Hokkaido beach
Japan has a small land mass but its surrounding waters are vast. Japan ranks sixth in the world in terms of combined areas of its territorial waters, exclusive economic zones and continental shelf. In these waters are large deposits of hydrothermal ores and rich biological resources. Natural gas and possibly oil lie in waters contested by Japan and China.

The concept of “ satoumi “ — the belief that human intervention in the ecology of coastal waters can lead to greater biodiversity — is gaining popularity in Japan with people doing things like pulling up sea cabbage so eel grasses, which host a variety of sea creatures, grows better. Some feel the movement is bringing back a link between the people and seas that existed for a long time in Japan but has been lost in recent decades.

In October 2008, Japan aimed to dramatically expand the amount of ocean under its control by applying to the United Nations for the right to claim areas designated as Japan’s continental shelves. The five areas — including waters in the Shikoku Oceanic base, the Kyushu-Palau ridge and the Ogasawara Oceanic Plateau — that Japan is claiming in the Pacific Ocean to the south and southeast of Japan have a combined area almost equal to that of Japan itself and are thought to contain resources that one day might be mined.

Studies by the Meteorological Research of Institute shows that waters off Japan are getting more acidic. Between 1983 and 2008 the pH of water off the Kii Peninsula in Japan decreased from 8.18 to 8.13. The lower the pH the more acidic something is.

Websites and Resources

Good Websites and Sources: Japanese Society of Oceanic Studies Japan Agency for Marine Earth Science and Technology ; Oceanic Society of Japan ; Kuroshio Ocean Current ; National Geographic on Giant Squids ; Video of Giant Squid You Tube ; List of Sharks Found in Japanese Waters ; Video of Rare Shark Found in Japan YouTube ; Megamouth Shark You Tube

Sea-Related Activities in Japan Outdoor Japan Outdoor Japan Sailing Sail Japan Sail-Japan Boating links tspsJapan ; Diving and Snorkeling PADI International (Website: PADI ; Dive Japan Dive Japan ; Dive Centers in Japan Dive ; Diving Links Japan ; Okinawa Diving: Diving Okinawa Diving Okinawa ; Dive Bum Okinawa Dive Bum Oki ; Dive Sites Marine Corps Okinawa ; Dive Sites Reef Encounters ; Fishing Fishing Japan Fishing Japan ;Fishing Japan top sites Fishing Japan top sites Saltwater Fishing in Okinawa Charters and Tours ; Aquariums Osaka and Okinawa have famous aquariums with whale sharks. Also Check Out: Shinagawa Aquarium at Japan Guidebook site Aburatsubo Marine Park (Misaki area in Miura, Kanagawa Prefecture) features a huge tank with tuna swimming around at high speed. Website: Kanagawa Prefecture site yokosuka.kanagawa


Good Sites on Wild Animals: Animal Info ;Japan Animals Blog / ; Hub Pages on Wild Animals in Japan ; ARKive (do a Search for Japan or the Animal Species You Want) Animal Picture Archives (do a Search for the Animal Species You Want) animalpicturesarchive

Japan’s Oceanic Environment

Juli Berwald wrote in National Geographic:’sunlight streams between cracks in the ice. Thicker chunks glow emerald green, bejeweled by algae. The characters of this frosty realm begin to appear: a translucent, blue swimming snail, a pink fish with a tail like a geisha's fan, a bright orange lumpsucker that looks as if it leaped out of a Pokémon cartoon.”[Source: Juli Berwald, National Geographic, November 2010]

Most people think of Japan as a compact collection of large islands, but a map of the country shows otherwise. Japan stretches over 1,500 miles and includes more than 5,000 islands. As land mingles with sea over these vast distances, it embraces at least three distinct ecosystems. In the frigid north, sea-eagles, with their seven-foot wingspans, and king crabs frequent the ice-covered seas off the remote Shiretoko Peninsula. In the mild central waters of the Izu Peninsula and Toyama Bay, a few hours' drive from the skyscrapers of Tokyo, firefly squid swarm, and soft coral forests grow. In the balmy south, delicate butterflyfish and huge sand tiger sharks share coral reefs in the Bonin Islands, a collection of 30 or more islands about 500 miles south of Tokyo.

