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Thursday, Nov. 22, 2001

OUR PLANET EARTH

WETLANDS

Singing the praises of glorious mud flats


How's this for a writer with a bee in his shorts?: "Upon ratifying the Ramsar Convention, Japan agreed to 'promote the conservation of wetlands and waterfowl by establishing nature reserves in wetlands . . . and providing adequately for their wardening' [Article 4]. So far, Japan has made no effort to abide by either the spirit or the letter of the law. The only concrete action taking place is of a different sort: Rivers are being uniformly dammed and lined with concrete, and wetlands are being encased in concrete and filled with tons and tons of waste."

Much has changed in the world of wetlands since I wrote these words for a column in the spring of 1992, much for the better. The Environment Agency has been elevated to ministry status; the Fujimae mud flat in Nagoya and the Sanbanze wetland in Chiba have been saved from short-sighted landfill projects; and, this fall, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries announced plans to downsize the Isahaya Bay Land Reclamation Project in Nagasaki.

Nevertheless, respect for wetlands has crept into government policymaking at a snail's pace. The decisions to conserve Sanbanze and scale back Isahaya were announced only recently, and the Environment Agency became a ministry just this year. In fact, getting municipalities and the central government to prioritize conservation is still a hard sell. Most people look at a mud flat and see, well, mud.

But the beauty of wetlands is more than skin-deep, according to Maggie Suzuki, one of Japan's leading wetland advocates. Suzuki has spent years working to educate the public and government officials about the hidden riches of wetlands, and she has grown accustomed to people trashing wetlands, both literally and figuratively. Still, as the International Liaison for the Japan Wetlands Action Network, Suzuki remains an enthusiastic and outspoken supporter of wetlands conservation.

I asked her about one wetland in particular, Sanbanze in Tokyo Bay, which has had developers and conservationists slinging mud at each other for decades. At one time, Sanbanze was slated for a grand development plan, but as local and national concern over wetlands began to grow, support for development shrank.

The original plan was to fill about 740 hectares of Sanbanze's 1,200 hectares of tidal flats and shallows. In 1998, however, a subcommittee of Chiba Prefecture's Environmental Commission published a report confirming the tideland's "importance and the negative impacts of the planned landfills." Authorities agreed to cut the project back to 101 hectares. Still the conservationists were not satisfied and demanded an end to all development plans. I asked Suzuki why those 101 hectares were so important if 600 hectares had been saved. One hundred hectares may sound small, she replied by e-mail, but Japan doesn't have the expanses of wetlands it once had. "One hundred hectares is a lot of tidal flat in Japan," she noted. "Fujimae tidal flat, now Japan's largest site for migratory shorebirds, and saved after a protracted battle, is also about 100 hectares.

"Over 90 percent of the coastline of Tokyo Bay has already been reclaimed. Look at a map or aerial photo of Tokyo Bay and you will see mostly square, toothlike shapes all around the bay, which once hosted flocks of geese so dense they darkened the sun. Geese no longer come to Tokyo Bay."

Whether the geese will one day return to Tokyo Bay is anyone's guess, but if they do, there will still be space to alight. In late September, Chiba Gov. Akiko Domoto announced to the Chiba Prefectural Assembly that she was canceling the plan to reclaim 101 hectares of the Sanbanze flats.

I asked Suzuki to comment on complaints that Sanbanze is polluted, and local residents and fishers who say it should be filled with land to "clean it up." She explained that the area most often complained about is the Nekozane River mouth, which is "just one part of the Sanbanze." Other areas have pleasant sandy beaches frequented by thousands of people, she said.

Suzuki admitted that the Nekozane area is "high in organic material and pollutants," but explained that the source of the problem is a sewage-treatment facility upstream that discharges waste into the river. In fact, she noted, the river mouth and surrounding area serve a valuable water-purification function that make a "positive contribution to pollution control." The river mouth is also high in biological diversity, according to Suzuki. "It attracts sports fishers and even illegal fishing boats, and supports shellfish and the fry of commercially fished species."

Suzuki added that calls from some fishermen to reclaim the Sanbanze flats may be less than altruistic. Apparently, some have received compensation payments in the form of loans, and these loans will have to be paid back if the project is not carried out.

Bird-watchers enjoy the wetlands, too, but for birds the mud flats are more than just a lark, they mean survival. Development enthusiasts argue that the birds will find somewhere else to feed, but in reality key stopover sites for migratory species have dwindled dramatically.

"The birds that use Sanbanze are not generalists like sparrows or crows," explains Suzuki. "They are mostly specialist migratory water birds that require high concentrations of prey so they can fill up fast to make their immense journeys, often thousands of kilometers in a few weeks."

Japan is not the only nation cutting off the birds' lifeline. In recent decades, tidal-flat destruction in China and Korea has been "extreme," according to Suzuki. "There is not a lot of slack," she noted. "Further reduction of feeding sites will simply mean more deaths and fewer births among many of the already stressed populations of shorebirds, such as curlews and sandpipers, and ducks like the Greater Scaup."

Less than 50 percent of Japan's total shoreline is still in its natural state, and the rest is being developed at a rate of 1 percent a year. Suzuki believes Japan should save whatever remains. "All remnant tidal flats, and especially those in urban areas, deserve to be protected," she said, "and wherever possible, unused reclaimed land should be restored -- not only for use by wildlife, including commercially fished species, but also in view of tidal wetlands' recognized ability to purify water."

What's in wetlands for you? Dinner. "We are at the top of the tidal-flat food chain," explained Suzuki. "Shallow, coastal seas harbor some of the most productive ecosystems on earth. Tidal flats and shoals, like those at Sanbanze, give birth to sushi cuisine."

Stephen Hesse welcomes questions and comments at stevehesse@hotmail.com


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