impact

The “Village of Coral” moves to protect its namesake

In Onna Village in Okinawa, Japan, a coral reef is never far away. It is only a short stroll to the water from most parts of the self-styled “Village of Coral”. At the shoreline, the dusky forms of the reef are almost always visible through the shimmering blue-green coastal water.

“These coral reefs have been protected by our ancestors over generations,” says village mayor Yoshimi Nagahama. “We have benefitted from these coral reefs and our ocean.”

The benefits of the ocean are evident in the local diet. Fresh seafood is never far down the menu. Umi-budō, or sea grapes, is a local seaweed delicacy grown in Onna’s bays.

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And the benefits are more than culinary. Onna’s fisheries industry has employed many over the three centuries since its founding.

But today, the economic benefits of the reefs have become even more visible as tourism has rocketed in recent decades. Onna is now home to several large resort hotels. Flocks of domestic and foreign tourists are drawn to the aquamarine waters and plentiful snorkeling and diving spots.

Hidenobu Yoshimura, owner of TAKE Dive in Onna, a dive operator, has seen the changes firsthand. “I have been running a diving shop in Onna Village for 10 years,” he says. “The situation in Onna Village today is very different from 10 years ago when I came here.”

But the change is not all positive, according to Yoshimura. “I feel there is increasing negative environmental impact.”

The mayor shares his concern. “Many divers come to see beautiful coral reefs. However, when many tourists come, there are some places where coral reefs are damaged and in bad condition,” says Nagahama.

A growing number of tourists in Onna are visiting areas like Cape Maeda. The Cape boasts a number of impressive reef diving and snorkeling spots, like the Blue Cave, where the light filters through cracks in the overhanging rock to create a dazzling aquatic chamber.

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The increasing popularity of these places is causing problems like broken coral and increased chemical pollution.

To address this, Onna is joining the Green Fins initiative, an effort led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and The Reef-World Foundation to promote sustainable diving and snorkeling tourism worldwide. Onna Village will be the first Japanese locale to adopt the Green Fins approach, thanks to support from the Japan Association for UNEP, making Japan the next country where Green Fins approaches are applied.

“While irresponsible tourism can pose a threat to corals, well-managed tourism can provide many benefits, including economic opportunities for local communities that rely on coral reefs,” explains Chloe Harvey, Director at The Reef-World Foundation.

Green Fins works with members of the diving industry to reduce the pressures on coral reefs. By providing training and resources to dive and snorkel operators following the Green Fins code of conduct, the initiative aims to protect coral reefs from harmful practices like anchoring, fish feeding and chemical pollution. Working in 11 countries already, the approach has been proven to help make corals healthier and more resilient.

“Onna Village has a strong interest in sustainable practices, and it is the perfect pilot for the Japanese chapter of Green Fins,” says Makiko Yashiro, UNEP’s Regional Coordinator for Ecosystems. “We hope that when this initial project is successful, we can bring the Green Fins code of conduct to other locales in Japan.”  

This will not be Onna’s first foray into environmental protection. There is an ongoing coral recovery project that has planted 30,000 corals. The village was also named a “Sustainable Development Goals Future City” by the Government of Japan for its superior approach toward the achievement of the Goals.

Yoshimura is hopeful that Green Fins will have a positive impact. “Though I cannot change things just by myself, with support from and cooperation with many people we can protect the environment and maintain it for future generations,” he says. “I hope that by using the Green Fins code of conduct, we will be able to inform divers about environmental issues more effectively and enable divers to have a wonderful diving experience.”

The mayor is optimistic as well. “We look forward to protecting coral reefs by working with the Green Fins initiative,” says Nagahama. “It is the responsibility of adults to leave this wonderful, beautiful ocean to our children.”