Ocean currents are key to the marine diversity, bathing Japan's shores in temperatures of water that range from around 30̊F to 85̊F. The currents also bring the country a couple of world records. The powerful Kuroshio shoots warm water northward, allowing coral reefs to thrive where they would not normally be found. The East Sakhalin Current draws cold water down toward Japan, helping make the Shiretoko Peninsula the southernmost spot with winter sea ice.

These currents control more than water temperature. They transport distant marine life as well. Inlets pockmark Japan's volcanic shoreline, explains Florida Institute of Technology professor Robert van Woesik. On islands surrounded by coral reefs, the lagoons "act like baseball mitts catching coral and fish larvae." As in so much of the world's oceans, these ecosystems are at risk. Japan is filling in lagoons to create more land to build upon. When this happens, fish, coral, and crab larvae glide past without settling down.

Japan Boasts Top Number of World's Marine Life

The marine life around Japan is incredibly rich and diverse. One of the main reasons for this is the convergence of hot and cold currents in waters around Japan’s islands, the rich variety of coastal environments; changing weather; and varied underseas topography. Deep trenches lie just offshore on the Pacific Ocean side — the Kuril and Japan Trenches in north and the Ryukyu and Marianas Trenches in the south. Converging plates produces undersea mountains.

The Census of Marine Life, released in 2010, counted 33,629 species of sea creatures, the widest diversity of species in 25 oceanic regions, in waters around Japan. Even though waters around Japan count for only 1 percent of the world’s ocean, 15 percent of all sea creatures live there, including 8,658 species of mollusks and 6,393 species of arthropods. The high diversity is attributed to varied environments that exist in Japan, where you get sea ice off Hokkaido and coral reefs off Okinawa.

In September 2008, a Japanese-British team found fish — hadal snailfish, a subspecies of scorpionfish — living at a depth of 7,700 meters in the seabed of the Japan Trench. It was the deepest-living fish ever found. The previous record depth for fish was 7,000 meters. Pictures of the fish were taken with a camera encased in reinforced glass and pressure-resistant steel attached do a line dropped from a ship off the coast of Ibaraki Prefecture.

The bulgyhead wrasse, an odd-looking, meter-long fish with bulbous head that is found in waters off Sado Island in northern Japan, was featured in the film “Oceans”.

In August 2012, Jiji Press reported: “Japan has been given a score of 69 out of 100 in terms of ocean health, an international group of researchers said. Jarvis Island, an uninhabited U.S. coral island located south of Hawaii near the equator in the Pacific Ocean, received the highest rating for its ocean quality with 86 points. The lowest score, 36, was given to Sierra Leone in West Africa, according to the researchers, who evaluated the health of oceans for 171 countries and regions worldwide using the Ocean Health Index. The average score was 60. The Ocean Health Index is a composite measure comprising 10 different indexes that rate the oceanic health of a country or region's exclusive economic zone in terms of biodiversity, artisanal opportunities such as commercial fishing, tourism and other aspects. The research was published in the online version of British scientific journal Nature. [Source: Jiji Press, August 17, 2012]

Japanese Ocean Currents

The Kuroshio Current (also known as the Japan Current) off the east coast of Japan is the Pacific’s answer to the Gulf Stream. It brings warm water up from the Philippines in the south and like the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic is part of clockwise gyre that in the case of the Kuroshio Current embraces almost all of the perimeter of the northern Pacific. Waters from the Kuroshio and a branch current called the Tsushima Current mix with waters from the Oyashio Current, a cold water current that flows southward along the Kuril Islands and the Pacific coasts of Hokkaido and northern Honshu. Kuroshio means “Black Tide.”

The Kuroshio Current has produced the northernmost colony of table coral off the southern coast of Wakayama Prefecture. Kushimoto Marine Park in this area contains 120 species of coral and a great variety of fish normally associated with more southern seas. The current has only been flowing to this area since 1990.

The Oyashio current brings cold water from the north. It affects the Pacific Ocean side of Hokkaido. The sea of Okhotsk north of Hokkaido is also very cold and becomes completely covered by pack ice in the winter. Among the cold-water species of fish that thrive in these waters are halibut, cod, salmon and Atka mackeral. Describing the watery world between ice floes in the Sea of Okhotsk, bordering the Shiretoko Peninsula in northern Hokkaido.

