Colorado State Researchers Partner with Japanese Islands to Protect Nesting Green Sea Turtles, Promote Ecotourism

A group of islands off the coast of Japan is the largest breeding grounds in the region for green sea turtles and is also a popular tourist destination with lush beaches and other natural resource attractions. Researchers at Colorado State University are working with a local Japanese marine center to reduce human-caused impacts on nesting turtles as well as promote sustainable ecotourism to the islands.

The Ogasawara Islands are 600 miles from the Tokyo coast and reachable only by a 26-hour boat trip. The 30 islands are a Japanese national park and have been promoted as a popular ecotourism spot among Japanese and international tourists. The number of visitors is likely to further increase because, in 2008, the islands are expected to be nominated for consideration by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

The local government has not imposed regulations to limit access to important nesting areas of the sea turtles or successfully manage visitor behavior in and around these areas. Guidelines for safely viewing the green turtles also have not been established.

Colorado State University researchers Tara Teel and Asuka Ishizaki in the Department of Natural Resource Recreation and Tourism are working with local residents and visitors of the islands to help develop management plans to minimize the human impacts on nesting sea turtles. The researchers will gather information, beginning late spring 2007, from residents and visitors about their perceptions regarding green sea turtles and gauge their support for potential management actions and education strategies.

"It is often the case that management actions are reactive and put in place after impacts become obvious. Several other World Natural Heritage Sites in Japan experienced a rapid increase in visitors once they were designated, and they were not prepared. We’re hoping that our efforts will help Ogasawara prepare for a change," Ishizaki said.

Another key component to this project focuses on how different cultures view conservation and the steps they take to preserve natural habitats in their own countries. Possible sea turtle conservation strategies include establishment of marine protected areas and regulations prohibiting access to nesting beaches. While these strategies have proven successful in other countries such as the United States and Greece, the culture and approaches to wildlife conservation in these countries differ from that of Japan. Adopting Western culture ideas about conservation and sustainable ecotourism may not be easily adopted in Asian cultures, and Ishizaki and Teel will study management options that best suit the local culture.

Researchers point out that it is critical that a conservation plan be adopted that is both biologically effective and appropriate for the local culture. In addition, it is important that possible impacts on tourism are considered. Closing the beaches could affect tourism, an industry that drives the economy of the 2,500 residents on the islands.

"Humans impact and also depend heavily on natural resources. Successful conservation efforts therefore require understanding not only of the natural environment but the needs and interests of local people. These social considerations are key to ensuring management decisions address implementation challenges brought on by human factors, including people’s values and cultural obligations," Teel said.

The number of green sea turtles nesting at the Ogasawara Islands has been steadily increasing in recent years. In 2005, 300 to 400 female turtles nested on the islands. The nesting season spans from May to August, which also is the prime tourism season. About 28,000 people visit the islands each year to experience the unique tropical environment, prime whale watching sites, diving spots, snorkeling and observing other natural marine habitats.