Fishermen forced out of business as coral reefs collapse in Japan

Fisherman life in Japan

Morihiro Nakata has been fishing the tropical waters around the Japanese Yaeyama Islands for 27 years. But over this period he has found it harder and harder to fill his traps and nets. Morihiro identifies climate change as the root cause for the rapid depletion of coral reefs that support the local fisheries.

Coral reefs support 25% of marine life and their decline has become a serious problem worldwide. Oceans absorb 90% of the energy generated by global warming and water temperatures are on the rise. Coral is particularly vulnerable to these changes as warming waters spread bleaching, diseases and pests. As the reefs decay or die-off, the animals that rely on them for shelter also fall into decline – so fishermen, like Morihiro, lose their livelihoods.

Morihiro explains how this chain of events affected him. ‘Some years after I started fishing, the coral started to bleach rapidly and look as if it had been crushed by a bulldozer. Then it all happened at one fell swoop. Because the coral that protected fishes was no longer there, the spawning grounds were fully exposed to view, the eggs would be eaten, and the fish that would normally hide in the coral were easily caught. Fish hauls declined in no time at all.’

Over 27 years he has felt a dramatic change in local temperatures. ‘In the past, I recall, when we went out fishing in mid-winter, we used to put winter wear on over our wetsuits,’ he says. ‘Now, however, it is so warm that you can go out in the middle of winter wearing just a sweatshirt. We don’t have a winter anymore.’

As the temperatures rise, bleaching isn’t the only concern for the fishermen of Yaeyama. They have witnessed mass outbreaks of the crown-of-thorns starfish, which eats its way through the coral. In low seawater temperatures this species is quite sluggish, but it becomes active as the waters warm up. Morihirohas seen an increase in the activity of this reef pest. ‘The crown-of-thorns starfish appeared in large numbers just after I started fishing, and since then there have been frequent outbreaks.’

In 1998 a severe El-Nino event compounded the problems caused by steadily rising ocean temperatures. ‘The seawater temperature remained high for a long period, and the coral was in a near-death state over a wide area,’ explains Morihiro. In the past locals could cope with a large decline in coral every decade or so, but now there is no period for the coral reef and fish populations to recover.

Locals are also concerned that changes in the nature of major storms are leading to more damage in the reef. ‘Recently fewer typhoons are occurring, but enormous typhoons pass through,’ says Morihiro. ‘When these fierce typhoons pass, in spite of the fact that the coral has grown rapidly over the previous five or six years, it collapses like a house of cards and is very quickly annihilated.

Due to the loss of coral, fishing became impossible for Morihiroin the summer. ‘I started taking tourists out on cruises.’ He explains, ‘I have the tourists come on the boat, show them around the coral reefs and the polluted fishing grounds, and have them think about the marine environment.’

He is modest about the impact that his tours have on raising the awareness of climate impacts. But with 30% of coral reefs around the world in an extensive state of deterioration, the impact on the millions of fishermen who rely on them for their livelihoods, like Morihiro, cannot go unnoticed for long.

Source: WWF Full acccount and scientific review can be found here

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