The migration of marine life is often tied with the currents. Squid and fish such as bonito, horse mackerel move northward with Kuroshio while cold water species such as cod, halibut and Alaska pollack move south with the Oyashio. In 2009 and 2010 a number oarfish — strange ribbon-like creatures that normally live at depths between 200 meters and meters and aren’t seem near the surface — were seen in coastal waters in the Sea of Japan. They were most often spotted when strong winds blew from the sea.

Giant Squids and Japan

first photos of a living giant squid
In December 2006, Tsunemi Kubodera, a scientist at the National Science Museum of Japan, caught a giant squid at depth of 650 meters about 27 kilometers off the northeast coast of Ototojima island in the Ogasawara Islands. The squid was not fully grown. It measured 3.5 meters despite having its two longest tentacles severed. It is estimated that if the tentacles were intact the squid would have measured seven meters in length.

In September 2005, the British magazine Nature reported that first video of a giant squid. The image of an eight-meter squid were taken as it tried to snag some bait at the end of fishing line at a depth of 900 meters on the North Pacific near Chichijima Island, 100 kilometers south of Tokyo, by a team led by Kubodera. The squid got snagged on a hook and wriggled free after a four-hour struggle but not before losing a tentacle that was retrieved by the scientists. The scientists were also impressed by the way the squid seemed to aggressively pursue its prey rather than waiting for it to pass its way.

Giant squids are one of the world's largest and most mysterious animals, giving rise to legends of sea monsters, like the kraken of Norway, stories of sailors being pulled into the sea, ships being overturned, and elementary school maps with fierce sperm whale and giant squid battles.

The largest of all invertebrates, the giant squid can reach 60 feet in length (twice the length of a bus) and weigh up to half a ton. Generally living at depths of around 1000 meters, they have eight short tentacles like other squids as well as a 1½-foot-wide, parrot-like mouth, two long tentacles with sucker-cover clubs and the largest eye of any animal in history — at 15¾ inches it is the size of a human head.

No one is sure how long giant squids live and nobody knows for sure what depths they live at. They are believed to catch prey by simply unfurling their arms and gathering in prey that passes their way. Its scientific name Architeuthis means “ruling squid.”

Coral in Japan

Okinawa coral
The are large coral reefs around Okinawa and other tropical islands Japan. Indigenous stony coral has been found growing in Tokyo Bay.

A piece of coral taken from Kagoshima prefecture has survived on land for more than 20 years in the garden of man who watered the coral occasionally. The coral even began sprouting branches.

Coral reefs have been damaged by coral bleaching. Particularly worrisome is the presence of bleached coral around Ishigakijima, which boasts Japan’s largest coral reef. Much of the damage has been blamed on unusually high water temperatures — temperatures above 30 degrees for extended periods, usually in July and August — in recent years. Soil erosion that washed into the sea from construction sites and farms is blamed from contributing to the problem by clouding up the water.

Coral bleaching occurred four times in recent years — in 1998, 2001, 2003 and 2007 — in Okinawa Prefecture. In 1998 around 40 percent of the coral around Ishigakijima died. In 2007 large swaths of bleached coral were found in eight locations around Ishigakijima and off Sesokojima Island off Okinawa. Most of the reef stretching from Yonehara beach on Ishigakajima out into the sea had turned completely white. That year water temperatures were high in July.

Coral bleaching caused by an unknown disease has been occurring off the coast of Miyazaki and has been found as far north as the Kochi Prefecture coast. Coral has also been severely damaged by Acanthaster starfish.

According to one survey 45 of 75 pet shops contacted were selling coral collected from Japanese waters. The coral sold for prices ranging from ¥2,000 to ¥4,000.

Baby coral transplanted onto the Sekisei coral-reef lagoon — Japan’s largest coral reef — in Okinawa Prefecture is growing fast. Scientists working on the project implant fertilized corals eggs into ceramic beds and once the eggs grow into larvae one centimeter to two centimeters they are attached to rock in the seabed.

Coral-eating crown of thorns starfish is a problem in some of the reefs around Okinawa. Damage to reefs is also caused by divers and sewage released from boats with tourists and divers.

The northern limits of table coral and expanding northward as ocean waters warm.

