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Japan to introduce offshore sanctuary system to protect deep sea marine life

Coral reefs inhabit the deep sea in this picture provided by the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology.

TOKYO -- The government is set to introduce an offshore sanctuary system to protect deep sea marine life through a legal revision to regulate deep ocean development, as well as require licenses for fishing and mining in some areas, it has been learned.

In regard to the move, a bill to revise the Nature Conservation Act was approved by the Cabinet on March 1 and is set to be submitted to the current session of the Diet. The Ministry of the Environment eyes an offshore area near the Ogasawara Islands about 1,000 kilometers south of Tokyo as the first sanctuary to be designated under the new scheme.

In the new sanctuary system, people planning to conduct mineral resource exploration, mineral mining or dragnet fishing must report their plans in advance as those activities could adversely affect the deep sea ecosystem. Furthermore, licensing will be required to engage in those activities in special sanctuaries.

The move comes in tandem with the Aichi Targets, an international objective to be achieved by 2020 based on the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. The goal calls for countries to set 10 percent of waters they administer as "marine protection areas." While Japan's territorial waters and exclusive economic zone (EEZ) total some 4.47 million square kilometers, or roughly 12 times its land area, the country had previously not set up any marine protection areas. Even if areas for protecting marine products, wildlife and scenic beauty are demarcated in accordance with current laws and regulations, they would make up a mere 8.3 percent of Japan's EEZ and territorial waters.

Waters around the Ogasawara Islands are rich in mineral resources such as manganese and precious corals that are traded at high prices. The islands are also home to unique creatures inhabiting their undersea mountains, trenches and hydrothermal vents. The area is especially essential for biodiversity as it is said to be difficult to restore the deep sea environment once it is damaged.

At a press conference on March 1, Environment Minister Yoshiaki Harada said, "We would like to conserve biodiversity in a comprehensive manner, from land, coastal to offshore areas."

(Japanese original by Kazuhiro Igarashi and Suzuko Araki, Science & Environment News Department)

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