Okinawa, the southern island of Japan is the site of one of the most heated environmental struggles on our ocean planet. Daily for more than a decade citizens have staged massive protest rallies, sit-ins and civil disobedience to protect their local bay against the looming threat of a land reclamation project so big it is difficult to comprehend. More than one million truckloads of sand and gravel is planned to be dumped into the bay for the construction of landing strips and docks for US military purposes, the plan originally conceived in the cold-war 60ies.
Ourawan, Oura Bay, the deep coral-filled bay on the Pacific side of northern Okinawa’s main island is a real biodiversity hotspot, and has provided a variety of benefits to local people. In this rich natural environment, people have developed a variety of unique cultures and histories. In 2003 I visited Okinawa, both protesters and US Marines, reporting about this conflict for Norway’s major environmental magazine, Natur & Miljø. In the summer of 2016, knowing that the controversial construction project recently had been given a go by the japanese central government, and protests intensified, I travelled with japanese photographer Kimiko Kawamura back to Okinawa and Oura Bay. The purpose this time was to witness and bring out a glimpse of what might get lost; more than 5000 species, several hundred of them rare or endangered, several living only here, and many still not even named. We went to the local divers.
“I grew up playing and searching for marine life on these shores” he says. “I still do. And now often we get scientific researchers or NGOs visiting, looking for new or rare species here.” To understand the value of Oura Bay, we have to go beyond the fantastic turquois, blue-green surface. A good starting point is to have a talk with Team Snack Snufkin, the local diving team.
The founder of the team, Shin Nishihira, meets us to tell about the Oura underwater life. The collection and documentation of sea life by Diving Team Snufkin is beyond imagination. They have made a small museum by Oura Bay where the displays show the different species and nature types of Ourawan. –“Look here!”, Mr Nishihara shows a poster with twentysomething sea animals, unknown until recently, discovered in the bay on a recent single research mission. “Researchers sponsored by World Wildlfe Fund were out to look for and try to re-find a particular crab. Within a few days of searching just the intertidal zone they suddenly had several dozens of other exciting specimens for further study. What are they? How do they live? What do they eat? How do they reproduce? Why did they come here?”
Mr Nishihara himself suggest an answer for the last question. “Oura Bay has such a variation in underwater landscape and living environments” he says. Each different part of the bay provides just the light, depth, temperature and currents that the different organisms thrive in. He also points to one of the major features of the bay, the outer coral reefs at the mouth of the bay, functioning as a natural breakwater and protecting the inshore waters from the offshore ocean swell. At the opposite end of the bay, he points out the two rivers entering. Both flowing through mangroves and wetland, adding nutrient laden freshwater and creating brackish water environments. Other major features are two deep basins, one of them down to below 60 metres, where deep water animals can thrive, still inside this single bay.
And then there are the huge, relatively unspoilt and pristine stretches of beaches and rocky coast outsprings, lined by warm and very sun-exposed shallow waters. These are the home of animals that live in seagrass beds, fringing corals and algae. Oura bay has some of Okinawas, and Japans largest seagrass areas. These are home of enigmatic seacows, the dugong, the only strictly herbivorous marine mammal. The Okinawan name of seagrass is Jan-gusa, which is the grass (gusa) on which the dugong (jan) feeds. No discussion is needed then about the importance of seagrass for dugongs. Okinawans themselves are very well aware of the relationship between seagrass and dugongs.
Based on scientific studies around the world, seagrass are important, highly productive ecosystems, and vulnerable worldwide. They are highly productive ecosystems, binding a lot of carbon, securing the sediment and sand from being washed away, cleaning the water in the process, and providing a lot to eat and many hiding places for sea animals. For the smallest ones in particular, like the youngest or smallest fishes and crustaceans. Also the mangrove estuary has much of the same nursery function, but for slightly different species, and likewise for the coral reefs.
