The dugong, which has been designated a “National Monument” by Japan, lives in the ocean surrounding Okinawa prefecture. It is a large water mammal that is in the Sirenia order with the manatee. The main island of Okinawa is at the northern end of the dugong’s habitat range. The Japanese Ministry of the Environment considered the dugong as being at extreme risk of extinction and placed it in the “Endangered Species IA Class”. Global interest in the dugong’s survival is very high as shown by three resolutions adopted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) for the protection of the Okinawan dugong.

In 2001, the Japanese Ministry of the Environment announced that a three-year survey confirmed a total of 12 Okinawan dugongs. At the time of revisions to the Red List (of Japanese endangered species) in 2007, it was estimated that 50 or fewer Okinawan dugongs were alive. Experts, however, have pointed out that the “possible population [for Okinawan dugongs] is ten or fewer”.

Dugongs have frequently been sighted at Henoko, the land area chosen to be the site for relocation of Futenma Air Station. An environmental impact assessment conducted by the Japanese Ministry of Defense for the proposed station relocation confirmed the presence of three dugongs. The Ministry claims it will “be able to preserve [the dugong] through environment protection measures” even after going ahead with the landfill project for the station.

However, dugongs clearly feed in the ocean off Henoko and in adjacent Oura Bay. Japanese environmental groups are strongly opposed to the offshore landfill project at Henoko because it will decimate sea grass beds which substance for dugongs. Also the sea routes for transporting landfill material will encroach on their migratory path.

Environmental groups in both the U.S. and Japan brought the “Okinawan Dugong” case to the U.S. Federal Court in San Francisco under the National Historical Preservation Act (NHPA) in 2008. The court ruled that the dugong must be protected by the NHPA and that the base construction clearly violated that law. It also ordered the Department of Defense, as a responsible party, to address the protection of dugongs.

From another perspective, it appears the Okinawans are the dugongs of Japan and need immediate help to survive.