Photo/IllutrationA sea turtle swims near the coast of Yakushima island. (Provided by a resident)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

YAKUSHIMA, Kagoshima Prefecture--One recent summer night, just to remain standing was an ordeal on Nagatahama beach, in the west of Yakushima island, because of strong rains and winds from a typhoon.

“(A turtle) is climbing onto the beach,” an investigator was heard speaking into a radio set amid the downpour. “Roger,” a correspondent answered.

Upon confirming the loggerhead sea turtle had spawned, the investigator jotted down the turtle’s size, landing point and spawning point and put up a sign pole at the spawning site. No streetlight could be seen, and one could only walk slowly in the darkness of the sandy beach.

The work lasted till dawn.

Soon, this nonprofit group's hard work to protect the sea turtles of an endangered species, which has the largest nesting ground in Japan on this southern island, will fade into the darkness.

A lack of successors is to blame for the impending closure of Yakushima Umigame-Kan, whose members have been patrolling and cleaning up a beach here for more than three decades.

Concerns have been raised about the fate of the sea turtles, a tourism draw for Yakushima island, once the guardians of the beach are no more.

Members of Yakushima Umigame-Kan patrol the beach from sunset till dawn every night from late May through late August, when turtles come ashore to spawn and their eggs hatch.

They have also been transplanting turtle eggs further inland on the beach so they will not be carried away by high waves or trampled on by humans.

The group’s members have also been cleaning the beach and giving pedagogical sessions at elementary schools in the local community.

But Kazuyoshi Omuta, the 68-year-old representative of the group, suffered from a heart disease last year, and he has been able to patrol the beach only several days this year. The group had more than 70 members at one time, but the number of participants in its activities has fallen to single digits at the latest count. Their average age is more than 50.

With no young successors having turned up, the group said in March that it will disband at the end of the current season.

Omuta, who was born near the beach, saw during a temporary homecoming from outside the island that the sandy beach had shrunk under the influence of a breakwater and fewer turtles were coming ashore. That was when he decided to work to preserve the beach and protect the turtles.

He has since been engaged in activities for more than three decades with the help of volunteering local residents and university students visiting the island for sightseeing.

The number of turtles coming ashore grew roughly sevenfold from between 200 and 400 a year. The beach has been visited in recent years by non-Japanese travelers who are interested in the turtles.

“It is believed that young turtles return to their native waters following a cycle of 30 years,” Omuta said. “The mother turtles who are on Yakushima island now may be the young turtles of yore who departed from the beach during the early years of our activities.”

Omuta said he is concerned about what will become of the sea turtles once his group stops working. He said his group is certainly disbanding, but he will always be looking for individuals who are interested in conservation research so he can pass on what know-how he has accumulated.

NO PROTECTION PLAN IN PLACE

Yakushima island was included in the UNESCO World Natural Heritage list in 1993. Nagatahama beach is known as Japan’s largest nesting ground for loggerhead sea turtles in terms of the number of the animals coming ashore and spawning. The site has also been registered in the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.

The Nagatahama Beach Sea Turtle Conservation Association, a council set up by the central and local governments as well as relevant groups, has laid down a rule to call for voluntary restraint from entering the beach during the night. The association has been posting guards at the beach over a period of several hours in the nighttime.

In reality, however, Yakushima Umigame-Kan has been in charge of more continual efforts to monitor the beach and protect turtles.

“It’s too bad the group is disbanding,” said Yoshimasa Matsuzawa, the 49-year-old chairman of the Sea Turtle Association of Japan, which organizes individuals who are involved in the protection of sea turtles across the country. “I hope public administrative bodies will provide long-term and flexible support to us so we can continue with our activities for a long time.”

Meanwhile, officials with the environmental policy division of the Yakushima town government said they hope to hold talks with the central and prefectural governments so they can help preserve the treasures of the island. No specific plan, however, has yet been laid out for that purpose.