How MHI Group is Supporting Protection of Biodiversity:
The "Tanegashima Loggerhead Sea Turtle Survey" and What It Accomplishes

2020-09-29

Since 2015 MHI Group has provided support to the "Tanegashima Loggerhead Sea Turtle Survey" program aimed at protecting biodiversity. The program is officially recognized and backed by the Japan Committee of the United Nations Decade of Biodiversity (UNDB-J). This summer, the survey was conducted in Tanegashima for a sixth time.

How MHI Group is Helping to Protect Biodiversity

Participation Reflects the Company's Firm Commitment

MHI Group's involvement in the survey program evolved from the company's strong desire to perform a social contribution activity that would be symbolic of MHI's commitment to environmental protection and also raise employees' interest and awareness towards safeguarding the environment. In 2014 discussions on the specifics for conducting such an activity got underway with EarthWatch Japan, an authorized NPO that supports researchers who engage in surveys or studies aimed at protecting the global environment. In the course of those discussions it was suggested that an ecological survey be undertaken at Tanegashima of species categorized as "critically endangered," i.e. at extremely high risk of extinction in the wild, in the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) "Red List of Threatened Species." The result was the launch of a survey of Tanegashima's loggerhead sea turtles by a team of researchers headed by Yoshimasa Matsuzawa (PhD), chairman of the Sea Turtle Association of Japan.

Tanegashima is home to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's (JAXA) Tanegashima Space Center. The Center plays a central role in Japan's satellite launches and is often described as the world's most beautiful rocket launch site. MHI has been involved in launch vehicle-related operations in Tanegashima for many years, during which time the company has built a relationship of solid trust with the local community. For MHI Group, helping to protect Tanegashima's unique biodiversity was thus viewed as a highly significant activity. In both content and location, the survey program meshed perfectly with MHI's image, and a decision was taken to provide human and economic support to the program starting the following year, 2015.

JAXA Tanegashima Space Center
JAXA Tanegashima Space Center
(JAXA) Tanegashima Space Center

Tanegashima, an island blessed with a temperate climate, is one of Japan's most active nesting grounds for loggerhead sea turtles, second only to Yakushima Island directly to its west. Previous to this survey, however, no study had ever been carried out at Tanegashima on full scale, so any potential relationship with loggerhead sea turtles nesting at Yakushima was unclear. The current survey thus sought to investigate whether turtles that came to lay their eggs at Tanegashima had done so before, and to what degree, if any, turtles nesting at Tanegashima had earlier nested elsewhere. The study began by taking measurements of the female turtles that came ashore on Tanegashima to lay their eggs. The project also encompassed confirming that nesting actually occurred, attaching identification tags to the turtles, and checking whether or not turtles arriving in Tanegashima had been previously tagged at other nesting sites. All of this information was entered into a database. In addition, newly hatched sea turtles were weighed and examined for any irregularities in their shell patterns, and important survey results were gathered relating to their ecology: for example, any relationship with the ambient sand temperature.

Loggerhead sea turtle spawning on Tanegashima’s beach (photographed with permission)
Loggerhead sea turtle spawning on Tanegashima’s beach (photographed with permission)
Loggerhead sea turtle eggs (photographed with permission)
Loggerhead sea turtle eggs (photographed with permission)

Group Employees Participate Every Year as Volunteers

MHI Group employees have participated in this survey project every year since 2015, together with volunteers from the general public. Group employees account for roughly one-half of all volunteers, and their participation deepens their understanding of the environment and also gives them a sense of pride in working for a company that supports this worthy project. The research specialists undertaking the survey also express their appreciation of the volunteers' participation: "Acting together with volunteers enables us to reconfirm the underlying significance of the survey. And their assistance is invaluable at times when human intervention is needed, for example when saving sea turtles."

Volunteers receive vital information before taking part in the survey.
Volunteers receive vital information before taking part in the survey.

In these times when much is spoken and written about the impact of global warming on our ecosystems, the environment surrounding loggerhead sea turtles is also beginning to be threatened in various ways: among them, an increasingly disproportionate number of females, attributable to rising temperatures of the sand in which the turtles lay eggs; and loss of sandy beaches suitable for nesting caused by rising sea levels and placement of wave-dissipating blocks. Today, as human activities impact the environment in so many forms, with consequences being felt the world over, MHI Group believes that what we can do is to take responsibility for our actions. And this, we further believe, will lead to achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which target a sustainable, better world. Going forward, we will continue to strive to protect the environment and biodiversity in line with our CSR Action Guidelines.

  • Sea turtles are unusual in that male or female births are determined by the temperature in which the eggs incubate. Incubation below 29-30℃ produces male hatchlings; incubation in higher temperatures yields females.

WHAT WE HAVE LEARNED IN THE SURVEY'S FIRST 6 YEARS

Yoshimasa Matsuzawa
(Chairman, Sea Turtle Association of Japan)
Yoshimasa Matsuzawa
(Chairman, Sea Turtle Association of Japan)

Yoshimasa Matsuzawa, chairman of the Sea Turtle Association of Japan and chief researcher of the Tanegashima Loggerhead Sea Turtle Survey program, spoke of the project's results and significance. "At the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) employees conduct ecological surveys of the local loggerhead sea turtles, so when we received an offer of support from MHI, which is involved in launch operations at the Tanegashima Space Center, I felt a strong sense of karma. I'd always wanted to conduct a survey in Tanegashima but never had the opportunity, so I was very grateful to receive MHI's offer of assistance. After six years, the survey has yielded numerical data that will serve as a basis for getting an overall understanding of the sea turtle population active in the northern Pacific Ocean, including the waters around Japan. Sadly, unlike other global nesting grounds such as Florida in North America, loggerhead sea turtles that nest in Japan seem to be dying off at a higher rate."

In the six years of the survey from 2015 through 2020, a total of 155 loggerhead sea turtles were identified as having come ashore at Tanegashima to nest. From the data compiled, it was learned that, as at other nesting grounds around Japan, approximately 30 percent of the total number return after several years to lay eggs. It was also found that extremely few turtles travel between Tanegashima and Yakushima. Together these two facts lend credence to the hypothesis that between 60 and 70 percent of the loggerhead sea turtles that are born in Japan and nest in Japan die for some reason. Mr. Matsuzawa expects that the collected data will undergo analyses of all kinds in Japan and the United States. He adds that by shedding light on the still mysterious ecology of loggerhead sea turtles, it will become possible to detect, and prevent, situations which put the turtles at risk. For this reason, he believes continuing the survey program at Tanegashima is of great importance.

Yoshimasa Matsuzawa (PhD)
Chairman, Sea Turtle Association of Japan

Mr. Matsuzawa is a specialist in marine ecology. He began studying sea turtles, at nesting grounds in Wakayama Prefecture, during his student days at Kyoto University (Faculty of Agriculture). He received a doctoral degree in 1998 for his research on the impact of temperature on the embryonic development and sex determination of sea turtles. After previously working at the University of Florida's Archie Carr Center for Sea Turtle Research, the Sea Turtle Association of Japan, and Kobe City Suma Aqualife Park, since March 2020 Mr. Matsuzawa serves as director of the newly opened Shikoku Aquarium in Utazu, Kagawa Prefecture.

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Related links:

MHI Video: "Protecting Sea Turtles at Japan's Busiest Spaceport"