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Help save Okinawa dugong and coral reef ecosystem


Dugongs, distant relatives of the manatee, can live for 70 years and grow to nearly 1,000 pounds. Yet somehow these gentle creatures are said to have fooled lonely sailors into mistaking them for mermaids. In the vibrant turquoise waters of Japan’s Henoko Bay, dugong herds once grazed peacefully on vast meadows of sea grass. But after decades of active U.S. military operations in the region, possibly fewer than 50 last dugongs now struggle to survive in Okinawa — once dubbed the “Galápagos of the East” for its rich biodiversity.

The Center has used innovative legal tactics to secure new protections for the dugong. In 2003, we led a coalition of Japanese and American environmental groups in suing the U.S. Department of Defense to halt the construction of an American airbase in Henoko Bay. Since the dugong is protected under Japanese cultural properties law, the Center filed the first-ever international lawsuit under the U.S. National Historic Preservation Act to protect its last habitat. In 2004, we helped organize a resolution by 889 of the world’s leading coral-reef experts that called on the Japanese and U.S. governments to abandon their plan to construct the offshore airbase. And we led hundreds of international conservation groups in calling on former President Bush and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to cancel the airbase plan.

In 2005, a federal judge ruled that our lawsuit over the airbase could proceed under the U.S. National Historic Preservation Act. The international coalition reiterated opposition to the airbase and rejected an altered construction proposal by the United States and Japan that would still devastate dugong habitat. Finally, in 2008, a federal judge ruled against the U.S. Department of Defense, requiring it to consider impacts of a new airbase on the dugong in order to avoid or mitigate any harm. After preliminary construction of the base began in early 2014, in August of that year the Center and our American and Japanese allies asked a U.S. federal court to halt construction of an airstrip,that would pave over some of the last remaining habitat for dugongs, and we went to court again that December in the first hearing in a historic lawsuit under a provision of the National Historic Preservation Act.

Unfortunately for the dugong and the creatures that share its habitat — including three imperiled sea turtles — the United States is now considering expanding an existing airbase near Henoko in dugong habitat. The Center is fighting hard to stop those plans and we're working with the Network for Okinawa to raise awareness about the issue. The fight stepped up in 2014, when American and Japanese conservation groups asked a U.S. federal court to halt construction of the airbase. Preliminary construction on the base began earlier that year.

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2008 Report: U.S. Court Rules in the Okinawa Dugong Case: Implications for U.S. Military Bases
2003 Center lawsuit




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Contact: Sarah Uhlemann

Photo © Suehiro Nitta