Coral Colonies Depleted in Okinawa

Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “On the famous coral reefs off Ishigakijima island, Okinawa Prefecture, the size of coral colonies has sharply decreased to about a quarter of their size about 10 years ago, according to research by a national environment institute. The National Institute for Environmental Studies in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, an independent administrative institution, conducted the research off the island's Shiraho beach. The institute believes the decrease is caused by "coral bleaching," a phenomenon in which rising seawater temperatures kill coral; poor behavior by careless tourists who damage coral; and an inflow of red soil erosion into the ocean. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, October 20, 2011]

“According to the research, the percentage of coral per square meter dropped from 11.9 percent in 1998 to 3.1 percent in 2010. Some stony corals, known in Japanese as midori-ishi (acropora coral) and komon-sango (montipora coral), are particularly prone to environmental changes, and have decreased drastically to one-hundredth of former levels in some places, according to the institute. Coral bleaching has been observed for more than 10 years. But, red soil erosion from sugarcane and pineapple farms is also contributing to the decrease.

“Additionally, the number of tourists visiting the island has increased, rising to about 873,000 last year, or 1.2 times the number from 10 years ago. Many tourists have stepped on or otherwise damaged the coral off Shiraho beach while scuba diving. Ishigakijima island is home to a number of popular diving spots.

Kelp Forest

Kelp often grows in huge masses called forests. Kelp forests are found off the coast of New Zealand, Japan and California. A number of fish and other aquatic species are unique to kelp forests.

Kelp is a kind of seaweed that grows in long strips that hold onto rocks on the sea bottom with a claw-like fastener that serves only as an anchor and provides no root like functions. Kelp needs to be anchored to the bottom of the sea in some way or it will be washed away.

Kelp are designed to live offshore in places with crashing surf. The have inflatable bladders that keep them afloat and flexible leaves that move in the moving water without breaking. Some have a slippery mucous coating to protect them from exposure to sun and air.

Kelps dominates reefs in cool seas. Relatively little is known of their origins. Some think they originated 5 to 10 million years ago in the Northern Hemisphere when the northern seas were cool and full of nutrients. This theory is hard to prove because the soft tissues of kelps don’t mineralize into fossils very well. Studies of large abalone shells that feed primarily on kelp suggest that kelp first appeared in large amounts in the Northern Hemisphere about 5 million years ago.

Bioluminescence and Japan

In the town of Tateyama about 50 miles south of Tokyo locals sometimes amuse tourists by dropping buckets of fish heads into the sea to bait "sea fireflies," bioluminescent crustaceans about the size of tomato seeds. When the fish heads are pulled up the attached crustaceans secrete trail of bioluminescent material said to look like shooting stars. [Source: Paul Zahl, National Geographic July 1971 ╺]

During World War II these crustaceans were dried and crushed into a powder and carried by Japanese soldiers into the islands of the Pacific. At night the soldiers rubbed the powder on their hands to read maps. Until the outer of shell of the crustaceans are broken the biolement material can remain dormant for several years and be activated when the shells are broken.╺

For a brief period in Toyama Bay on the west coast of Japan between the months of April and June billions of finger-size bioluminescent squid rise up from their home in the depths to the surface to mate. Fishermen in the town along the bay sponsor excursions to the places where the squid are found. Normally polite and well behaved Japanese tourist push and shove their way on to the boat to make sure they get a good spot. When the boat reaches the squid site the Japanese tourists dip nets into the water and pull up these living blue sparklers by the armful onto the decks of the boat, where every part of their body shrivels up except for their eyes which stick out grotesquely.╺

Echizen Kurage Giant Jellyfish

Echizen jellyfish are born in the spring along Chinese coasts in the Yellow Sea, as well as the East China Sea. They move north along the Tsushima Current and arrive in Japanese waters starting in mid-July. Afterward, they usually drift out into the Pacific Ocean via the Tsugaru Channel in early October. Some Echizen jellyfish have hoods two meters in diameter and weigh nearly 200 kilograms. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, September 26, 2012]

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “A research team led by Hiroshima University Prof. Shinichi Ue has conducted annual surveys of the number of jellyfish per 100 square meters in the Yellow Sea between June and November since 2006. The survey is used to predict how many jellyfish will arrive in Japanese waters.

