Japan is mounting a $7 million coral transplanting operation in the Pacific to bolster its claim in a territorial dispute with China and cement Tokyo's right to exploit a wide expanse of ocean.
Over the next year, scientists intend to plant more than 50,000 fast-growing Acropora coral fragments on Okinotorishima, two uninhabited rocky outcroppings about 1,060 miles southwest of Tokyo, project officials say.
The aim is to protect the islets from further erosion and maintain Japan's claim that they are bona fide islands and can be used to map its exclusive economic zone in the Pacific.
"We hope the corals will grow larger and eventually preserve the islets and their environment," said Mayumi Tamura, of the Fisheries Agency. "We see corals as an important marine resource, not as a mere tool of territorial claims."
In a sometimes heated dispute, China has challenged Japan's claim, arguing the outcroppings are too small to be defined as islands under international law, meaning the waters around them are open to use by other nations.
Tokyo uses the islet "as the basis of their claim for vast ocean areas and it is not keeping with recognized international law," the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement faxed to The Associated Press, citing the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
50,000 fragments grown
The project began in 2006, when officials took 37 coral colonies from the outcroppings and brought them to the agency's preserve on Aka island, near the southern Japanese island of Okinawa, for breeding.
Since then, scientists have grown about 50,000 coral fragments, each about the size of a fingertip. Officials brought about a dozen of them to the islets last year as an experiment and plan to bring another 40,000 later this month.
Tamura said the agency plans to take 10,000 already spawned fragments with tens of thousands more still to be bred in another trip planned for January 2009. The agency has a budget of $7.55 million for the three-year project.
Koji Watanabe, a chief researcher at a government-funded Fisheries Infrastructure Development Center, said the small scale relocation and transplant of corals has been conducted in Japan, but that this would be the first involving so many fragments.
"If we can achieve a mass relocation, that would be a major step forward for coral repairs in vast areas." Watanabe said. "Coral plays a crucial role in the marine environment, and their loss could seriously damage fishing grounds."
Cement used earlier
It isn't the first time Japan has pressed its claim on the islets.
Japan has fortified the islets with cement embankments against the encroaching waves, and uses them to delineate its economic zone so it can lay exclusive claim to the natural resources 200 nautical miles from its shores into the Pacific.
Japan has also built a lighthouse just off the islets. Tokyo's nationalist Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, whose city has jurisdiction over the outcroppings, made a widely publicized visit there in 2005 to post a large metal address plaque on one of the rocks.