Japan more aware of ocean debris
By Jan TenBruggencate
Marine biologists report slow progress in trying to stop the Japanese oyster fishery from releasing tens of thousands of plastic tubes that litter beaches and can kill seabirds mistaking them for food.
The tubes, a half-inch thick and 2 to 9 inches long, are strung between scallop shells and hung under rafts. Oyster colonies are established on the shells. The plastic tubes break loose when storms damage the rafts.
Albatross chicks appear to be most seriously affected. Before they can fly, they are fed by their parents, including sometimes bits of plastic.
Unlike adult birds, the chicks are unable to regurgitate undigested stomach contents, and are sometimes found dead, their bellies full of colored plastic.
Rick Steiner, a biologist and professor with the University of Alaska Marine Advisory Program, has been negotiating with the Japanese government and Japan Environmental Action Network (JEAN) for solutions. He said some farmers have suggested reverting to an older technique, using strands of twisted rope instead of plastic tubes.
"The oyster farmers, mainly in Miyagi Prefecture, have been using the twisted-rope method since early times," wrote Yoshi Shikada of the Japan Consulate-General in Anchorage, in response to an Advertiser inquiry. "The plastic tubes are used mainly by oyster farmers in Hiroshima Prefecture. They used bamboo as the tube in the past.
"Some oyster farmers noticed that the plastic tubes were harmful to the environment. In response to this situation, some Hiroshima oyster farmers have worked together with an environmental group to collect the tubes that had washed ashore."
Lead by example
Shikada said he had brought the issue to the attention of Japanese fishery officials in Tokyo. Japanese environmental groups say the process can be slow, and direct action is not useful. They try to lead by example instead.
"We try to address issues relating to marine debris by addressing issue to public through our beach cleanup activity and other ways of educational means," wrote Yoshiko Ohkura of JEAN's international relations branch, in an e-mail. "It is sometimes very frustrating, but we need to work on that patiently."
Steiner said he is hopeful.
"It is clear now that the Japanese oyster growers all know of the problem, and there seems to be a genuine commitment by the industry and the government there to do something about it."
Jan TenBruggencate is The Advertiser's Kaua'i bureau chief and its science and environment writer. You can reach him at (808) 245-3074 or firstname.lastname@example.org.