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Will the U.S. military do right by the dugong?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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dugongCould a plan to build a 2.5-mile-long airfield in Okinawa, Japan, doom a rare manateelike species to extinction? That’s the assertion of more than 400 environmental organizations (pdf), which recently sent a letter to President Obama urging him to cancel the plans to expand Camp Schwab, a U.S. Marine Corps base on Okinawa island.

At issue is the Okinawa population of dugong (Dugong dugon), the closest living relative to the extinct Steller’s sea cow (Hydrodamalis gigas). Dugongs are listed as vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species, but the geographically isolated Okinawa population (which numbers just 50 animals) is considered critically endangered.

"The Camp Schwab base expansion project would destroy some of the best remaining habitat for the highly endangered Okinawa dugong, one of the rarest marine mammal populations in the world," Peter Galvin, conservation director at the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), said in a prepared statement.

The U.S. military has been trying to expand Camp Schwab for years, while also planning to close another base on the island. Previous plans to build in areas that would threaten the dugong were blocked by a federal judge in 2008.

Many Okinawans aren’t happy about the base-expansion plans. Last month, more than 20,000 people showed up to protest U.S. military presence on the island.

Dugongs have special cultural significance in Okinawa. "For Okinawans, the dugong compares only to the American bald eagle in terms of cultural and historical significance," Takuma Higashionna, a council member from Nago City where the base is located, said in the CBD’s release.

The military is currently reconsidering all of its options regarding Camp Schwab as part of a complex series of political negotiations with Japan which could, eventually, result in moving 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam. But no one—neither the military, Japan’s government nor the people or Okinawa—seems happy with any of the options on the table.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the U.S. Navy has sent its own letter, this time expressing concerns about plans by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to protect the dugong’s close relative, the West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus). Fish & Wildlife has proposed expanding protected habitat for the manatee in Florida and Georgia, but the Navy says that could, potentially, impact their ability to conduct training exercises in the area.

Image: Dugong, via Wikipedia


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  1. 1. DUGONG 2:20 pm 12/15/2009

    God Bless dugongs

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  2. 2. drafter 1:17 pm 12/16/2009

    I personally don’t see a need to expand the base but what I’d like to know is how will the expansion hurt the Dugong’s?

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  3. 3. bluemoki 5:41 pm 12/16/2009

    The airfield will be expanded into the dugong’s foraging habitat of seagrass beds. This will destroy one of the only seagrass habitats left on Okinawa. They are already critically endangered and this project will be one of the final nails in their coffin if allowed to be built.

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  4. 4. Grasshopper1 8:19 pm 12/16/2009


    First Steller’s Sea Cow, now Dugongs. . . someone should make a petition to President Obama to stop the airfield.

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  5. 5. Quinn the Eskimo 12:21 pm 12/18/2009

    Where was John Platt when the T-Rex was suffering? Eh? Answer that question.

    So, wanna save the dugongs? Farm ‘em. Produce them for MEAT. Make them a crop.

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  6. 6. Rich-D 2:38 pm 12/18/2009

    The Marines and Navy are painted as the enemy, Next Terror Strike or Pearl Harbor type sneak attack, call upon the Dugongs or West Indian Manatees to lay down their lives for you!

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  7. 7. Rich-D 2:47 pm 12/18/2009

    The Marines and Navy are painted as the enemy in the article.

    The allies suffered over 50,000 casualities and over 12,000 battle dearhs securing Okinawa as a military base.

    Next Terror Strike or Pearl Harbor type sneak attack, call upon the Dugongs or West Indian Manatees to lay down their lives for you!

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  8. 8. oldmeister 4:24 pm 12/20/2009

    I was stationed at Schwab in 71 as a corpsman and spent many hours diving and snorkeling the area in question and consider it a shame that the U.S. would even consider destroying the habitat area, let alone a wonderful marine and recreation area.I say use land if available, do not fill in the reef flats, or forget it.

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  9. 9. Wayne Williamson 3:20 pm 12/22/2009

    thanks for the question drafter and the answer oldmeister….maybe…the article does not show where the air strip will be built…also…why do the majority of opposed parties have nothing to do with that kind of environment…makes me suspicious

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  10. 10. Peter Simmons 9:13 am 11/28/2012

    Rich-D – what a puerile post. That was then, this is now. The attacks America is likely to face now are not from Japan or from thousands of aircraft bombing ships, they are from people with rucksacks blowing up subway stations or hijacking planes to fly into buildings. The US has no right to have bases anywhere byt its own soil, and that includes the UK, where they have been asked to leave for years.
    Quinn the Eskimo – thanks for that intelligent comment.

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