Feature Article

At Loggerheads:

Conservationists in Dispute


At Loggerheads: Conservationists in Dispute

Updated: Feb 26, 2019

You see their tracks along the coastline...they reach the blockades, realise they cannot pass, but they keep trying every few metres until they exhaust themselves

This is the story of an ongoing dispute between conservationists on Omotehama beach, and the unfortunate loggerhead turtles that have been caught in their crossfire. This is a story about pioneering technology, good intentions, mismanagement, and heartbreaking neglect.

The story begins in 1950, in the laboratory of two engineers in Grenoble, France. Pierre Danel and Paul Anglès d'Auriac were developing a new technology that could be used to alleviate coastal erosion, by dispersing wave forces on sub-aqueous walls. The invention was called the Tetrapod - a reinforced concrete blockade named after the biological super classification of four-limbed vertebrates, 'Tetrapoda'. The concrete tetrapod was designed to be a modular inter-locking structure, that could be used to disperse wave forces whilst remaining collectively stable due to their inter-locking design. Pierre and Paul filed a successful patent for their tetrapod design, and the first concrete blockade of its kind was soon introduced to the perimeter of a thermal power station in Roches Noires, Morocco.

The technology was deemed a success in the field of marine construction, and soon inspired a wave of concrete blockade designs and coastline conservation research, all inspired by Pierre and Paul's original design. The USA designed the Modified Cube (1959); the United Kingdom gave us the Stabit (1961); the Netherlands introduced the Akmon (1962); South Africa began moulding the Dolos (1963); and Romania implemented the Stabilopod (1969). These early technologies later gave rise to more experimental coastline reinforcement designs such as the Seabee (Australia, 1978), the Accropode (France, 1981), and the Xbloc (The Netherlands, 2001). The invention of the tetrapod was undoubtedly a benchmark in coastline conservation, but its legacy has become the centre point of an intense debate in recent years, between wildlife conservationists, marine biologists, and environmental disaster consultants.

The Japanese Government were unsurprisingly an early proponent of the tetrapod design following its success in Morocco. As Japan is so highly prone to earthquakes, typhoons and tsunamis that devastate the landscape, an entire industry of tetrapod manufacturing and dispersal has grown in response to these threats to human settlement. But whilst the concrete blockade is now a popular and widely accepted feature of the Japanese coastline, its early implementations were often marred with disagreements over their correct location, quantity, and form. One of the earliest implementations of the concrete tetrapod in Japan was on Omotehama beach, in the Shizuoka Prefecture of Honshu. The devastating effects of their introduction to the area is now a poignant example of what is at stake, and what happens when economy eclipses ecology.

According to Yuzi Tanaka, a leading wildlife conservationist based in Omotehama, the Japanese government originally wanted to introduce a series of inter-locking tetrapods to a small portion of land set back approximately 50 metres from the dune vegetation that lined the edge of Omotehama beach. This location would have been very effective for wave breaking. But the local fishermen issued numerous complaints, and persuaded the government to relocate the concrete blockades closer to the tideline. They agreed that the blockades would still be effective if positioned between the dune vegetation and the sea.

Unfortunately, whilst the complaints of the fishermen were met with sympathy - the animals that thrived on the beach were not taken into consideration.

Before the tetrapods landed on Omotehama beach, the dune vegetation was a very rare habitat for endangered loggerhead turtle hatchlings. Mother turtles always return to their birthplace in order to reproduce after long-distance migrations - so this cyclical event relies heavily on the small patch of vegetation for their survival as a species. The dune vegetation is essential to the process as it is so close to the shore, and it protects the turtle eggs from predation during incubation. These turtles rely perpetually on the same plot of vegetation for their survival, but the concrete blockades now effectively shut them out every year. Yuzi explains, "you see their tracks along the coastline...they reach the blockades, realise they cannot pass, but they keep trying every few metres until they exhaust themselves".

The inter-locking tetrapods are scattered across the entire length of the dune vegetation habitat, stretching 11 kilometres across Omotehama beach. Yuzi and his wife Mina spearheaded a campaign to relocate the blockades, and in 2008 the governmnt tentatively agreed to set some of them back. Yuzi notes that his campaign was a complete failure, as the government removed only 1 kilometer of blockades, and do not plan to take any further action. Every year, mother turtles return home to find that their precious patch of vegetation is just beyond their reach. And every year, Yuzi maps their tracks with increasing dismay, and warns of their plummeting hatchling population.

Sharing Yuzi's concern, fellow conservationists in the area have taken to building designated hatchling houses on the shoreline, in front of the tetrapods. This kind of affirmative action is well-intended, but, like the implementation of the tetrapods, it is not without disagreements over correct locations, quantity, and form. Yuzi tells me,

"[turtle conservationists] go out and dig up eggs laid in the sand, because the mothers cannot reach the dune vegetation...then they relocate them all in these fenced hatchling houses".

Unfortunately these make-shift hatchling houses are designed and built using basic construction methods and materials, and the predators simply burrow under the chicken-wire fencing. Mina exclaims, "they're like food banks!".

Despite this, the hatchling houses are still being used, and conservationists disagree over their next move. The hatchling houses are closely monitored, and have seen some success in recent years according to those running the hatchling network. But, Yuzi explains that their affirmative efforts to manage and protect this species are misguided. The temperature of the ground that incubates the mother's nest eggs determines the gender of the hatchlings. So when female turtles create numerous nests along the beach - a mix of genders will hatch depending on their immediate location, due to slight fluctuations in sand temperature. But when the eggs are collected and artificially stored in designated hatchling houses, the immediate location and sand temperature will be the same for all new hatchlings. Signs of hatchling tracks leading to the tideline are therefore a misleading marker of success, as the demography of the species is neglected.

Yuzi agrees that human intervention is necessary if the loggerhead population is to recover on Omotehama beach. But this intervention does not need to be intensive or invasive. His research and mapping data suggest that the turtles do not require heavily controlled management, or a ring-fenced habitat, to protect hatchlings. The turtles simply need a viable route to a very sustainable habitat that lies just beyond the tetrapods. Relocating these giant concrete blocks appears to be the only sustainable solution to stemming the sharp decline in nesting populations.

Yet, conservationists are being forced to experiment with crude hatchling houses because the removal project is evidently deemed to be too economically inconveniently in relation to current political unrest. And while debate rages on about what course of action to take with no funding. Ultimately, the returning loggerhead population is paying the price.

Written by Steven Hutt

Special thanks to Yuzi Tanaka

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© 2018 by Steven Hutt