, he admits, from the tens of millions of pieces that need to be transplanted in this reef alone, which stretches over an area of about 100 square miles.
Coral reefs are vast underwater landscapes and even the best-laid restoration plans can fail. The story of Sekiseishoko reminds us that protecting coral reefs is more than just growing coral fragments. If we really want to help reefs, we need to start reversing our destructive environmental practices before it’s too late.