Protecting Kelp Forests in Japan

by Maeve Halpin
Wednesday, 4 November 2020 21:31 GMT

TrustLaw, the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s global pro bono legal service, connects high-impact NGOs and social enterprises working to create social and environmental change with the best law firms and corporate legal teams to provide them with free legal assistance.

This project was nominated for the TrustLaw Innovation Award, which features a new and exciting idea or enterprise alongside a legal team that used creativity in addressing the issues faced.

Around the world, kelp forests are a crucial component of a healthy coastal ecosystem and an essential nursery for coastal fish populations. However, they are disappearing quickly. With the number of marine predators in the wild such as sea otters decreasing, kelp forests are at the mercy of sea urchins. Left uneaten, sea urchins can multiply, forming herds that sweep across the ocean floor devouring entire stands of kelp and leaving “urchin barrens” in their place.

In Japan, where only a small number of sea otters remain in the wild, nearly all prefectures have witnessed the collapse of coastal kelp forests. Japanese non-profit Rakkotai/Mobile Sea Otter (MSO) is working to address this. They aim to restore and conserve Japanese kelp forests and work to counteract the effects of climate change.

MSO came up with the innovative idea to work with local fishermen, diving shops and volunteer divers to cull overgrazing sea urchins that deplete kelp forests, as otters do by eating the sea urchins in other parts of the world.

As Japanese fishery laws can be challenging to navigate, TrustLaw, the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s global pro bono legal service, connected MSO with the law firm Nishimura & Asahi. Their free legal advice helped MSO to obtain the correct work permits and develop volunteer agreements for divers.

“Due to our pro bono work, MSO has been able to conduct its activities legally and with proper risk protection. Our pro bono work also contributes to the prevention of global warming and the promotion of marine biodiversity,” said Nemoto Takesh, Partner at Nishimura & Asahi.

“The lawyers at Nishimura & Asahi explained the background knowledge about fishery law in Japan, which tremendously helped with our understanding of this situation. As our volunteer activity involves scuba-diving, which can be considered a high-risk activity, creating a legally valid volunteer agreement was essential. Professional advice on various small details catered to our own specific organisation and activities was really helpful and allowed us to work with volunteers to conduct marine environment restoration work confidently,” said Rakkotai/Mobile Sea Otter (MSO).

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