US Military Base Threatens Biodiversity in Okinawa

Hidden beneath the aquamarine waters off Cape Henoko in northern Okinawa, Oura Bay teems with life. Orange-spotted filefish dart among reefs of blue coral, fantastic Christmas tree worms and tiny translucent invertebrates called sea squirts nestle in colonies of porites corals and redeye gobies flit among forests of stony coral.

Hemmed by white sand beaches, Oura Bay is a hotspot of biodiversity, home to more than 5,300 species of corals, fish, invertebrates and Okinawa’s last remaining population of dugong, an endangered manatee-like marine mammal.

According to a Japanese Ministry of Defense Environmental Impact Assessment, more than 260 endangered species — giant sea cucumbers, snakes and slugs, crabs, sponges and other species still undescribed by science — live in Oura Bay. Surveys document a high level of endemism (species that occur only in a single location), offering the potential for new scientific discoveries.

But Oura Bay and Henoko are also the site of a new U.S. Marine airbase being built alongside the existing Camp Schwab. For decades, Washington and Tokyo have been planning to close the controversial and dangerous Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the densely populated south of the island and relocate operations to Henoko.

The Futenma Replacement Facility at Henoko, however, has proven to be even more unpopular than the base it’s intended to replace, with a majority of Okinawans consistently rejecting the Henoko plan. Opponents cite noise, danger, and the destruction of fragile marine and terrestrial ecosystems among the chief reasons they are calling for the new base to be built outside Okinawa.

Despite decades of protests, arrests and appeals by Okinawan officials and a growing number of Japanese and foreign supporters, Tokyo and Washington insist the Henoko plan is “the only solution” and have started a massive land reclamation effort in Oura Bay based on a “V”-shaped runway,…

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