TOKYO — The stabbings of endangered sea turtles on the pebbled coastline of Okinawa has shocked Japan.
But it has also drawn sympathy for the frustrated fishermen who often have to tussle with the hefty sea creatures when they get ensnared in their nets.
Last Thursday, at least 10 green sea turtles were found scattered across a beach in Kumejima, Okinawa, dead with stab wounds in their short, wrinkled necks. Approximately 20 others were tangled in fishing nets or flipped over on their backs on the beach, some dead with stab wounds, others barely alive. How and why the attacks happened remains a mystery.
Hirokazu Oohama, a police spokesman in Naha, the capital of Okinawa, said in a phone interview on Tuesday that he thought that someone in the fishing industry had stabbed the turtles. He said it was unlikely anyone would be charged.
“Putting aside who did it, the fishermen need to protect their nets, their ways of life,” Mr. Oohama said. “So we will listen very deeply and consult how to deal with this issue with the authorities and the fishermen associations.”
Between 300 and 700 sea turtles are found dead every year in Japan, with many of the deaths attributed to the fishing industry, according to the Kuroshima Research Center at the Sea Turtle Association of Japan.
The green sea turtle, which can weigh as much as 440 pounds, is classified as an endangered species by Japan’s Ministry of Environment and is on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s “red list” of threatened species.
Although it is recognized nationally and internationally as an endangered species, it is not among the 400 domestic species that are protected from captors under Japanese conservation laws.
Researchers in Japan said that fishermen have long had a fraught relationship with green turtles. The turtles sometimes feed on farmed seaweed or tear into fishing nets.
Dr. Isao Kawazu, a sea turtle expert at the Okinawa Churashima Research Center, said that it could be difficult and dangerous for fishermen to disentangle large, heavy turtles, especially if they “got rowdy” in a panic.
“Through stories I hear from fishermen, many say that there are too many sea turtles, and that they are struggling because of it,” he said. “On a global scale, there are not enough sea turtles, but depending on the region, the sea turtles trouble many.”
After the dead and maimed turtles were discovered last week by local residents, Yoshimitsu Tsukakoshi, the chief animal handler at the nearby Sea Turtle Museum of Kumejima, spent hours trying to save those that were still alive.
“It takes a very long time for turtles to be able to reproduce. Some of the turtles that died were small, and it is so disappointing that they had to suffer such an incident,” he told the Japanese broadcaster NHK.
The seafood industry accounts for 202,000 jobs in Japan, according to a 2021 report published by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Some marine researchers, who count on the fishing industry for data collection, said that those jobs need to be balanced against animal conservation.
“We understand that their jobs, the way they make a living, could occasionally be messed up because of the turtles,” said Kensuke Matsumiya, a spokesman from the Sea Turtle Association of Japan. “Some fishermen are very positive about sea turtles, while others think that they are a pain. We as an association try to stay more neutral.”
“It is not uncommon for sea turtles to get stuck in fishermen’s nets or equipment, Mr. Matsumiya added. “A couple hundred every year, it can’t be helped in some cases.”
Dr. Kawazu said that conservation measures used elsewhere to help turtles, such as Hawaii’s restrictions on fishing equipment along its coastlines, could not be easily adopted in Japan because it would affect the livelihood of fishermen.
“There is protection and preservation, and they are different,” he said. “For preservation, you need to think about the profits humans must make as well. We need to have both and live alongside natural animals.”