In 2012, the team found 0.44 jellyfish per 100 square meters in July. The number is 730 times larger than the 0.0006 found in 2010, when hardly any jellyfish-related damage was reported, and about nine times larger than the 0.05 reported in 2011. Usually, the number of jellyfish found in the Yellow Sea peaks in July. However, the figure has remained high in 2012, registering between 0.2 and 0.5 in August and 0.16 in September. Compared to last year's figures, the number was 10 to 71 times larger in August and 2,285 times larger in September. The figures were close to those recorded years of jellyfish population explosions--0.21 in August 2007, 0.55 in August 2009 and 0.2 in September 2009.

According to JF Shimane, a fisheries cooperative in Matsue, Echizen jellyfish are usually caught in fixed fishing nets in early and mid-August. However, this year, 20 to 150 jellyfish were caught daily in fixed nets of Okinoshima island, even in September.

Nobel Prize and 100,000 Glowing Jellyfish

giant jellyfish
Osamu Shimonmura and two American won the Noble in Chemistry in 2008 for discovering and developing a glowing jellyfish protein that has helped shed light on such key processes as the spread of cancer, the development of brain cells, the growth of bacteria, damage to cells by Alzheimer’s disease, and the development of insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.

Osamu Shimomura works at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Wood Hole, Massachusetts and the Boston University Medical School. He discovered the jellyfish protein, green fluorescent protein, or GFP, after extracting it from 100,000 jellyfish caught off the coast of the of the state of Washington, and isolated it. American Martin Chalfie and Roger Tsien explored how it works and applied it to medicine and other fields.

Shimomura needed a large number of jellyfish to extract and refine GFP. He collected them with the help of students, assistant researchers and his wife and kids. At certain times of the years the jellyfish that bore GFP — “Aequora victoreai” — were so thick local people said you could walk on water. For his research Shimomura needed about 3,000 jellyfish a day which were collected from a pier with long-handled nets and buckets. Many locals thought he intended to eat the jellyfish as sashimi. Over the past decade the number of jellyfish off the Washington coast have declined drastically and it is no longer easy to collect huge masses of them.

Cutting up the jellyfish was another problem. At first Simomura used scissors but later refashioned a meat slicer that he bought at a hardware store. He then dedicated himself to extracting and purifying GFP. In 1979 Shimomura unraveled the structure of GFP and discovered how it became luminous. At this juncture in his career he showed one scientist a fluid solution of GFP, saying “This has been purified from 100,000 jellyfish.”

GFP turns green when exposed to ultraviolet light and easily attaches to other protein whose movements can be tracked. . The Swedish Academy compared the discovery GFP to the development of the microscope and said the protein has been “a guiding star for biochemist, biologist, medical scientists and other researchers.” Shimomura told the Daily Yomiuri, “I was able to extract aequorin because I thought other researchers ideas were wrong...I became successful because I tried to extract only the illuminating substance.”

Sharks and Japan

whale squark in
Osaka aquarium
As of 2004, seven of the 21 confirmed megamouth catches took place off of Japan. A male caught in April 1997 off Owase, Mie Prefecture, weighed more than a ton and was 5.4 meters long. Others have been caught off Hamamatsi in Shizuoka Prefecture, in Hakata Bay in Fukuoka and in Tokyo Bay off Ichihara.

In 1990 a new species of shark was discovered off of Japan. Named “Trigonognathus kabeyai”, it is 10 to 20 centimeters long and has a protruding forehand and jaws,

Sleeping sharks gather by the hundreds at Izu Oceanic Park. They are so lethargic they lay around on top of each other like a bunch of "sleeping drunks.” [Source: Clark]

Fishermen on the island of Takara Jima have traditionally attracted sharks to their to their canoes by singing traditional songs and shaking coconut-shell rattles and then catching sharks with their hands. Local divers catch sleeping sharks by placing a rope around their tails and hauling them to the surface. A cave with a hundred or so sharks can be emptied in a couple of days. "We never take all the sharks," one fisherman said, " we always leave one or two, so they'll bring back their friends." [Source: Clark]

An oil from the liver of deep sea sharks known as squalene was used in World War II as a lubricant on high altitude planes because it had a low congealing point. Today the oil is used as a cosmetic base for lipstick and burn creams as well catch all treatment for an assortment of diseases. Thousands of Japanese take capsules of the oil called Marine Gold. [Source: Eugenie Clark, National Geographic, August 1981]

