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Asia
7 Feb 2017

Japan is home to one third of all seabirds - so we mapped its waters

Black-tailed Gull © Noriko Hisamatsu
Black-tailed Gull © Noriko Hisamatsu
By Alex Dale

Japan is known for its densely-populated cities, but some of its most vital areas for bird conservation are places where humans rarely venture – its marine waters.

 

A nation comprised of a chain of islands, Japan is blessed with a long and rugged coastline, which is home to a particularly high diversity of seabirds within Asia. Nearly a third of all known seabird species venture into Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone, which stretches 200 nautical miles from its coastline. These species includes all three North Pacific albatrosses, eight auks and eleven petrels and shearwaters.

 

As seabirds are one of the most threatened groups of birds worldwide, it’s no surprise that some of these species have been assessed by BirdLife as threatened, and are in urgent need of protection. These include the Short-tailed Albatross Phoebastria albatrus, listed as Vulnerable due to its extremely small breeding range, which is limited to several Pacifici islands; Tristram's Storm-petrel Hydrobates tristrami, which is threatened by predation by rats and cats introduced to the islands it breeds on; and Japanese Murrelet Synthliboramphus wumizusume, which is threatened by human disturbance by anglers at its breeding sites and accidental capture in gillnet fisheries, among other factors.

 

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As you can see, Japan’s seabirds already face a complex web of threats, and the concern is that the ongoing expansion of offshore wind farms in and around the country could heap yet more pressure onto the most threatened species. They are being built to meet a national need for renewable energy, one which has only grown following the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster of 2011. Clearly, there is a pressing need for Japan’s most vital marine sites to be properly monitored and protected.

 

However, this is currently not the case. The Japanese government has stated that 8.3% of the country’s waters are protected – but concerns have been raised about how effective this protection is for preserving the country's marine biodiversity. For example, it includes marine areas that are locally managed by fisherman and so lack legal protection, and also marine areas that are indeed protected by national laws, but don’t contribute to marine biodiversity conservation. All in all, that 8.3% is not the be all and end all when it comes to protecting Japan’s seabirds.

 

 

Japanese Murrelet © Yoshiharu Suzuki

 

But we have now taken an important first step towards improving protection for seabirds. In 2004, BirdLife International and its Partners initiated a project to designate sites that are important for coastal and marine conservation as Marine Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (Marine IBAs). This is part of an ongoing push that has created the largest global network of important sites for biodiversity. Using simple but robust criteria to identify these crucial sites helps inform decision makers by highlighting areas of land and sea most in need of protection.

 

To this end, the Wild Bird Society of Japan, (WBSJ, BirdLife Partner), and BirdLife International Tokyo have just completed identification of Japan’s 27 new Marine IBAs, adding to the 167 terrestrial or near-shore IBAs that were already recognised in 2004.

 

Seabirds are excellent indicators of the health of the marine environment’ explains Yutaka Yamamoto, Conservation Division Chief at WBSJ. ‘Identifying key seabird sites in Japan will inform marine conservation priorities and actions needed for the protection of our oceans.’

 

The results have just been published in a booklet that covers the new marine IBAs, including details for the breeding sites, threats, and biology on the 18 ‘trigger species’ for which sites were selected, and case studies about local communities working on seabird conservation. This includes several towns and villages where local conservation groups, fisheries associations, government, and seabird scientists are taking action to monitor and raise awareness about seabirds, and develop nature-based tourism. Kadogawa Town, close to the new Birou-jima Island marine IBA - which contains the world’s largest breeding colony of Japanese murrelets -, has even adopted the species as their town symbol.

 

Identifying Japan’s marine IBAs has been a long process involving many collaborators and a lot of data’, said Mayumi Sato, BirdLife Marine Programme Coordinator for Asia, ‘but it’s actually an initial step, and I am optimistic that it will help inform protection of many crucial areas of coast and sea. It gives me much hope to see local communities and fishers who are already active and working alongside government and scientists to promote and protect wildlife in these unique seabird sites.’

 

This important work was made possible thanks to kind funding from The Keidanren Nature Conservation Fund and from The Tiffany & Co. Foundation through a grant to American Friends of BirdLife International.

 

The booklet can be downloaded from The Wild Bird Society of Japan’s website.