Ocean Treasures: Okinawa’s Coral Reefs for Future

On the northwest coast of Okinawa, Onna Village is well known for diving spots such as Cape Manza and Blue Cave and has the nickname Coral Village. Local organizations such as Onna Village Fisheries Cooperatives and Okinawa Diving Service Lagoon have continued to protect and restore the precious coral reefs for nearly two decades.

The crisis of coral is a crisis of marine life

The islands of Okinawa are surrounded by clear warm waters and ringed with coral reefs. Soft corals may look like plants, and hard corals are easy to mistake for rocky mounds, but all corals are tiny colonial animals. Together these minuscule organisms create giant living structures that, in turn, are home to countless plant and animal species. Coral reefs are one of the most diverse ecosystems on the earth, and Okinawa is blessed to have them just meters off the coast.

Okinawa’s reefs provide many benefits. Traditionally, they have provided the locals with a wide variety of fish for food and reduced the power of the strong waves during typhoons. Today, the coral reefs support a considerable section of the tourism industry, with divers and snorkelers excited to experience the ocean’s beauty and its sea life. Marine research is conducted at centers of learning such as the Okinawan Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST), The University of the Ryukyus, and the Okinawa Churashima Foundation. Their research reveals the secrets of the ocean, but coral reefs may also play a vital part in creating medicines such as a new generation of antibiotics.

Coral reefs occupy less than 0.2% of the world’s oceans. The reason is they need a very particular set of conditions to survive that include warm, shallow, clear water, sunny weather, mild currents, and a desirable level of nutrients. Coral doesn’t grow in areas without these conditions, and existing coral will die off if their environment changes outside of these ideal parameters.

Coral reefs are vulnerable to crown-of-thorns starfish that can eat swathes of hard corals, algal blooms from excess nutrients, and red soil runoff from agriculture and development projects that lead to the reefs covered in debris. Global warming has resulted in rising water temperatures, which in turn, has caused coral bleaching on large sections of the world’s coral reefs. Warmer water causes the algae inside coral tissues to leave, and the coral loses its primary source of energy and slowly dies. What is left behind is the white calcium carbonate skeletons of the coral, but this does not provide a healthy foundation for the coral reef ecosystem, so the biodiversity of plant and animal life also collapses.

Do what we can do for the next generations

The reef can be damaged physically by commercial fishing, poor diving practices, or coral collecting. Ocean trash is a problem with waste blowing from our streets into rivers and out to sea or dumped in the ocean. Although coral reefs face challenges, many people and organizations are determined to protect the varied ecosystems that make Okinawa unique.

Onna Village has been actively working to protect the coral reefs since 1999. By 2003, they were able to return cultivated corals to the sea. Over time, and by cooperating with OIST, their methodology has improved. They have been able to confirm that the farmed and wild coral have the same genetic diversity.

At Okinawa Diving Service Lagoon, visitors can learn about coral and participate in reef restoration. Using a unique guidebook prepared by Lagoon, the staff explains the biology, benefits, and vulnerabilities of corals. You can then head over to the growing tanks to see how it is possible to help. Visitors take a fragment of coral and attach it to a small piece of concrete using steel wire. It’s even possible to write a message on the concrete to identify each piece.

The small fragments then grow under controlled conditions, and once large enough, they will be taken out and “planted” in the ocean. One of the spots where the reef restoration takes place is just a short boat ride out into the bay next to Cape Manza. Snorkelers affix the coral pieces on the seafloor, where they become a part of the amazing coral reef ecosystem. Although small, these corals will support the aquatic flora and fauna and the long-term health of island life in Okinawa.

Top tips

  • If you’re paddling, diving, or snorkeling in the ocean, try to use “reef safe” sunscreen, such as Coralily.
  • When snorkeling or diving, take care not to damage any of the fragile corals. If entering from the shore, make sure not to step on corals. While diving, maintain neutral buoyancy, and check your fins or diving gear are not touching the reef.
  • Need something to perk you up after your dive? 35Coffee is a local coffee brand that donates 3.5% of its total sales towards coral restoration activities, including coral cultivation and transplanting.
  • 35COFFEE *Only in Japanese

Posted on November 16th, 2020
Text by Chris Willson
Chris Willson is a British photographer, videographer, and travel writer based in Okinawa for over 20 years.

  • This interview was conducted based on the guidelines for preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Useful link

Okinawa Diving Service Lagoon *Only in Japanese

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