Basking sharks, which sometimes measure 30 feet in length, are easy prey for Japanese fishermen in small boats who harpoon them because they stay so close to the surface. After a four ton shark is caught it is towed to a processing plant where it is transformed into about a dozen different products. The massive liver yields 100 gallons of oil, a hundred times the amount taken from a normal shark. A ton of meat is extracted and minced into fishburgers. The fins are cut off and dried for shark fin soup. Even the skeleton and cartilage are used: for fertilizer and feed. [Source: Clark]

Shark Attacks and Japan

Shark attacks in 1997: 34 in United States; 5 in Australia; 4 in Brazil; 3 each in the Bahamas and South Africa; 2 each in Japan and New Guinea; 1 in Mexico, Fiji, Reunion Island and Vanuatu. Ama divers carry small wooden amulets with them when ever they dive for protection against sharks.

The last reports of a fatal shark attack in Japan was in 1992 when a man fishing in the Inland Sea off Matsuyama on Shikoku was killed by a great white shark.

In the summer of 2007, large numbers of hammerhead sharks were spotted close to beaches in Fukuoka and Shizuoka Prefectures. A school with several hundred hammerheads was spotted in waters between 200 meters and 500 meters from the beach in Koga, Fukuoka Prefecture, in northern Kyushu. Two hammerheads over 3.5 meters were seen at Usami beach in Ito, Shizuoka Prefecture. These sharks usually spend their time out at sea. The presence of the sharks so close to shore was attributed to the diversion of a warm currents close to the coast.

Beaches on the Sea of Japan were closed in the summer of 2001 when large numbers of hammerhead sharks were spotted near the shore. There are nine species of hammerhead, with smooth and scalloped hammerheads being the ones most often spotted in Japanese waters. These are often seen several kilometers off the coast of Japan following warm currents north during the summer.

Sea Turtles and Japan

Sandy beaches in southwestern Japan, chiefly in the southern part of Kyushu, are the loggerheads sole egg-laying area in the North Pacific, After hatching baby turtles swim more than 10,000 kilometers riding ocean currents until they reach waters off of Mexico. There they he feed on shrimp and food and return to Japan to breed .

NGOs in Japan, Hawaii and Mexico are working together to track and protect loggerhead sea turtles, which are endangered in the North Pacific.

Loggerhead turtles that are born on Yakushima Island and along the coast in Nambumachi, Wakayama Prefecture spend most of their life off the west coast of Mexico and California. When they reach sexual maturity between 14 and 20 years of age they swim 12,000 kilometers across the Pacific back to Japan to nest, and repeat the journey every other year.

Shells from endangered hawksbill turtles are imported to Japan where they are carved in hair pieces traditionally worn by brides on their wedding day.

Tortoise shell has traditionally been used to make brooches, hairpieces and other accessories. The yellow-colored plastron and back-and-brown-spotted carapace from shell from endangered hawksbill turtles is highly prized and has been dubbed the “jewel of the sea.” Tortoise shell craftsmen use a heated iron to bend and shape the shell and stick pieces together. If too much heat is applied the shell will char. If not enough is applies the pieces will come apart easily.

Tortoise shell art is believed to have originated in China more than 2,000 year and was used in making the crown of Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi. In Japan , the industry has been centered in Nagasaki where hawksbill turtles were brought in by foreign traders. A craftsman at a tortoiseshell workshop that was established in 1709, told the Daily Yomiuri,, “People are attracted to tortoiseshell products because of their luster and their colors, which are peculiar to natural materials. Since each pattern is different, people can feel satisfaction by possessing something that is truly unique.”

Hunting sea turtles or collecting their eggs has been banned in Kagoshima Prefecture since 1988. Sea turtles have made a come back there. The number turtles that have arrived on beaches to lay eggs rose from a low of 2,633 in 1999 to 7,331 in 2004. Environmentalists attribut the sharp rise in recent years to the return of turtles that were born after the ban.

The Osaka-based Sea Turtle Association is involved with outfitting a turtle, whose front flippers were bitten off in a shark attack, with prostheses and returning it to the sea. The first set of artificial flippers fell off after a few minutes, As of December 2009 the turtle was getting used its fifth pair but still had some ways to go before it was ready for the open sea.

