The Gifts of the Sea Depend on Trees

Mt. Murone, with an elevation of some 900 meters, was just one of hundreds of little hills that stretch out of the Kitakami Highland toward the Pacific coast in the northeastern part of mainland Japan. But today as the colorful leaves of autumn pile up on the forest floor, the same mountain is drawing a quiet attention from across the island nation.

There is a group of people here who look after the slow, but steady growth of the small patches of young broadleaf forest with affection. Dubbed "Friends of the Oyster-Nurturing Forest," the group was started in 1989 by Shigeatsu Hatakeyama, a 50-year old oyster farmer in the Pacific coastal town of Karakuwa, Miyagi Prefecture, some 30 kilometers down the Okawa River from Murone Village in lwate Prefecture. "The forest is a sweetheart of the sea, and the river is the matchmaker," Hatakeyama had said earlier in spring to some 300 people who had gathered to participate in a small tree planting event. Families with children had come together from the local towns in the hills as well as coastal towns. They had planted young beeches and dogwoods" for the people who will be here 100 years from now."

As the years go by, the forest that was once only sparsely littered with broadleaf tree leaves will have a thicker carpeting, which will then decay and turn into rich humus. Hatakeyama has leaned through observation and contacts with scientists that this layer of humus plays a vital role in nurturing oysters in the Kesennuma Bay where he has his oyster farm.

It was some 30 years ago that the water in the Kesennuma Bay began to be affected by not only the wastewater from the factories that had sprung up along

the Okawa River, but also by agricultural chemicals and synthetic laundry detergents that poured into the river from farms and sewage lines. There was also the problem of the bay water turning muddy due to the silt that the river carried after rain. This was caused mostly by the man-made needle leaf forest, which covered over half of the entire Murone Village, where the Okawa River originates. While needle leaf forest may supply the nation with the lumber that is necessary for construction, it does not provide good humus, and, without meticulous maintenance of the forest, a great amount of silt can easily spill out into the river, choking up the bay eventually. In some bad years, seaweed farmers along the bay found the seaweeds' seedlings all dead on the nets hung in seawater and shellfish farmers found their crops dead. All the eels, considered a delicacy in Japan, had disappeared. They just thought vaguely," Hatakeyama recalls, "that the gifts from the sea would come back again somehow. "Nobody really gave a serious thought as to what was wrong with the water. Hatakeyama alone was deeply troubled by the general deterioration of the bay water.

Having heard about excellent oysters cultured in France, Hatakeyama flew over there seeking for some clues. He noticed that each of the oyster supplying regions located at the mouth of a beautiful river, and that rivers, without exception, had a rich broadleaf forest by the headwaters. In the tideland of one of the inlets of Brittany, Hatakeyama thrust his hands in the sand of a small tidewater pool and could easily scoop up a handful of a rich variety of organisms: tiny shrimps, hermit crabs, sea cucumbers and what not. The sensation struck him as with a hammer, driving home the point "this is exactly the way Kesennuma Bay was when I was a youngster. At the same moment, he remembered one of the old sayings of oyster farmers-"the rise of the river after after rain will bring good oysters." Then it dawned on him that it was the woods and the river that needed care if one were to seek from the sea.

Since the trip to France, Hatakeyama was determined to talk the people in the hills into planting broadleaf trees in Murone Village. Hiroshi Onodera, a 45-year-old farmer who produces chemical-free rice by the foot of a mountain, responded to this call. "A needle leaf forest can help acidify rain water," thought Onodera, "but a broadleaf forest will help hold a lot more water, and it can also help keep the farming soil alkaline which is really ideal for my farm. A group of farmers studying organic farming in the village also responded, giving encouragement to Hatakeyama as he continued his movement to try to spread broadleaf forests.

The general enthusiasms for environmental preservation among the villagers lead to some positive outcomes: lower reliance on agricultural chemicals and the production of soap from waste oil. Farmers along the river stopped dumping the weeds they had cut off the riverbanks into the river since this could further contaminate the sea. Children in Orikabe Elementary School up the river showed their concern by planning a field trip to the bay area, visiting different oyster and scallop farms. Over the years, along with the government actions on environmental protection, the bay water has recovered most of the lost elements which are crucially important for the survival of the marine organisms and of the coastal farming industry.

Hatakeyama's movement has drawn national attention. He has received letters from elementary school children from the southern island of Kyushu.

"Do you plant these trees because you have made some extra money from your oyster farm and there are fewer and fewer trees this year?"

"What does a mountain have to do with the oysters from the sea?"

Hatakeyama tries his best to answer the questions and sometimes he, in turn, asks kids questions to try to encourage further communication. And, in time, these kids will have learned that oysters and other small organisms grow by eating these microscopic organisms of the sea called plankton; that the growth of plankton requires a sufficient supply of iron and magnesium; that these nutrients exist abundantly in broadleaf humus; that there are certain conditions in the forest which allow the easy transport of these nutrients down the river and into the seawater; and that the construction of dams will prevent these nutrients from reaching the sea. And, in the meantime, the children may be asking themselves what does all their learning about the oysters and the woods and the food chain have to do with human life and the environment.

Over 7,000 trees have been planted by Hatakeyama's group since it was started in 1989. "The sea," says Hatakeyama, "is one with the woods, and planting of the trees is an implanting of woods in people's hearts."

Each fall, the carpeting of the broadleaf forest up the Okawa River becomes a little thicker than in the previous fall. And as water from rain and snow seeps through the rich humus of the forest, down rivulets and streams and into the Okawa River, and finally into the little Kesennuma Bay, our children's children will know what it took to call back the gifts from the sea.