By Alex Dale, 7 Feb 2017
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.
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.