Court halts land reclamation project over fishery worries

TOKYO, Reuters

A court ordered a halt Thursday to a land reclamation project in southwestern Japan that critics say has devastated fishing and damaged seaweed harvests.

The provisional ruling will be seen as a blow to the national government, which has promoted the project for nearly 50 years in what opponents cite as a classic example of pork barrel public works projects that do more harm than good.

Judge Yoshiyasu Enoshita at Saga District Court called for construction work on the site to be halted pending the ruling on a suit demanding compensation for 860 fishermen in and around Isahaya, a city some 1,000 km (620 miles) southwest of Tokyo.

Lawyers for the 106 fishermen requesting the halt hailed the ruling as the first time a court has acknowledged a link between the project and damage to fishing. “The official recognition of this is quite significant,” Hiroyuki Higashijima, one of the lawyers, told Reuters.

“This project is a total waste. They said they wanted it for agricultural land, but who is going to use it?” he added. “In the end, it just ends up making life hard for fishermen.”

He said stopping construction now could help fishermen.

The fishermen say dikes in the project have damaged fishing by weakening tidal currents. The government denies any link.

“The project is not the only reason that fishing in the area has sustained damage, but we recognize that there is a certain connection,” Judge Enoshita was quoted by Kyodo as saying. The 250 billion yen (US$2.27 billion) project is aimed at producing about 700 hectares (1,730 acres) of farmland. About 94 percent of the construction work was finished by the end of March and completion of the project is due in 2006.

Many Japanese became aware of the project after the sluice gates for one of the dikes were shut in 1997 with pictures of rare mudskipper fish desperately seeking water across wide stretches of cracked, parched soil.

The project again set off a furor in 2001 when production of nori seaweed slumped, sending prices soaring. Nori is a staple and is used to wrap specialties from rice balls to sushi.

Top government spokesman Hiroyuki Hosoda told reporters an appeal was likely. “It is extremely unfortunate that the national government’s position was not recognized,” he said.

Following the ruling, a branch of the Agriculture Ministry that oversees Isahaya said that aside from work to prevent storm damage, all reclamation work at the site would be halted.

The government decided to drain Isahaya Bay in 1952, when the postwar famine-struck nation was looking for ways to increase rice production. But critics say this is no longer valid given that Japan grows more rice than it can consume.

The government now says the dikes are needed for flood prevention.

Higashijima acknowledged the symbolic nature of the victory, but said it was an important first step.

“If the construction went any further, returning the bay to its natural state would be utterly impossible,” he said. “It won’t go back the way it was, but at this stage we still may have some options.”