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The Dugongs vs. The Department of Defense

"It was indeed a significant trip... American people over there are paying attention to the lawsuit, thanks to efforts by members the Earthjustice." -- Takuma Higashionna, Save the Dugong Network, Okinawa

The dugong is a large sea mammal related to the manatee and the extinct Steller's sea cow. Its northernmost range is among the coral reefs off Okinawa, Japan. The Okinawa dugong has been listed by the government of Japan since 1955 as a "Natural Monument" under Japan's "Cultural Properties Protection Law." On August 6th, 2007, the Japanese Ministry of Environment listed the Okinawa dugong as "critically endangered" -- the most severely threatened category before "extinct." It has long been revered by native Okinawans as a significant part of their culture and history, celebrated as "sirens" or "mermaids" who bring friendly warnings of tsunamis.

Japanese scientists believe there are as few as 10 dugongs surviving in Okinawan waters, where the mammals feed in beds of seagrass. Strictly vegetarian, these shy, placid creatures are easily spooked by boats and noise.

The United States has a heavy military presence in Okinawa. But in 1996, in an attempt to reduce the U.S. military footprint on the island, the United States agreed to return the Futenma air base to Japan once an alternative site is provided. The new site chosen was off Henoko village, on the northeast coast of the main island, in the very location where the dugong graze among the seagrass on the seabed.

The plan calls for Japan to build a new Marine Corps air-sea base for American use atop these precious seagrass beds -- effectively destroying the remaining habitat of the gentle dugong in Japan. The 'V'-shaped runways would extend 1,800 meters into the bay, permanently disrupting one of the most biologically diverse areas in the Pacific.

The dugong is not the only wildlife threatened by the proposed airbase. Other local species facing danger from the base construction include:

  • Three endangered sea turtles: the hawksbill, loggerhead, and green turtles
  • Threatened birds, including the Okinawa woodpecker and the Okinawa rail
  • Several stands of mangrove trees, including some classified as "protected areas" by the Japanese government.

Construction of the base will also increase water and noise pollution in the area. The new base and the development of the surrounding area for employee housing will threaten the ecologically sensitive Yanbaru forest watershed.

Once the base is built, the potential for devastating oil and chemical spills -- which have occurred at other Okinawan bases -- will increase dramatically.

Earthjustice is working with a coalition of conservation groups from both sides of the Pacific and has filed suit in US District Court in San Francisco against the US Department of Defense. The suit asks the DOD to conduct a complete public analysis to assess the impacts of the proposed construction on the Okinawan dugong, and to consult with the local communities trying to preserve and protect the dugong.