The sea in Henoko is a treasure trove for marine life, where the Okinawan Dugong (a large marine mammal related to the manatee) and sea turtles live. Internationally endangered species of coral grow widely. In 2004, 889 of the world’s leading coral-reef experts issued a resolution that called on the Japanese and U.S. governments to abandon their initial plan to construct a offshore airbase.
In November 2009, 36 new shellfish species were discovered in the area.
The planned new military expansion would involve landfilling the sea off Henoko to construct the base. This would result in destruction to the unique natural environment and biodiversity.
The Okinawan Dugong
The Sea of Okinawa, adjacent to Henoko, is considered the northern limit of the Okinawan Dugong; and around 20-50 Dugong live in the area.
The number of dugong in the world is rapidly decreasing, and protecting them from extinction has become an important environmental issue, as witnessed by the recommendations of the well-respected International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The fourth World Conservation Congress of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, held from October 5 to 14, 2008 in Barcelona, Spain, adopted a recommendation for the “Promotion of Dugong during the UN 2010 International Year of Biodiversity.”
The recommendation included a demand that the Japanese government conduct an environmental assessment evaluation of planned military expansion in the Okinawan Dugong habitat. The recommendation specified that the Japanese government consider environmental conservation and protection of wildlife and consult with academics, researchers and NGOs. The resolution concluded that the Japanese government must adopt all options, including ceasing the construction of the military expansion at Henoko, if necessary to protect the Okinawan Dugong.
The year 2010 was the International Year of Biodiversity; and the 10th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP 10) was organized in Nagoya in October, 2010.
In 2003, the Center for Biological Diversity, a member of The Network for Okinawa, led a coalition of Japanese and American environmental groups in suing the U.S. Department of Defense to halt military construction in Henoko Bay. The dugong is protected under Japanese cultural properties law, therefore the Center filed the first-ever international lawsuit under the U.S. National Historic Preservation Act to protect its last habitat.
In 2005, a federal judge ruled the lawsuit could proceed under the U.S. National Historic Preservation Act. The international coalition reiterated opposition to the base construction and rejected an altered construction proposal by the U.S. and Japan that would still devastate dugong habitat.
In 2008, a federal judge ruled in favor of the dugong, 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.