Seals and Sea Lions in Japan

Five species of seal are found in Japanese waters: the northern fur seal, bearded seal, spotted seal, Stellar sea lion and Kurile seal. Kurile seals are the most common. Spotted seals mothers give birth to pups in mid March on ice flows off east Hokkaido. As the weather gets warmer the seals start heading north to waters off Sakhalin Island in eastern Russia.

Species of seals and sea lions found along the coast of northern Japan are Stellar sea lions, massive creatures that can reach three meters in length and weigh 450 kilograms; the kuril seal, a spotted animal that is the most commonly seen pinniped in Japan; and spotted seals, which are seen in the Sea of Okhotsk, where they give birth on drift ice. California sea lions, which were much larger than their California cousins, used to be seen regularly in Japan but the are now gone, the last one seen more than 35 years ago.

The Japanese name for the kuril seal is “zenigata-azarashi”. “Azarashi is a genric name for seals. “Zenigata” means “coin-shaped,” a reference to the white splotches on the animal’s skin. Closely related to harbor seals found on the west coast of North America, they breed along the rocky coast of eastern Hokkaido from Cape Erimo to the Shiretoko Peninsula. During the winter they range as far south as Tokyo Bay.

Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri: “For thousands of years ago, pinnipeds provided a ready source of fat and protein for people living along the northern coasts. Hunters in boats harpooned these animals using a special type of weapon called a toggle harpoon. The head of this harpoon was attached lightly to the tip of the staff, and was designed to separate after being driven through the pinnipeds thick layer of fat. A line was attached directly to the harpoon head, in such a fashion that when tension was placed on line the the head rotated or “toggled.” Instead of pulling straight out through the hole, the harpoon head would then turn sideways, butting up against the hole.

Toggle harpoons have been found in archeological sites from northern Honshu through Hokkaido, the Kuril Islands and around the North Pacific rim. Pinniped hunters also lived along the high Arctic coasts along northern Siberia, Canada and Greenland.


In 2002 and 2003, Japanese became enchanted with Tama-chan, a bearded seal that foresook his usual hunting grounds in Arctic waters and choose instead to spend her time in rivers around Tokyo. She became a media star and tourist attraction. Sightings of her were top stories on the evening news. Whenever she decided to beach herself large crowds would gather, alerted of her location by cell phone messages. It is believed to that she hung around the areas because she found plentiful supplies of fish and shellfish to eat. She was named Tama-chan after the Tama River, where she was first spotted.

It wasn’t clear whether Tama-chan was male of female. She (he) was spotted mostly in rivers and canals around Yokohama, Tokyo and Kanagawa and Saitama Prefecture, where she liked to rest on the rear deck of a pleasure boat. She became so famous songs were written about her, ice cream and drinks were sold by vendors at places where people gathered to watch her. She was even given honorary citizenship to Yokohama’s Nishi Ward and a special society was established to watch over her. A religious cult announced that saving Tama-chan was paramount to saving the world.

Bakers made Tama-chan bean paste deserts. Toy makers rushed to Tama-chan stuffed toys on the shelves. A group of animals rights activists in scuba gear tried to catch her with nets because they worried about the effects of polluted water in her skin. Others were worried about power boats, There was great concern when a fish hook became lodged near her eye (after a couple of days it was gone).

Dugongs and Orcas and Japan

Dugongs are found in waters off Okinawa. There are believed to be less than 50 of them. They are rarely seen and little is known of their habits other than what they feed on. In 2007, dugongs living off Okinawa were listed as a critically endangered species in the Japanese Environment Ministry’s Red List.

Killing dugongs has been banned since 1993 but there are no laws to protect their habitat. They are sometimes killed in collisions with boats or are accidently caught in fishing nets. Environmentalists are concerned over about a proposal for of new U.S. military heliport on northeast side of Okinawa, which is regarded as a prime dugong habitat. In 2008, after environmentalists in Japan and the United States brought a lawsuit against the U.S. Defense department, a federal court in California ordered the Pentagon to study the effect of the heliport on dugongs.

Killer whales used to inhabit the seas off Hokkaido in great numbers but then for a long time they were rarely seen after they were indiscriminately hunted during World War II. Now pods with 10 or so members are regularly spotted in seas off Shiretoko Peninsula from spring to summer.