Pretty much everyone now knows the Disney-Pixar story of Nemo. The little clownfish, loosing his mother, travelling the big ocean,eventually then returning to his home anemone. What a fantastic navigation and homing ability! Research has shown that the homing ability of reef animals is more than just a fairytale. Often living parts of their life as drifting larvae in the open sea, or feeding offshore or up an estuary, coastal fishes always know their way to their home rock, coral or patch of seagrass. Even the naive juveniles who have few experiences of their underwater home still shows up in large numbers just at the location of their parents, using cues such as sound and smell for their navigation, with only a part of them drifting astray to distant shores. In bays like Oura, which naturally is somewhat separated from the open ocean, and has its internal ocean current eddies, the marine life is an ecological community, partially self-sustained over time. However, if you are a lost marine juvenile somewhere in the northwestern Pacific, you might very well end up just in Oura Bay. The ocean current system, explains «mr Snufkin», provides another clue to the high biodiversity of the area. Okinawa, being almost the northernmost possible location for many tropical marine species, draws an advantage from being downstream of many rich coral reef islands to the south. Every now and then feeding the bay with new recruits.
As another clue to the high diversity of life in Oura Bay, add time, and lots of it. A major factor driving species formation is separation from fellow animals over time. For the animals living in the deeper basins of the bay, separated from the open ocean, time and distance to similar habitats elsewhere are invoked to explain the high numbers of endemic or rare species in the bay – and the bay has been around, relatively undisturbed, for millennia. Mr Nishihira tells us that a huge Blue Coral structure (“bommies” of Porites) in the bay has been aged to more than 8000 years old (!).
Our nice talk with the man of Oura Bay gets deeper into the details of every single animal he has learnt to know. He knows where to find the huge conchs, the ones you can hear the sound of the ocean through, if you put your ear close (which is actually an echo of your blood being pumped around your body). They were used by the old seafarers to make trumpet sounds. He knows where to pick edible snails, shells and crayfish. Incredibly, a single table in his little museum showcases no less than 800 species of shells and snails he has found on just a single small beach of the bay. He talks about the fishes who live among the corals, the seabirds on the small islands that travel from Australia to make their nests here and fish in the shallows. He tells about the small sharks, the big rays, small prawns and crabs, and the strangest of sea urchins, the naked snails and the giant 10-meter-long sea cucumbers. Diversity so immense that you would need days, weeks, and yes, a lifetime or more just to familiarize yourself with the most common of them.
The marine life, such a dominant feature of living by the Okinawan coast, of course has an important place in Okinawan culture. Just as the Okinawans love peace, they love their nature and they love and respect their sea. With a sea in peril, life on land would also be difficult and of declining quality.
For example, let’s think about removing the seagrass. Of course the dugong would disappear. As would hundreds small animals who use that seagrass patch for a home. For the fishes there will be less area to nurse their young. The seabirds will maybe not be able to fill their stomachs from the bay. But there is worse still. Without seagrasses and the mangroves full of life, both cleaning the water and stabilizing the sediments, the beautiful bay might very well within a generation end up like a pool of mud. This could change the entire ecosystem and the community of animals within it, with only a few robust species of marine life surviving.
This brings our conversation about life in Oura Bay to the unavoidable topic: There are some threats looming. You have coral bleaching from the extreme heat episodes created by man-made climate change . You have some introduced species turning up, most likely from shipping and moving sand material into Okinawa from other regions. And lastly, but getting the most intense attention: The good ol’ US of A, Japan’s ally in arms, who use huge chunks of Okinawa as one of their main military training facilities, who would like to build a huge construction project for landing ships and aircrafts. This project is centred at Cape Henoko, the area of US Marines’ Camp Schwab, but it does not stop there. The project intends to reclaim land far out into the Oura bay, obliterating marine habitats forever in the process. Specifically, destroying more than 160 hectares of seabed, by making a dock and landing strip for military airplanes and ships ten metres above sea level. More than 21 million cubic metres of sand and dirt will be dumped in the sea for this land reclamation according to the plan.
The planned facility will contain noisy activities like airstrips and loading docks, as well as high pollution risk from stored ammunition, fuels, firefighting training and military activities with intensive industrial chemical use. The changed land use and modified landscape, both in sea and on land, will certainly create increased runoff, changing the water turbidity and the pattern of waves and currents in the bay.
