Judge Rules US Defense Department Must Consider Fate of Okinawan Dugong

Species considered cultural icon by Okinawan people


Marcello Mollo, Earthjustice (USA), +1-510-550-6700


Brendan Cummings, Center for Biological Diversity (USA), +1-951-768-8301

Judge Marilyn Hall Patel on Wednesday denied a motion by the US Department of Defense to dismiss a lawsuit challenging plans to construct a new airbase on a coral reef on the east coast of Okinawa, Japan (Okinawa Dugong v. Rumsfeld, N.D.Cal., C-03-4350). Conservationists are concerned that the proposed 1.5-mile-long airbase to be built over a coral reef would destroy the remaining habitat of the endangered Okinawa dugong, a cultural icon of the Okinawan people.

The lawsuit asks the US Department of Defense to comply with the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) by conducting a complete public assessment of the impacts of the proposed project on the Okinawa dugong (a relative of the manatee, also known as seacow). The NHPA requires agencies of the US government to conduct a full public process before undertaking activities outside the United States that might impact the cultural and natural resources of other nations.

In her 31-page decision, Judge Patel held that the endangered dugong, listed on Japan’s register of protected cultural properties, is a cultural property entitled to protection under the NHPA. The judge rejected the government’s argument that Japanese cultural properties like the dugong do not merit protection under the NHPA, finding that such argument "def[ies] the basic proposition that just as cultures vary, so too will their equivalent legislative efforts to preserve their culture." The judge instructed the parties to conduct discovery on the extent of Department of Defense involvement in the project and the extent of harm the proposed airbase will cause the dugongs in Okinawa’s waters.

"This is a significant victory for the people of Okinawa concerned with the preservation of their cultural heritage," commented Marcello Mollo of Earthjustice, who is representing the plaintiffs in the US lawsuit. "With this ruling, Judge Patel has acknowledged the Dugong deserves its day in court."

"Scientists believe that only 50 dugong survive in the waters off Okinawa," said Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity. "This project, if constructed, would very likely drive the Okinawa dugong into extinction, so it’s worth thinking twice before taking any irreversible action."

Editor’s Notes:

Photos of the dugong are available for web or print use here. (Please credit: Suehiro Nitta)

Low resolution photo of dugong (Web)

High resolution photo of dugong (Print)

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