Sightings of Poisonous Octopuses on the Rise

In May 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Poisonous blue-ringed octopuses, which inhabit mainly tropical and semitropical zones in the Western Pacific, have been recently found in increasing numbers in the Kumano-nada area off the coast of southern Mie Prefecture.It is rare for blue-ringed octopuses, which carry tetrodotoxin, the same deadly poison present in fugu blowfish, to be found in the area during February and March when the weather is cold. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, May 30, 2012]

“An expert said, "Their habitat might have expanded north due to the rise in sea temperatures caused by global warming." An official of the Mie Prefecture Fisheries Research Institute in Shima found a blue-ringed octopus on the seafloor at a depth of 10 meters off the coast of Taiki, Mie Prefecture, on Feb. 16.Another was caught after being found on rocks about seven meters under water off Shima on March 7. Both octopuses were adults about 10 centimeters in length, the institute said. The octopuses' saliva contains tetrodotoxin, and anyone who is bitten will experience symptoms such as vomiting, paralysis and spasms.

Crabs and Sea Cucumbers and Japan

Japan's giant spider crabs duel with Alaska's king crabs for the honor of being the world's largest crustacean. According to the Guinness Book of Records, one giant spider crab weighed 41 pounds and had a claw span of 12 feet 1 inch.

Giant spider crabs are sometimes called the 'dead man's crab' for its habit of feeding on drowned bodies. Males have two penises. National Geographic writer Eugene Clark was snagged by the legs of one of these crabs. Each time she pried one leg loose another grabbed her, she said. But she never felt in danger and said it was like wrestling a giant sloth.

Soaring prices for sea cucumber from around ¥20,000 for kilogram of dried sea cumber to more than ¥70,000 have resulted in an increase in poaching of the sea creature, particularly around Hokkaido. The first known case of sea cucumber poaching was recorded in 2005. In 2006 a half dozen cases were reported, including one in which a gang of seven Hokkaido people was caught with 33 tons of sea cucumbers. Sea cucumbers from Hokkaido are preferred because their warts are said to be clearer and less unsightly.

Demand from China has cased the price and number of thefts of sea cucumber to rise in Japan. Prices are so high that thieves once broke into a sea cucumber processing plant in Morimach, Hokkaido, tied up factory employees and made off with 160 kilograms of dried sea cucumber.

Sea cucumbers with long fat projections on the body, like those commonly found in Hokkaido, are especially valued in China. They used to be thrown away and fetched only ¥300 a kilogram a few years ago but now sell for about ¥900 a kilogram. Sea cucumbers do not breed easily or quickly. Stocks have already been depleted. Some worry their populations maybe decimated beyond repair in a few years.

Salmon, Eels and Shellfish and Japan

More salmon and trout spawn in the Sharigawa River on the Shiretoko Peninsula in northern Hokkaido. than any other river in Japan. The Shiretoko Peninsula is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Officials in the region try very hard to keep salmon numbers up. Every year they catch salmon at a point about 1.2 kilometers from their rivers mouth, removes their eggs and artificially incubated them. After hatching the fry are released in the river.

Salmon poaching, to get the fish’s valuable eggs, is a problem on the Sharigawa River with eggs from wild salmon selling fr ¥2,800 a kilogram in 2007. Poaching groups are organized by local crime syndicates. There is a special unit of police that dress in black and are equipped with body armor and night vision scopes and stake out places where the salmon poacher seek their targets.

In February 2011, scientists at the University of Tokyo said the figured out the secret of eels spawning in the Pacific. The scientists collected eggs released shortly before the new moon in West Mariana Ridge area of the Pacific. Based on their size the scientists determined the eggs were probably fertilized about 30 hours earlier.

salmon pillow

Shellfish yields have declined in some areas in the Seto Inland Sea as result of an influx of long-headed eagle rays, a species usually found in warmer tropical and subtropical waters. Global warming may explain the presence of these fish in waters off of Japan. Water temperatures in the Seto Inland Sea have risen 1 degree C in the past 30 years. The rays grow up to 1½ meters and weigh up to 50 kilograms and have venomous spine son their tails.

Image Sources: 1) Ray Kinnane 2) 6) Greenpeace 3) 5) Japan-Animals blog 4) Hector Garcia 7) 8) exorsyst blog

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2013

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