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Thursday, Dec. 16, 2010

Kan will let stand ruling to open Isahaya floodgates

Decision spells victory for local fishing industry

Staff writer

Reversing the government's stance on a decades-old reclamation project, Prime Minister Naoto Kan said Wednesday he won't appeal a court order to open two floodgates in the Isahaya Bay dike in Nagasaki Prefecture for five years.

News photo
Water gate: Supporters of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit over the Isahaya Bay dike in Nagasaki Prefecture celebrate Dec. 6 outside the Fukuoka High Court. KYODO PHOTO

Kan, who attacked what he deemed was a wasteful public works project long before his Democratic Party of Japan came to power, made the decision despite a plan by the agriculture ministry, which oversees the project to enclose part of the Ariake Sea, to appeal last week's Fukuoka High Court ruling.

"I made the ultimate decision not to appeal the ruling," Kan said. "I have personally visited the site since 1997 when the gates in the dike, nicknamed the 'guillotine,' were closed."

He said the high court ruling, seeking a clean ocean, "is grave."

On Dec. 6, the high court upheld a lower court decision and ordered that the northern and southern gates be left open for five years, ruling in favor of local fishermen who say the reclamation project has ruined the local environment and their industry.

With the decision not to appeal, the government will open the floodgates as early as fiscal 2012 to study the reclamation project's effect on fisheries.

While the court ordered that the floodgates be left fully open for five years, the agriculture ministry had wanted to restrict the water volume by opening the gates in stages over the span of a year or longer.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku suggested that last year's change of government, when the DPJ knocked the Liberal Democratic Party out of power, resulted in the decision.

"We have argued that land development projects (under the LDP) have led to (corruption of politicians) with vested interests," Sengoku said. "This decision may be the effect of regime change."

The move is being interpreted as an attempt by Kan to look strong and reverse his administration's falling support rate. But the government faces a raft of associated issues.

Fishermen who have suffered from what they claim is a declining catch due to the project welcomed the move, but farmers working the reclaimed land are strongly critical.

"The government made a political decision at last," said Nobukiyo Hirakata, 58, a fisherman and one of the plaintiffs. "One of our fishermen committed suicide (because of the declining catch). I hope the government will reflect on it."

Ryoichi Hori, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, welcomed Kan's move, calling it a "historically brave decision."

"We would like to discuss the process and timing for opening the floodgates with the central government in a flexible manner," Hori said.

But farmer Kazuyuki Araki, 33, said "I'm not convinced and I am angry. It's a mere performance by Mr. Kan to boost his support rate."

In addition, the research the government is expected to launch in line with the ruling is expected to be costly.

In a report compiled in April by a panel of the agriculture ministry and members of the ruling parties, opening the floodgates full-scale would cost the government ¥60 billion to deal with the possible impact on the fishing industry of dirty water flowing into the sea.

Although Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Michihiko Kano initially hoped to visit Isahaya Bay on Thursday to relay the administration's decision and hold discussions with local governments, the plan was postponed after Nagasaki Gov. Hodo Nakamura, who sides with farmers involved in the reclamation project, refused to meet the minister.

Still, scholars stress the need to open the gates to see how it will affect the ecosystem.

"We have observed a phenomenon at the bottom of the Ariake Sea in which blocks of water lack oxygen," said Yuichi Hayami, an assistant professor in Saga University's Institute of Lowland and Marine Research. "If the government opens the gate, it may revive the ecosystem in the tideland."

The central government first came up with the project during the 1950s as a way to increase national rice production. It officially formulated the details in 1986, claiming it would also help reduce the risk of flooding and other water damage in the area.

The government lopped off the bay with a 7-km tide barrier dike in 1997 to drain the water and create arable land and a water reservoir. The entire project cost roughly ¥250 billion when it was completed in March 2008.

Information from Kyodo added

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