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Abe under fire over coral transplant remarks for work at US base site

TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's remarks that coral reefs have been removed from a site for landfill work for the construction of a U.S. military base in Okinawa Prefecture and replanted have sparked criticism over their lack of accuracy.

Abe said during his TV appearance on public broadcaster NHK on Jan. 6 that, "In moving to pour in earth and sand, coral reefs there have been transferred," in reference to the government's work to reclaim an area off the Henoko district of Nago in the southernmost prefecture to build a new base to replace U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the prefectural city of Ginowan.

However, the Defense Ministry's Okinawa Defense Bureau has only transferred portions of coral reefs from areas outside a site where landfill work has already commenced with the injection of earth and sand on Dec. 14 last year. Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki blasted Abe's remarks by tweeting, "That is not the case."

Abe's comments came in response to the emcee's question about how the guests on the TV program were going to win Okinawa Prefecture residents' understanding toward the land reclamation work.

In addition to mentioning coral reef transfers, the prime minister also referred to red-listed species in the area, saying, "There were endangered species inhabiting the beaches, but we have made efforts to curb environmental damage by transferring them to other beaches by dredging the sand."

According to the Okinawa Prefectural Government's fisheries division and other sources, it would be necessary to transfer approximately 74,000 coral colonies from across the planned land reclamation site. Among them, the Okinawa Defense Bureau has transferred only nine colonies after receiving the prefectural government's permission. The removed colonies are those of red-listed coral reefs known as "Porites okinawensis Veron," or "Okinawa Hamasango" in Japanese.

However, none of those colonies belonged to the area where the central government began pouring in earth and sand in December last year.

While the Okinawa Defense Bureau applied for permission in December to transplant roughly 39,600 coral colonies from waters where soil injection has yet to begin, the prefectural government has not given the green light to the request.

In its request, the defense bureau singled out coral reefs measuring 1 meter or more in diameter and some rare coral reefs as subjects for transplantation. However, the prefectural government pointed out that the bureau's selection of coral reefs to be subject to transplant or their transfer destinations was inappropriate, and cited the lack of measures for environmental conservation as reasons for retracting its approval for the land reclamation work.

Because the waters where soil injection has commenced do not host coral reefs listed in the defense bureau's transplant request, Prime Minister Abe's remarks that "coral reefs there have been transferred" lacks accuracy. Yuichiro Tamaki, leader of the opposition Democratic Party for the People, demanded an explanation from Abe, saying, "I want to clarify on which grounds and facts the prime minister's remarks were based."

At a press conference on Jan. 10, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga defended the national government's position, saying, "We have transferred all coral reefs subject to transplant that inhabited a landfill site on the Henoko side, and have been taking responses with maximum consideration to environmental conservation. I believe the prime minister made his remarks to that effect."

Nami Okubo, associate professor at Tokyo Keizai University who is versed in the ecology of coral reefs, however, raised questions about the central government's measures, saying, "Even if coral reefs are transplanted elsewhere, their long-term survival rate will be low. Such a method is inadequate as a step to protect the environment."

(Japanese original by Tadashi Sano, Kyushu News Department, and Noriaki Kinoshita, Political News Department)

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