Critics Say Okinawa Heliport Plan Threatens Endangered Dugong

SAN FRANCISCO, California, September 29, 2003 (ENS) - A coalition of conservation groups from both sides of the Pacific filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in San Francisco last week against the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), challenging plans to construct a new heliport facility on a coral reef on the east coast of Okinawa, Japan.

Conservationists are concerned that the proposed 1.5 mile long airbase to be built on reclaimed land over a coral reef would destroy the remaining habitat of the endangered Okinawa dugong.

The lawsuit asks the DOD to comply with the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) by conducting a complete public analysis to assess the impacts of the proposed project on the Okinawa dugong. The species is a relative of the manatee, which is commonly referred to as a "sea cow."

"The American military base planned on this coral reef threatens the survival of the Okinawa dugong and should be reconsidered," said Takenobu Tsuchida of the Dugong Network Okinawa. "We are glad our friends in the United States have joined our efforts to preserve an essential icon of Okinawan culture."

The NHPA requires agencies of the U.S. 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.

At issue is the proposed relocation of the existing U.S. Futenma Air Station in Okinawa to the coastal area of Henoko. This area on the eastern coast of Okinawa is the site of sea grass beds upon which the Okinawa dugong depend for their food. dugong

Japanese environmentalists are looking to U.S. court to stop a Pentagon plan that could harm the endangered dugong. (Photo by Suehiro Nitta courtesy Earthjustice)
"This population is considered the most isolated and imperiled dugong population in the world," said Peter Galvin, Pacific director of the U.S. based Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). "The Okinawa dugong is so threatened that it has been classified as being nearly extinct."

Galvin say scientists believe that only 50 dugong survive in the waters off Okinawa - the northern most home of the species.

The conservationists note that the Okinawa dugong is a genetically isolated marine mammal listed by the government of Japan since 1972 as a "Natural Monument" under Japan's "Cultural Properties Protection Law."

The dugong has been protected since 1955 as a cultural monument by the autonomous Ryukyu Prefecture due largely to its status as a revered and sacred animal among native Okinawans and the species is also listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

"The United States must be sensitive to Japan's national treasures, as well as international obligations to protect the environment," said Takaaki Kagohashi with the Japan Environmental Lawyers Foundation. "The dugong has a rich history and holds a special place in Okinawan mythology and culture. The people of Okinawa deserve respect for their cultural and natural heritage just as Americans would expect government agencies to protect their natural treasures."

The coalition, which is being represented by the environmental law firm Earthjustice, bringing the lawsuit include two U.S. groups - the CBD and the Turtle Island Restoration Network - and four Japanese groups, the Dugong Network Okinawa, Save the Dugong Foundation, Committee Against Heliport Construction - Save Life Society, and the Japan Environmental Law Federation.