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CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — The placement of dugongs on Japan’s list of critically endangered species is not expected to delay the planned construction of a Marine Corps air station in the sea mammals’ Okinawa feeding ground.

A Ministry of the Environment spokeswoman said placing the dugongs, or saltwater manatees, on the ministry’s Red List — the most-endangered category — does not mean there is any plan to protect them.

“We decided to include the dugong in our list because it is a sea mammal largely affected by the coastal land environment, with their feeding ground being close to shore,” said Harumi Nakajima, a spokeswoman for the ministry’s Wildlife Department.

She said the purpose of the listing, added Friday, was to warn the public that dugongs are in danger, but there are no plans to place any restrictions on dugong feeding grounds.

The U.S. and Japan agreed in May 2006 to move Marine Corps air operations on Okinawa to a new facility to be built on Camp Schwab and on reclaimed land stretching into the shallow waters of Oura Bay. Base opponents and environmentalists opposed the plan, claiming dugongs feed on seaweed in the area.

Fewer than 50 dugongs are believed to visit Okinawa waters, Nakajima said. She declined to comment on the base project, calling it a “Defense Ministry matter.”

The worldwide dugong population is estimated to be 100,000, according to Senzo Uchida, aMarine scientist and director of Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium.Okinawa is the northernmost habitat for a small group.

“Although there is no sufficient scientific data to estimate the population of dugongs in Okinawan waters, I believe it is a few dozen at most,” Uchida said. “One thing I can say for sure is that if we don’t take an action to protect them, thenorthern limit of the creatures will be loweredall the way down to the Philippines — a big shame on Japan.”

Yoko Yamaguchi, an opponent of the new air station, said she welcomed the listing but remained skeptical about Tokyo’s commitment to protecting the endangered creatures.

“As far as environmental protection, Japan is way behind the international standard,” she said.

A spokesman for the Defense Facilities Agency Administration said Wednesday the inclusion of the dugongs on the Red List will not affect an ongoing environmental assessment of the area.

Takuma Higashionna of the Save the Dugong Network called the Environment Ministry listing “just posturing, so they can say that they did their job.”

He said he was placing his hopes on a lawsuit filed 2003 by six Japanese and U.S. environmental groups in a U.S. District Court against the Department of Defense. The case, dubbed “Okinawa Dugong vs. Donald Rumsfeld,” argues that the U.S. military should be prevented from participating in construction of a facility that would endanger the dugong.

The next hearing in the lawsuit is scheduled for Sept. 17, Higashionna said.

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