Kerama Islands: new national park in Japan

31 March 2014 | Fact sheet

On 5 March 2014, the Ministry of the Environment of Japan designated the Kerama Islands in Okinawa as the country's 31st national park. Kerama Islands is the first new national park since 1987 when Kushiro Marshland in Hokkaido became a national park.

Background

In 1978, the Kerama Islands’ scenery, featuring multiple islands of various sizes, led to them being designated part of the Okinawa Seashore Quasi-National Park. The Kerama Islands are located around 40 kilometers west of Naha, comprising more than 30 islets and their coastal waters are famous for their clear waters, coral reefs and diversity of landscapes. The park includes a land area of 3,520 hectares between Tokashiki and Zamami villages, and 90,475 hectares of ocean area.

From 2007 through 2009 the ministry undertook a comprehensive review of Japan’s national and quasi-national parks. The review involved identifying regions of environmental significance in terms of both geology and ecosystems throughout Japan, and analyzing the extent to which these areas were covered by existing national and quasi-national parks. Following the survey, the ministry advanced designation of the Kerama Islands national park, in close cooperation with both the villages of Tokashiki and Zamami.

In addition to their island landscapes, the Kerama Islands boast a wide variety of seascapes extending from the coast to the sea such as exceptionally transparent waters, known as the Kerama Blue; reefs densely populated by various species of corals; waters where humpback whales breed; sandy beaches; and the archipelago itself.

Thanks to these attractions, the islands were considered to be an outstanding scenic asset representing the best of Japan, and this led to the decision to designate them as a national park.

View images of the park

Fauna and Flora

The Kerama Islands’ sea contains 248 species of reef-building corals, about 62% of the reef-building corals currently observed in Japan. The coral reef of Kerama is also important as a supply source of coral larva to the Okinawa main Island. Every winter, humpback whales come to the waters off the islands on their annual migration to breed and nurse their calves.

In order to incorporate the humpback whale breeding areas, waters the 7km radius perimeter around all the island coasts are included in the National Park, a first for Japan. The area is also densely populated with corals and inhabited by a wide variety of fish. Waters shallower than 30m, totaling some 8,300 ha, have been designated as a marine park zone, where capturing, killing of, or harming specific coral and fish is prohibited.

The islands are located in the subtropical oceanic climate belt, and their flora is unique in Japan. Fan palm forest and Ryukyumatsu (Pinus luchuensis Mayr) and over 620 species of native plants can be observed.

Challenges

Visitors mainly enjoy seeing the underwater scene while scuba diving and snorkeling, but in the last few years, the damage to the coral caused by an outbreak of crown-of-thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci) and scuba diving have became issues of concern. Local residents have devoted themselves to eliminating the starfish, and a consultative body has been set up in the villages of Tokashiki and Zamami in accordance with the Act on Promotion of Ecotourism. An overall vision was put in place promoting an appropriate use of the sea and protecting corals from negative impact by scuba diving and snorkeling. The national government approved the vision in June 2012.

Whale watching is carried out mainly during the winter season. The Zamami Whale Watching Association put in place a policy for whale watching to protect the humpback whale reproduction. The association also gives lectures on whale habits and how to approach them.

Life in the island is closely connected to the ocean. Each community has traditional performing arts such as religious prayers for bumper catches, the lion dance, and many others. In the Kerama Islands, local people work voluntarily for the maintenance of their natural environment, while utilizing it as a resource for ecotourism: forming therefore a society that lives in harmony with nature.

For more information or to set up interviews: Toshio Torii (Mr.), Director for National Park Division, Ministry of the Environment of Japan, t: +81-3-5521-8279, m: TOSHIO_TORII@env.go.jp