Mr Nishihira becomes quiet. Not only is this huge coastal construction threatening to change life in and by Oura bay forever, but to fend off the local protests the central government has imposed a no-go, no-diving zone in about half the bay, which is an area much larger than the intended construction zone. The local governor and authorities of Okinawa find the whole construction plan unlawful, and even in conflict with basic human rights.
There is no doubt what a local diver feels about the project. The answer is diplomatic and thoughtful, though: “ We don’t really know what will happen to the life in Oura Bay if they build the base. It is hard to say. The system is complex, there are so many species and so many habitats. Some of them very small, and we don’t know much about them yet. A thing we know though is that life in Oura Bay has lived without much impact from humans forever, until now. Now it might change in a historical blink. The life in Oura Bay is most probably not adapted to and prepared for such rapid and huge changes.”
One thing is obviously certain, the marine life and ecosystems of Oura Bay do not need this military base expansion.
Some facts about Oura Bay (from Snack Snufkin and KOSEN, 2010)
There are three types of coral reefs: fringing reefs, barrier reef and atolls. In Okinawa, almost all of the coral reefs are fringing reefs. The landmass at Okinawa actually consists of limestone formed by corals 700,000 years ago, during which time the area was underwater. Live corals are small sea animals that make and deposit calcareous skeletons, in symbiosis with small unicellular photosynthetic organisms called dinoflagellates. Reef building corals thrive in warm, transparent waters and play an important role in the ecology of the areas they grow in, because they build habitat for many other species. They are natural barriers against waves, home to a huge diversity of organisms, and an important resource for tourism and fisheries.
Seagrass is the only flowering plant growing in the sea, usually on sandy or muddy bottom in shallow waters. Oura Bay, Henoko and Kayo have large seagrass beds. Like land plants, they have roots into the substrate. Seagrass is food for dugongs and green sea turtles. Seagrass beds are important nursery grounds for many kinds of fishes and other sea animals. Around Oura Bay is the extreme north-eastern border of the dugong’s global distribution.
Henoko & Oura Bay
In the northeast area of Okinawa island, the coastline remains in a relatively pristine condition. Oura Bay covers the area from Cape Henoko to Abu Village next to Kayo. The sea in Oura Bay, which reaches a depth of 60 metres supports a variety of complex and interrelated ecosystems: mangrove forests, large intertidal flats, rocky intertidal zones, sandy and muddy seafloors, seagrass beds, algae forests and coral reefs. Henoko and Oura Bay have provided a variety of benefits to local people. In this rich natural environment, people have developed a variety of unique cultures and histories.
This travel essay is an English, slightly edited version of an article also to be published in Japanese by Friends of The Earth Japan (FoEJ). The work was co-funded by FoEJ and a norwegian travel grant by the Miljøringen Environmental Prize 2015.
Sources: «Exploring the Nature of Oura Bay and its surrounding area.» (2010). 28 pages booklet from Diving Team Snack Snufkin and KOSEN Institute of National Colleges of Technology, Japan.
«Issues of US Military bases & relocation of Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Futenma to Henoko, Nago City.» 12 page booklet by Planning Department of Nago City Office, Okinawa.
Interview with Shin Nishihira, Diving Team Snack Snufkin, Oura Bay, July 2016
Personal field observations at Oura Bay, July 2016.
Learn more about Oura Bay and the Henoko protests:
#Henoko on Twitter
Friends of The Earth Japan Henoko Campaign (Naturvernforbundets søsterorganisasjon via det internasjonale nettverket Friends of The Earth, verdens største miljønettverk)
Friends of the Earth Japan in October 2015 submitted a joint statement to the Government of Japan with signatories of 194 NGOs/CSOs around the world and 6,423 citizens to demand that the Japanese government stop the construction of a new military base at Cape Henoko and Oura Bay.
For twenty years and still counting, Okinawan’s have maintained a nonviolent sit-in and protest against the construction of this yet another US military facility on pristine reef and seagrass where endangered species feed & fishermen live, on an island already burdened with US forward-deployment bases. For some background about the ongoing protests try watching the 2007 documentary «Henoko. Sit-in on the Sea» on You Tube. A case study in successful non-violent civil disobedience. For more recent video reports, check out for example BBC from 2015 «Where Japanese fight a US military base with kayaks«