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Northernmost Dugong Population Threatened by US Military Base

Construction could push marine mammal towards extinction in Okinawa, say advocates

Masako Suzuki searched for signs of dugongs in the lines of missing seagrass in the Oura Bay in Henoko, Okinawa, until the barrier of orange buoys went up, preventing her from doing that.  Dugongs — rare, gentle marine mammals that are close relatives of the manatee — eat in a vacuum-like manner, slurping seagrass from the ocean floor. In a process that Suzuki calls “line research,” divers examine the shallow seagrass beds and trace the dugongs’ eating patterns with a long rope.

photo of dugongPhoto by Julien Willem Advocates suspect only a few dugongs still live in Okinawa. Construction of a new US military base would pave over some of the endangered animal's last remaining habitat.

“There is a lot of wildlife in the seagrass beds,” says Suzuki. “Traditionally, the dugong has been a symbol of a rich, abundant sea environment. The dugongs that are here can thrive if we preserve a rich marine environment.”

But Suzuki and other activists in Okinawa fear this environment is under attack. These days, a barrier of bright orange buoys protecting the US military construction site at Camp Schwab prevents divers and researchers like Suzuki from conducting research in the very area inhabited by the few dugongs they suspect still live in Okinawa. The new base, in fact, would pave over some of the endangered animals’ last remaining habitat.

The construction of a new airstrip at Camp Schwab, part of 20-year-old plan to close the Futenma Air Station on a more crowded part of the island, is viewed by the US military as key to maintaining a strong presence in East Asia. But activists have consistently fought the construction for more than two decades.

At the center of that fight is the endangered dugong, which has long been a cultural icon and centuries-old symbol of heroism for Okinawans. For local activists, the dugong has become a symbol of a deeper struggle. “Okinawan people see themselves in the dugongs,” says Hideki Yoshikawa, the director of the Okinawa Environmental Justice Project.

In legends, dugongs save people by warning them about impending disasters, and in modern children’s books, the creatures defend children from bullies. “In these stories, the dugong is always portrayed as weak and very vulnerable, but because of these vulnerabilities they have some strength because people want to protect them,” Yoshikawa says.

In one of the most popular folktales, a dugong saves a fisherman from a tsunami after the man frees the dugong from a net. In the evening, the dugong comes to the fisherman in a dream, warning him of an impending tsunami. After attempting, in vain, to alert his village, the fisherman and his family flee to the mountains, where they are the only ones to survive the wave.

Today, the animal is a symbol of resistance to the US military bases. For example, the dugong itself listed as the primary plaintiff in a lawsuit against the US Department of Defense. An anti-base construction flyer distributed by activists includes the story of a cartoon dugong named C-Chan who fears its home will disappear if the new airstrip is built. And Okinawans campaigning against the military bases do so under the aegis of organizations with names like Save the Dugong Campaign Center, Dugong No Sato, and Association to Protect the Northernmost Dugong. 

Despite one reported sighting in March 2017, there has been no confirmed evidence of the dugong’s presence in Okinawa since April 2015, when researchers like Suzuki were last able to conduct line research where the dugongs live. (Dugongs are elusive — even in ten years of researching dugongs in Okinawa, Suzuki has never actually seen one.)

image of Dugong advocatePhoto by Leah Carter Activist and dugong researcher Masako Suzuki with a map depicting where dugongs were spotted in Okinawa from 1998 to 2008.

In 1972, after Okinawa was returned to Japanese sovereignty, the dugong was listed as a “natural monument” that should be protected under Japanese law. But after an increase in erosion due to infrastructure development, offshore development, and gill-net fishing in Okinawa, the dugong’s numbers began to decline. Surveys conducted by the Japanese Ministry of Environment confirmed just three dugongs in 2005, and today that number may be even lower. However, an environmental impact assessment conducted in 2009 by the US Department of Defense found that the base construction would have  “no adverse effect” on the Okinawan dugong.

Helene Marsh, a dugong expert and chair of the Threatened Species Scientific Committee, a government body in Australia, believes that an even greater threat to Okinawan dugongs than the base construction is the threat of gill-net fishing. “If they’re really serious about conserving the dugongs, they would be campaigning to remove gill-netting from that region,” Marsh says.

Yet Okinawans fear that the construction of the new airstrip in the Oura Bay — which is being built to replace the Futenma Air Base, located some ten miles north in Ginowan — will seal the fate of the world’s northernmost dugong population. In order to build the airstrip, the military will pour dirt and crushed cement over two and a half acres of the bay, destroying the beds of seagrass that dugongs depend on to survive.

“The construction requires landfill, lots of soil and rock poured into the water, and will actually change the direction of the current,” says Hideki Yoshikawa, director of the Okinawa Environmental Justice Project. And it’s not just dugongs that will be impacted. According to Shin Nishihira, a diver who has spent his life documenting the marine life in Oura Bay, there are more than 5,300 unique species there, due in part to the unique flow of the bay’s currents.

image of Dugong advocatePhoto by Leah Carter Diver and photographer Nishihira Shin says there are more than 5,000 species in Oura Bay, the site of the US military’s proposed airstrip.

 “Construction itself will damage seagrass beds and decrease carrying capacity of dugongs in Okinawa,” explains Toshio Kasuya, author of the book Small Cetaceans of Japan: Exploitation and Biology. “Operation of the base will scare the animals and decrease the opportunities of communication between habitats south and north of the base.”

The dugong is protected by law in Japan and the United States, including under the United States National Historic Preservation Act, which applies to any place in which the United States maintains a presence. Through a lawsuit filed against the United States Department of Defense, Dugong v. Rumsfeld, and other legal actions, Okinawans against delayed base construction for more than 20 years, but construction of the new airstrip resumed in April.

In August, the 9th Circuit US Court of Appeals affirmed the right of conservation groups and Okinawan citizens to sue the US military to more extensively consider the impacts of the new airstrip in Okinawa. The US-based nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, which brought the lawsuit, issued a press release about the decision, stating that the court of appeals found that “the fact that the case related to a project in another country did not give the government license to ignore the requirements of US law.” This decision is a new victory for those who want to stop the construction in the Oura Bay.

“The environment is our base. We need a safe life, a safe environment, clean water, clean air. We don’t want to see the helicopter running, crashing in our area,” says Chieko Matsui, a longtime anti-base protester. “It’s not just the matter of the dugong. Our everyday life is in danger.”

Surrounded by the banyan tree–covered mountains, colorful coral and shells, and the sound of waves nudging the shore, it’s easy to forget the dense traffic and the narrow, crowded streets around the prefecture’s capital, Naha. But the orange buoys and tall cranes at the Camp Schwab construction site across the bay are a perpetual reminder of the powerful forces in Okinawa.  

“They think that if they continue the construction work, then the people are going to give up,” says Matsui. “They are waiting for us to give up, but we are not going to give up.”

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